Emotions are the Greatest Barrier to Change


I often say that facts dictate the need for change and emotions create the barrier to it. The issue of understanding and addressing the emotional factors that slow change efforts – both organizational and personal – appears in many ways across the landscape of change management and behavior change literature.

Changing from one way of doing things (behavior) to a different one always involves loss, and loss triggers powerful negative emotions. It is these negative emotions that you must understand and address to successfully influence change.

Previously, I wrote about the power that having a weight loss goal had in driving my choices with regard to diet and exercise. Even though I had a weight goal in mind at the time of that change, the greatest barrier I faced in achieving it were the emotions triggered by the “loss” of some of my favorite foods.

I really like cheese, chocolate, and a long list of other relatively high fat, high calorie foods. I knew that I would survive quite well if I chose to eat less of them and to eat more broccoli, oranges, apples, and asparagus instead. While I like broccoli, oranges, apples, and asparagus, none of them gives me the emotional satisfaction of cheese or chocolate.

My weight (a fact) drives the need for change. An emotion – a grilled cheese sandwich makes me feel better than a turkey or grilled vegetable sandwich – was the barrier to change.  To overcome this emotional barrier, I had to anticipate these emotional responses and protect myself in advance. For example, my wife and I made (and continue to make) as many eating choices as possible before we are hungry by keeping less cheese and more cheese alternatives in our house.

The leadership lesson is this – emotions are often fickle, transitory, and situational. They are usually difficult to overcome in-the-moment, and they often create unpredictable behaviors.

To maximize the speed of change implementation and to create an environment that reinforces and supports change efforts, remember both the points about goal setting that I raised previously and these points about protecting you and the people around you from the emotional side of change:

  • Anticipate the emotions that the change might trigger. Before you communicate about a change, think how others might view it. What are they losing? What will it cost them? During the change, listen for the emotions people express in addition to the facts that they bring to your attention.
  • Make it easier to do things the new way. Do everything you can to remove physical barriers people face to do things the new way. Physical barriers will trigger negative emotional reactions.
  • Create barriers to using old behaviors. If people can do things the old way, they probably will. Create physical barriers to using old procedures and practices.
  • Create specific steps – actions – to get and keep the change moving. Develop support mechanisms and reminders to help people when they are confronted with short-term distractions and a desire to “do things the old way.”

Both the facts and the emotions are important elements in driving changed behavior. Ignore either one, and your change effort will fail.

Your Now Step: What changes are you trying to make? What emotions do those changes create? Think through the issues and situations where strong emotions could derail your change efforts. Write them down. In the next 24 hours, do something to protect you and your team from those emotional responses.

You Have to Have a Goal to Achieve a Goal

setting goals word cloud on blackboardOne January day about  thirteen years ago, I stepped on the scales in my bathroom, and I did not like the feedback I received. I was at the highest weight I had ever been in my life. My clothes were starting to get a bit tight, and I was feeling uncomfortable in them.

That day, I resolved to lose weight. I do not remember the exact timeline, but I do remember that before the week was over, I had written a goal weight, developed a weight loss plan, and started implementing it. Over the next few months, I got back to a weight that was both comfortable and healthy.

I managed to maintain the exercise and diet regimen that lead to that weight loss for awhile, and then I started to lose focus on my personal fitness. I was still sort of paying attention. I went through periods of being careful with my exercise and diet, but I did not consistently focus on achieving anything in that area of my life. I was coasting.

Again in January about three years ago, I stepped on the scales and realized that my weight had crept to three pounds over the weight that drove me to action ten years earler. I made a mental note of it, and made some effort to exercise more and to eat better more consistently. In mid-October of that year, I had lost a grand total of three pounds.

Then, I set a new goal. As soon as I set the goal, I created a plan and started following the plan. I once again found the discipline and focus I had shown in this area of my life ten years before.

In eight months of “thinking about losing weight,” I had lost three whopping pounds. In late November, four weeks after setting a definite goal, I lost 10 pounds, and, within a few months after that, I lost a total of 35 pounds to get back to my goal weight. With a definite goal in mind, in a little more than ten percent of the time I spent “thinking about it,” I achieved over three times the results. Finally, with a specific goal and achievement plan in place, I achieved over ten times the results in four months that I had achieved in the previous eight months.

