You could have heard a pin drop…

The silence in the boardroom was deafening. Sam, the Project Lead, had just been stopped in mid-sentence by the VP impatiently waving her hand. Sam had started to tell a story to position the efforts being made regarding the CHANGE in his organization. Storytelling was his best attempt at making his situation relatable to the other leaders in the room. He knew his files were highly technical and complex. In the past, his explanations had been met with glazed looks or no looks at all as colleagues busied themselves with their high-tech toys while pretending to listen or take notes.

“This was not what was asked for,” said the VP as dozens of ears perked up in fear. “What is the value-add? Where are the metrics? What are the outcomes? Did you not understand what was required for this exercise and presentation? The information was clear and sent out in advance. We don’t have time for this!”

Everyone looked down, embarrassed. You could have heard a pin drop. They knew their turn was next and many were dreading “running the gauntlet.” Sam’s right-hand person tried to point out where the data could be found, but this fell on deaf ears.

The leader’s responsiblity in change

This embarrassing situation seems to happen in many boardrooms across the country. Someone is dismissed, scolded or ridiculed as they try something new in the context of a CHANGE effort.

  • Could it be that the leader was under pressure to quickly show results to the top brass and was applying the same pressure to her own direct reports?
  • Could it be that she was assuming that the Project Leads would “get” it and didn’t require much support with this new way forward?
  • Could it be that folks in this organization operated in siloes and didn’t trust other colleagues enough to reach out to them to discuss new ideas and approaches before it was their time on stage?
  • Could it be that there wasn’t enough leeway for experimentation in this culture, despite leaders’ vocal support for innovation and transformation?

Probably, it was all of the above. But I want to speak to the senior leader’s responsibility in creating safety when leading change efforts that make her followers vulnerable.

Leaders need to remember that they have been much more involved in the process through which change was conceived, and so they are ready to adopt and implement its steps much faster than anyone running behind them to catch up. This seems obvious, but how many leaders mistake their followers as being slow and resistant when in reality their followers haven’t been engaged, i.e. have not had their opinions solicited, their objections heard or been given any time to understand the change and its impact ?? Without this engagement, you can only move forward in slow motion, if at all.

Also, just because your followers have acquiesced to the vision or strategy in previous meetings, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to move forward, know how to move, or have the ability to make the move happen. Safety in change comes from a variety of sources:

  • understanding how the process is supposed to unfold
  • understanding its rationale and expected outcomes
  • having an opportunity to dialogue about the process
  • being able to learn and try new things on for size
  • being challenged in respectful ways
  • being guided and supported as you leap into the new.

Unfortunately, the meeting continued and two more Project Leads were put through the wringer before the senior individual among the Team Lead suggested that everyone go back to the drawing board to prepare for a future presentation in a few weeks.

 What was achieved at this meeting?

  • Reinforcement of a widespread fear that risk takers risk getting humiliated
  • Demotivation
  • Resistance going underground
  • Loss of trust and confidence in self and others.

 What could be done instead:

Before the meeting

  • What if the Project Leads—before the meeting—had been engaged to identify ways of designing, exploring, deciding and implementing the proposed Change?
  • What if there had been dry-runs where Team Leaders helped each other get ready instead of operating as every man/woman for himself/herself?

At the meeting

  • What if the leader had put on a coaching hat and asked open-ended questions to help Sam see the gaps in his approach and discover next steps or possible areas to explore?
  • What if some elders in the groups had intervened and suggested they wanted to hear Sam out so they could understand his unique situation?

 What if…

I would venture to say that with one or more of these actions, the results would have been very different. You would have seen an increase in engagement, dialogue, curiosity, laughter and trust, and more esprit de corps.

This was an opportunity missed. The good news is that the VP noticed the dampening effects of her remarks and promised to provide more support to her followers moving forward: more conversations, more listening, and more guidance..


In what big or small ways are you encouraging risk taking and experimentation during a change effort?

How do you make your meetings safe when people are at their most vulnerable during a change effort?

How do you create trust during times of change and uncertainty?

I would love to hear from you!

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