Embracing Your Workplace Resistors

One of the most common things I’m asked about, whether in consultations or workshops, is how to cope with ‘difficult’ employees or workmates.  It often transpires that these individuals are classed as ‘difficult’ because of their seeming lack of willingness to agree with others’ opinions or because they don’t generally support proposed concepts.

It is human nature to want people to like us and agree with us.  History relates that blind devotion can have terrible consequences however, and leaders should therefore always be ready to listen to the negative voice or the objector in the crowd, no matter how much they’d prefer not to.  This is a coaching practice called Deep Democracy and allows everyone the right to have their opinion heard. 

Unfortunately, Deep Democracy is rarely practised in the workplace.  By avoiding eye contact or magically running out of time before you hear everyone’s opinion, it is easy to avoid listening to the person whom you predict will disagree and bring you back down to earth by potentially seeing the flaw in your suggestion or plan.  However, taking the time to listen to those who do not share your opinion can pay dividends, literally, by providing you with invaluable insight from another perspective.  Additionally, it may soften resistance when these people feel they will at least receive a fair hearing, regardless of the final decision.

Everybody is different and therefore experiences the world differently.  People disagree, object or resist for all manner of reasons: fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of being outside their comfort zone, a previous bad experience, lack of clarity in the outcome, poor understanding of the process, impact on their specific situation, etc, etc.  These are all valid reasons and it is imperative that the leader gives them due consideration.  In doing so, the leader will be confronted with issues and concerns which he/she had not even contemplated and as such, will be in a better position to pre-empt potential pitfalls which had not been previously highlighted.  This is leading proactively rather than reactively.

So the next time someone says “yes but…” take the time to listen to the end of the sentence. Think of it as constructive feedback rather than criticism and don’t just switch off. Ask their opinion on how the issue might be resolved or overcome and involve them in the process.  Oftentimes people just want to be heard, to feel that their opinion counts and that they are being listened to and that could easily be their only reason for objecting – to feel part of the process!

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The Social Architect

In my role as a leadership adviser I’m quite often asked to give talks or presentations on aspects of leadership.  These sessions can be very formal or can take the form of a general group discussion.  In these latter sessions the topic of informal leadership has become a recurring theme, at which point I usually introduce the concept of the ‘social architect’.

Some years ago, while watching a documentary on the England football team, I was taken by an expression used by Professor Willi Railo on the relationship between Sven Goran Eriksson and David Beckham.  Describing David Beckham as a social architect (0r cultural architect – thanks Bob!), he explained how Sven Goran Eriksson managed the team through David Beckham, recognising the respect the players had for their Captain and his ability to impart the manager’s directions in a way which the players responded to best.

In the workplace, social architects are those individuals who employees will identify as being influential regardless of their formal position.  It is often the case that these social architects are not in positions of management but can be identified as informal leaders.  Effective leaders are very good at identifying such individuals and communicating through them in order to obtain employee support and buy-in.  In fact, working through the social architects of a company can be the difference between success and failure in change management.

As a leader, taking the time to observe the interactions of your employees may well be enough to identify the social architects in your company.  Another method might be to simply ask your employees to indicate (anonymously if necessary) who they feel they would respond to best as their manager or who they feel makes the most positive impact in their department and why.  If you’ve already taken the time to know and understand your employees the correct people will already be in the correct positions!

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“Followership” – Barbara Kellerman

Book:Barbara Kellerman’s book “Followership” considers the impact of the follower on leadership effectiveness. 

Summary:Kellerman argues that the follower is often neglected in the leadership debate.  Using examples from the military, religion, the corporate and political world, she demonstrates that to ignore the influence of the follower is to do so at our peril.

Opinion: Most helpful of all perhaps is her categorisation of followers as isolates, bystanders, participants, activists and diehards [sic].  Although this was not the purpose intended by the book, this categorisation is particularly useful for leaders tackling the issues associated with resistance to change.  By understanding where the follower lies on this continuum (isolate – least engaged; diehard – most engaged), the leader is in a better position to gauge the extent of resistance among followers.

Conclusion:  While I enjoyed this book and in particular Kellerman’s style, I feel it is just as unrealistic to write a book which to a large extent ignores the importance of the role played by the leader.  In reality, the extent to which the influence of followers outweighs that of leaders and vice versa is dependent on the situation and Kellerman has carefully chosen her situations to get her point across – as indeed, we all do!

Recommend:  I am happy to recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding why some individuals are willing to follow whole-heartedly and others just couldn’t be bothered!

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Leader-Follower Engagement

I recently read “Followership” by Barbara Kellerman (thanks to Doug Strycharczyk for his copy) which classifies followers into 5 different groups: isolates, bystanders, participants, activists and diehards [sic].  Kellerman goes on to write a chapter about each type of follower using examples from history, society and the corporate world.

One of the most striking things about such a classification is the number of people we can identify in our everyday activities who fall into the isolates and bystanders categories i.e. those who do not participate in the leader-follower transaction.  Even more striking is how we, ourselves, are prone to falling into these categories whether through boredom or just not caring.

This is nowhere more obvious than the workplace.  How many people just go through the motions; are just there to pay the bills; are just there because it was the best option of a poor choice;  because there was no alternative; because they are now so de-motivated they can’t even motivate themselves to change jobs, etc?  This is probably the single most important challenge facing all leaders: how to “mobilise the disengaged“, to quote Pulitzer prize-winner James McGregor Burns.

In her book Kellerman emphasises the importance of the follower, arguing that too much weight has been given to the leader and yet to demonstrate the influence of followers, presents cases where followers react (or at least the participants, activists and diehards react) to poor leadership.  Thus the driving force behind these followers’ actions is the leader.  Ultimately followers are only followers by virtue of having a leader.  So while Kellerman argues it is futile to discuss leaders at the exclusion of followers, to discuss followers as more important than leaders is equally futile.  An understanding of both however, is a good place to start when actively seeking to ”mobilise the disengaged“.

Recommended read: “Followership” by Barbara Kellerman, Harvard Business Press (2008)

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