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Friday, 19 July 2013 02:40

The Pollyanna Principle: Just how positive should you be during a change?

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The other day I was having lunch with a former colleague who had recently become the VP of HR & Recruiting at a large company.  She was frustrated.

“I don’t know what the heck the problem is,” she sighed.  “I know the department was a disaster when I came on board last year, but I got rid of the two managers who were causing most of the problems, I’ve brought in new technology to replace the outdated system that had been on its last legs for years, and I even brought in an improv coach to do some fun team-building exercises.  But everyone still seems demoralized and I don’t know what more I can do at this point.”

Since this is a classic change management dilemma (“We made all the right changes - why hasn’t productivity/morale/business improved?”), I asked her a few questions.

There is such a thing as being too positive

Most of us know there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  Generally speaking, it’s a good motto for both our personal and professional lives:  No one wants to be friends with a Debbie Downer, and no one wants to work with (or promote) someone who spends all their time complaining.


When you’re the leader of a change initiative, and the change is happening because the pre-change state is best described as ‘a disaster’, refusing to acknowledge that disaster doesn’t make you look like a positive, Dale Carnegie type - it just makes you look like maybe you don’t actually understand the situation.

That’s what had happened with my lunch companion.  She’d been brought in specifically to transform the HR/Recruiting department, but as a new hire who prided herself on her professionalism and positive attitude, she didn’t want to alienate her new team members by being negative about what had gone on before her arrival.  So instead of announcing that the two managers had been unceremoniously fired, she let everyone think that they’d simply ‘moved on to other opportunities’; instead of acknowledging that the existing technology was a productivity-sucking blight on the organization, she talked about the increased usability of the new system; and instead of acknowledging that the bad managers had created a lot of dissention within the team, she positioned the improv coach as a fun activity to help her get to know her new staff. 

Most importantly, when her direct reports alluded to the previously disastrous situation, she pretended not to understand and instead just refocused the conversation on how great things were going to be once the changes were complete.

The result 

Her employees - already on edge as a result of an extended period of bad management - concluded that she was just another dingbat brought in to make their lives difficult, and that the changes she was making wouldn’t actually fix anything because she hadn’t understood the problems in the first place.  So they didn’t bond with the new managers she hired, they resisted using the new technology system, and half of them mysteriously had urgent appointments on the days the improv coach was scheduled to come in.

The lesson

As a change leader, being relentlessly positive isn’t always the best approach.  Of course you don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about how terrible things were before you arrived, and it’s never a good idea to speak badly about former employees, even if they were idiots.  But it’s crucial that you let people know that you are, in fact, well aware of the pre-change problems, and that you understand how those problems affected your team’s ability to work effectively.   You can acknowledge the problems without being negative:  Instead of ignoring an employee’s snarky comment about how cumbersome the previous technology was, you can say “I know - it was brutal!  That’s why I’m so excited about the new system.  Let me tell you about it…”

When people realize that you understand their frustration, they’re more inclined to see you as someone they can work with rather than just another adversary they have to work around - which will make them much more enthusiastic and responsive to the changes you’re trying to implement.


Read 31671 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 05:22

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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