One of my favorite activities is lending support to young professionals seeking guidance on everything from career coaching and leadership development to idea generation and project execution. Last week, I spent time with a group of individuals outside of my company who were working on a new project. They are a great, energetic group, with deep analytical skills and a passion to make an impact. They shared an idea with me and wanted to get my guidance. As I listened to them, I was so impressed with their insight and energy and I was excited about their idea.
Then, as we began to talk about ways to sell the idea, gain traction and execute, a funny thing happened. You could feel some energy leave the room, while some fear entered it. It really bothered me. What was it that was draining our collective energy and creating uncertainty?
Over the next few days, I thought about what I said and how I approached the conversation. Then it dawned on me. We were fighting the invisible – the uncertainty, reluctance and resistance that inherently comes with change.
Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there
Ironically, the inner workings of a company are often at odds with what we espouse as our corporate values and beliefs. Some call this a company’s “social operating network” – it’s basically how people interact at work. When we move beyond idea to action or execution, we may be fighting policy and/or power – and that can cause insecurity and fear.
There is a great HBR article that talks about this exact thing: Leaders Focus Too Much on Changing Policies, and Not Enough on Changing Minds. It describes the challenges to achieving business transformations as “the invisible fears and insecurities that keep us locked into behaviors even when we know rationally that they don’t serve us well. Add to that the anxiety that nearly all human beings experience in the face of change. Nonetheless, most organizations pay far more attention to strategy and execution than they do to what their people are feeling and thinking when they’re asked to embrace a transformation. Resistance, especially when it is passive, invisible, and unconscious, can derail even the best strategy.”
Don’t perpetuate a status quo culture
As leaders, we need to think about the signals we send and the behaviors we tolerate. We are the ones responsible for change and growth. The difference maker is not the quality of the idea or even the proposed strategy, it is the impact of the social operating networks’ invisible biases that become actions (or inactions).
Now, I’m not saying we should embrace every single idea that comes our way. Sure, there are bad ideas, but more often than not, they get eliminated or refined during incubation. I’m talking about valuable ideas that may be hard to implement. The challenge is not due to visible things like capabilities, money, etc., but usually because of the invisible: people resisting it and the culture it breeds if we tolerate it – or worse – *allow* it to happen. By doing so, we are not empowering change, but rather perpetually creating a culture focused on maintaining the status quo; not because it is right, but because it is safe. It may look like concern, wisdom, and deliberateness; but if you look more closely, it is resistance.
I challenge us as leaders not to be reckless, but open. Create a platform for addressing what is truly holding good ideas back. Look hard and I bet you will see the invisible. Don’t quit on the idea or your people – try to find a way to take action that may make the invisible, visible. Then, eliminate the resistance.