Here are the leadership lessons from my experience:

  • Thinking about doing something is not the same as setting a definite goal. You must set a specific goal for what you hope to do or the results you hope to achieve. Otherwise, you will coast along and “think about it” a great deal without taking consistent, focused action towards it.
  • You have to share your goal with someone you trust. Very few of us are good at holding ourselves accountable, and accountability is a key ingredient of goal achievement. My wife also set a weight loss goal at that time. I knew her goal, and she knew mine. We helped each other, and we held each other accountable.
  • You have to keep the goal in front of you. If you do not see it frequently, you will forget about it. I had my weight loss goal written in a place where I saw it every day.
  • You have to track your progress – frequently. The specific time frame depends on how long it takes to see measurable progress, and the key concept is that you have to track it. If you do not track progress, you probably will not make any. In the case of losing weight, I logged my weight every week. Yes, I kept a running log of my weight each week.
  • You have to take daily, specific actions. You have to take specific actions every day towards goal achievement. I had a daily eating plan to make sure I got a balanced diet and stayed on track with my weight loss goal.

Your Now Step: Almost everyone has something they have you been “thinking about doing” for some time. What is it for you? Before the week is out, take 30 minutes to find a way to reduce it to a specific, written goal. Within 24 hours of writing it down, find someone to share the goal with, develop an action plan, and start taking daily actions towards that goal.

The Leadership Secret to Getting More Done


One of the things I notice as I work with new leaders is a tendency to accept work practices and processes as fixed entities. In some cases, company procedures, processes and work practices are mandated from a level far removed from the front-line supervisor, and they are relatively fixed. In most cases, front-line supervisors have more flexibility and freedom to adjust and improve work processes than they realize upon first taking the new position.

When I attempt to make the point that they might have more freedom and flexibility than they realize, I often get resistance from new supervisors. They say things like, “supervisors don’t have any flexibility in my company” or “you don’t understand my boss, she won’t let me do anything that isn’t strictly by the book.”

While the statements may accurately reflect how much freedom new supervisors feel that they have, neither statement is completely true. Very few supervisors have no flexibility in how they assign tasks and instruct their team members. Almost all supervisors have at least some flexibility.

As an engineering officer on a submarine, I used to start, run, and shutdown nuclear reactors.  Frankly, the nuclear navy is a pretty rigid environment. As a junior officer, I did not get much leeway in how I did things. I was expected to follow the rules, regulations, and procedures as defined by people senior to me.

And, even in that environment, I had some flexibility. In addition to following procedures, I was expected to observe work practices, read procedures, and notice bottlenecks in processes to look for ways to make them better and more efficient. I could not always act on my observations without approval. I was expected to make well reasoned recommendations.

With rare exceptions, supervisors in the business world have more flexibility and freedom than I had as an engineering officer. Realizing this freedom and flexibility is the basis for what I would call “The Secret” to getting more done…

Identify and remove barriers to successful task completion that are imposed by work processes.

Barriers can show up in many ways, and I cannot begin to adequately address them all in this brief article. I can offer three actions you can take to help in the identification and removal process…

Ask your team members what slows them down. Do they need a form to streamline communications and requests? Are they required to use a form that no longer works?

Observe their work flow. Is a piece of equipment installed so that they have to take ten extra steps 15 times each day? Do they have to handle the same piece of paper multiple times?

Listen to their frustrations. Do they consistently joke about how ridiculous a certain process step seems to them? Do they talk about things they have to do to work around broken or slow equipment?

When you invest your time and energy into finding and removing barriers to task completion – especially the ones that impact several people – you multiply your efforts and you get more done.

Your Now Steps: Plan thirty minutes within the next 48 hours to consider the work processes used by your team. When you consider the work processes, focus on identifying barriers, duplicated effort, and outdated practices that hinder efficient task completion. Then initiate a change to remove that barrier to task completion.

New Supervisor Skills – People Must Feel Empowered to Act Empowered


Empowerment is a great thing.

Empowered employees show greater commitment, stay more engaged, and create better results. Empowered employees take more initiative and get more done than employees who work in a fear-based, command-and-control environment.

As a new supervisor, you hear and read about these organizational performance results, and you decide that you want to empower your employees. So, you go tell them that they are empowered. You watch and wait for them to act empowered. And you wonder why you don’t get the results you expected.

What went wrong?

