Committing to the goal and fixating on the story of the change is central. But the change itself can become problematic if it is not linked to a deep understanding of the audience’s story. “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” – Robert McCloskey
Once upon a time, people lived and worked where they were born. They shared common assumptions, beliefs, and values. The world was static and nothing changed. Men had jobs, women stayed at home with the kids. Within organizations, communication was top-down, where people had no choice but to accept the word of those in authority. A few owners of property had control. Bottom-up communication hardly existed. In a static world, there was little possibility of persuading one’s higher-ups to change. Politics was run by insiders and there was no thought of persuading the populace to accept whatever had been decided. In the family, the parents’ word was the law. In this world, those in authority were in charge. Leadership was hardly needed and top-down command-and-control methods of communication got the job done. That world is now a distant memory.
Audiences are much more difficult than they used to be. People tired of being talked at and directed. They expect to be treated as adults and talked to as intellectual equals. And in the modern economy, the workers often have key means of production: knowledge. So their demands can’t be ignored. Audiences also became more diverse. They consist of different gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, life-style, age group, and geographical location. Common assumptions, values, and beliefs are the exception rather than the rule. How can you connect with people when they have different views about virtually everything?
The kind of changes we are asking people to undertake these days are much bigger than anything we used to consider possible. Leaders often underestimate what they are asking people to do when they propose basic change.
For example, Lou Gerstner took over IBM in 1993. He wanted to transform the hardware firm, into a service provider for different computer systems. For those who had been working at IBM for a long time, their very identity was bound to working for a hardware firm. So when Gerstner came, he was asking them not only to do a different job, but also to assume a new role, in effect to take on a new identity. That was a very large thing to ask for. Who was Lou Gerstner to tell them what sort of a people they should be?
Or in 2001, Jeff Immelt came to GE, the process-driven organization, and told those process-driven people that they were part of a “green corporation” that was going to put “imagination to work”. This meant far more for people than just taking on different work. It implied assuming a new role and new values. In effect, he was asking the staff to become different kinds of people – a large thing to ask.
Leaders nowadays need to set aside the idea of imposing their will or moving their listeners to a predetermined position. The task is rather to enable the audience to see possibilities that they have missed and to create the capability in the audience to view for themselves the world and their relations with others in a new and more truthful light. It involves pointing a way forward for people who find themselves cornered by the current story that they are living and enabling the audience to recognize a new, different, and more promising story that they could be living, which they for some reason have not visualized until now. In order to do this, leaders need to first understand the current story that their listeners are living. What’s going on in the world of the listener? How does it hang together? Why does that world make sense? What is it about their attitudes, beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears that makes that world fit together in a way that is broadly plausible?
On the surface, this world will consist of the familiar, observable, routine, predictable activities of the human life. Below this surface is a realm of deeper feelings: of the joy and exhilaration of being alive, of the desire of loving and being loved, of the pain of not realizing deep ambitions, of the dilemmas of balancing personal goals with those of others, of a looming sense of mortality. It is this deeper world that is the source from which all enduring enthusiasm for change will come. And it is this world that leaders have to understand.
This world is not directly observable. So how do leaders get to know it and understand it? If leaders probe with patience, persistence, and skill, they will eventually find the humor, the humanity, the order, and the energy that will laugh at boundaries and find a path through obstacles to a new future. This is not a matter of simply gathering and analyzing data. It’s about reaching out and getting a sense of what it is like living in that world, so that the leaders feel its logical and power and order. The people cease to be an “It” and become a “You”. Leaders should not see their followers as obstacles, enemies, or opponents. They should try to understand the world of their listeners in all its particularity. The best way to do this is to try to reconstruct the story the listeners perceive themselves to be living.
We usually spend a great deal of time thinking about what story we are going to tell. But the hard part of communication is often figuring out what story the audience is currently living. Instead of talking down to people we need to talk with people. Through conversation, we can learn what's going on in our listeners’ world, and figure out what story might be able to inspire new enthusiasm. This requires active interchange, rather than detached observation that only leads to distancing. Through the mutually shared experience of exchanging stories we discover what is going on in our listeners’ world.