6 minutes reading time (1210 words)

Change and the Troublesome Employee (part 1)

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Change requires focus, commitment, and a willingness to be uncomfortable. As leaders, it's our job to clear away obstacles to change. As much as we want people to trust us and go along with us, that isn't realistic for everyone. Some of us need more information, others want direct involvement in decisions. Others want to be heard, to know that their input is valued by their leader and their company.

In my experience, most companies have at least one employee who they can count on to disagree with and be upset by any change that is introduced. I remember one manager who said, "I think if we changed the paper towels in the bathroom this employee would find some reason to object." An HR Manager described theirs as "our troublesome employee." I'll never forget one machine shop I visited where leaders left their "problem machinist" alone. When you walked by his area, it looked different from the rest. His area was a mess, right down to the duct tape on the chair. (Turns out they tried to give him a new chair, but he refused it.)

They were spending a lot of time trying to get him to go along with change and it wasn't getting them anywhere. They decided to work around him, hoping he would find his way -- or be embarrassed enough about his own messy workspace to get on board. Sometimes peer pressure works. It didn't in this case.

So what do you do? What do you do with the needy employee, the one who always has something to say about everything, and who claims to never feel heard?

First, challenge your own beliefs: consider they may have a point.

People can tell when you are sincerely engaged and interested in what they have to say. We know when someone is listening for understanding. And we know when someone is tolerating us -- listening to say you listened. Like other humans I know, sometimes I struggle to listen actively, with empathy, to people who don't share my beliefs; even more complicated when you have a job to do.

Beliefs are tricky and highly personal. We filter every experience through our beliefs. Beliefs are also created through experience. As we have new experiences, we assign meaning to them based on how we feel. We attach experiences that feel similarly together. Research suggests that a high percentage (80-90%) of our beliefs are shaped in early-childhood. They are a result of our first experiences and primarily influenced by our parents or parent-like people in our lives. They share their beliefs with us in everything they do and don't do, everything they say and don't say. Their primary motivation is to keep us safe from hurt and harm.

We take action based on our beliefs. With each action, we create an experience for ourselves and others. The experience can challenge or reinforce our existing beliefs. New beliefs may form. Old beliefs may fall away. We learn to expect similar situations to be the same as before. We "know" from experience how this conversation is going to go, what the other person will say. And we prepare ourselves -- we come in with our defense ready.

Years ago, when I was part of a "lean team", we went to training to learn some advanced tools of the trade. The subject of resistance to change came up in discussion. Our instructor gave this advice for dealing with resisters: "Carry the wounded; shoot the stragglers."

I found it difficult to tell the difference sometimes.

I had the opportunity to talk to the machinist with the disorganized work area. My tour guide was pulled away for a bit, so I wandered back toward his area and introduced myself. Jerry greeted me with a handshake and cautious curiosity. I explained who I was and asked him about his work. We had a great conversation.

Jerry had about 25 years of experience as a machinist. He was good at it and liked doing it. If you asked him, his work area was organized. He knew where everything was. Spending time organizing the area for others using their rules was a waste of time. No one else used his space. Jerry did not care what people thought of him; he cared about making a quality product. That was his job.

Jerry's father had been a machinist. His father was more agreeable to going along with proposed changes, but his loyalty and engagement had not been matched. He was laid off more than once, sometimes even involved in the decision-making that eliminated his job. Jerry watched his father and his family struggle. He heard his father's stories. As a result, Jerry learned to reserve trust for the leaders who earned it, rather than automatically grant it to people who held positions of authority. Jerry did not go along with leaders at first blush. He watched and he waited.

Jerry showed me where he had implemented "some of that lean stuff," including a changeover cart and tooling labels. He heard from other machinists how specific improvements helped, so he decided to try on his own. He was proud of his work. Jerry had some ideas about how to improve other work processes impacting his area, but felt no one was interested. Not sincerely, anyway. Though leadership said they wanted input and feedback, they did not have a good track record for doing anything with it. Worse, when ideas were implemented, leadership rarely gave credit where due.

Jerry admitted that he liked control and feared failure. He did not like being called "resistant to change." Jerry engaged, but at a slower pace. He needed a chance to see how new tools worked, to process new information. He didn't like feeling vulnerable in front of co-workers and wished there were more opportunities to talk 1:1 or learn independently instead of doing everything in groups.

One work area received a lot of attention, Jerry said. The area was re-organized three or four times over three or four months. To Jerry, it looked like the people pushing the change didn't know what they were doing. The people in the area pushed back on some changes, and were forced to put them in place anyway, only to have them change back. To Jerry, it felt chaotic and unnecessary -- unnecessary because the leaders didn't listen to the people in the first place.

I learned Jerry's self-righteous attitude was a front, a protective cover, a mask. By all appearances, Jerry was a straggler. In reality, he was one of the wounded.

I shared what I learned from my time with Jerry with my tour guide. He made a point of connecting with Jerry more often, bringing books and articles along to leave with Jerry. It made a difference. Last I heard, Jerry was doing well and his area was on par with the rest.

If you can approach the troublesome employee from the perspective that they may actually have a point, you open yourself to a new possibility -- a possibility that may live outside of your existing beliefs.

To be continued...

Tell us about your "Jerry" -- the troublesome, change-resistant employee at your company, and the strategies you've used to help them along.

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Thursday, 15 November 2018