Before I offer the solution, I’ll ask a question:

Is a person empowered when you tell them they are empowered or when they feel empowered?

The full answer is that both must be true to get the results mentioned above. You must give people the authority and freedom to act – you must empower them. And, people must feel empowered before they will act on that empowerment.

Most leaders get the first part.  Telling people that they have authority and that they can act on their own initiative is a pretty obvious first step towards creating an empowered work force.

The second part is a bit more difficult to quantify. It is more difficult to put into specific action steps. In fact, the second part is outside your direct control. It is, however, something that you can influence. There are things you can do or say that undermine your efforts to empower the members of your team. Likewise there are things you can do or say that will support your efforts.

If people live in fear that you will criticize them, condemn them, or complain about them, they will not feel empowered. They will feel controlled. If they feel controlled, they will not deliver the results of an empowered workplace that I mentioned above.

To create a feeling of empowerment, do everything in your power to foster a positive workplace with little or no fear as the motivating factor in people’s actions. Here are two ideas to consider as you work to achieve a fear-free environment that supports and encourages empowerment:

Compliment more than you condemn.

Seeing what people do wrong is easy. Looking past it to see what they did well can take some effort – especially when you are under tight time and budget constraints.

Remember that any negative comments you make will have a much stronger impact on people than your positive ones. Look for and comment on anything that people are doing well. This simple act will do more to create a feeling of empowerment than any spoken or written assignment of responsibility you will ever make.

Coach more than you critique.

When you trust people to do things, they will make mistakes. That is just a fact of life as a leader. How you respond to the mistakes people make has a big impact on the feelings people have about you, their work, and how much you trust them.

When a person on your team makes a mistake, you need to correct it. When you do, remember to use more positive feed forward – what you do want to see in the future – than any comments about what you do not want to see.

Your Now Steps: Identify someone on your team who you want to behave in a more “empowered” way. Before the end of the day, find an opportunity to praise something he did well – even if it is a very small thing. Over the next week, hold a coaching conversation with him where you focus primarily on his behaviors that you want to see more of in the future.

Six Questions to Ask for Successful Collaboration

Collaboration Word Cloud

The biggest problem with collaborative problem solving is the collaborative part.

Many new leaders became leaders because they know how to get things done. This individual ability to solve problems, applied in a team environment, can become a weakness as the new leader pushes strongly for a solution that others resist.

I have been that new leader who pushed too strongly too early in the process. That approach rarely worked for me.

As I began working to develop better collaborative problem solving skills, I read How to Make Collaboration Work by David Straus, and I learned an approach for reaching better group decisions. Straus’ basic premise is that collaboration follows six predictable steps or stages.

Personally, I apply what Straus teaches by asking six questions of both myself and others as we work to solve problems together. Over time, I have found that the approach works well.

If possible, I suggest using the questions in the order listed here. If you are already engaged in a collaborative effort that has gotten stuck, you can use these questions to identify where you got off track and to get the discussion moving forward again.

Is there a problem?

I might see a problem. Others might not. Before we can reach an agreement on the best solution for the problem, we have to agree that a problem exists.

How do you define the problem?

How you solve a problem hinges on how you define the problem. If you define it one way and I define it a different way, we will never agree on the solution.

What are some possible causes for the problem?

Once we agree that there is a problem and that we both define it the same way, we can analyze the causes. If we assign different causes to the problem, we will not be able to agree on how to solve it.

What are some different ways we could solve the problem?

This is the brainstorming and creative stage. We want to identify as many possible solutions as possible so that we can pick the best one rather than the first one that we identify.

What would a successful solution look like?

Most of the problems we solve using this process could be solved in many different ways and every solution will have its own set of benefits and drawbacks. At this stage of the process, we agree on the criteria we will use to evaluate the possible solutions. For example, if we must trade quality or time in order to save costs, how much quality or time are we prepared to sacrifice to save money?

Which of the possible solutions best fits the solution criteria?

Finally, we can wrestle with deciding which solution best fits our agreed upon criteria.

This series of questions helps people to identify hidden assumptions or conclusions they might bring to the table that would hinder reaching a conclusion that everyone can accept. The process can sometimes get messy, and it can take some time. The benefit in sticking with it is that the time you invest in the process will pay you back in faster and better implementation due to better buy-in, commitment, and enthusiasm.