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Beating the “GM Nod”

by Guest Writter
Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gerschel, Managing Partners, PeopleNRG.com

People resist change. Among 1,300 professionals who responded to our 2012 Global Study, 81% reported they say yes to changes but do nothing. A recent glaring example of this is what has become known as the “GE nod.”

GM recently fired 15 people for just nodding yes and doing nothing for years as the company failed to deal with a major safety problem. It took the company 11 years to recall vehicles equipped with a defective ignition switch. One reason: there was “no demonstrated sense of urgency, right to the very end,” according to an internal investigation by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas.

Lack of urgency is a top reason 70 percent of change efforts fail, along with lack of trust in leaders and lack of communication. So how can leaders get their teams to really embrace change instead of just nodding? Here are three steps:

1. Create Real Urgency Through Action – Employees, including leaders, won’t move past the “nod” unless they feel a true sense of urgency from their leader. We worked with the CEO of Americas for a global industrial conglomerate that had acquired several companies, yet the leaders of those companies refused to integrate into the new culture. After a year of nothing but behind-the-scenes conflict, the CEO finally took action to support his words. He brought us in to work with the top team and address the issues. Forcing everyone to sit down for a day and talk through the integration issues demonstrated the CEO’s resolve. Once the upsets were aired and discussed, strained relationships turned positive and collaborative. The leaders took ownership and a united culture emerged. It only happened because the CEO took action.

2. Create Real Urgency Through Words – People need to emotionally connect with the mission of the change. Think Steve Jobs “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” or Martin Luther King “I dream of the day my children will be judged by the content of their character.” Our research shows that the reason to change (the WHY) has to more emotionally powerful than the negativity people feel about the change. It’s the leader’s job to motivate, educate and inspire by giving them “The Why.” The 60-Second Change Speech is a tool we use with leaders to help them capture “The Why” quickly. Try it: See if you can communicate “What’” is changing, “Why” we are changing and “What is not” changing in 60 seconds. It’s not easy – It takes thought, preparation and practice. To do it successfully, focus your message on: why it is critical we succeed, what will happen if we fail, how our customers will benefit, why it matters to our communities and other key stakeholders. Finally, be sure to remind people what is not changing to give them some stability within the storm.

3. Create Real Urgency Through Personnel Change  Sometimes people will not change despite all known motivational methods, and will only respond to the threat of losing their jobs. Even then some still will dig in. These people must go. GM’s CEO Mary Barra strongly communicated the urgency of a new culture when she fired those 15 people. Yes, it was after death and catastrophe. Often action only comes when the pain is great. Yet nothing is clearer than knowing that if you don’t get on the bus, you will be asked to take a different bus. Many executives we have helped over the years find that the barrier to cultural change in their business unit is one or more employees. The good news is that once they realize from your actions that the change is real, many employees who aren’t up for it will leave on their own.

Trust: Linchpin of Change

Trust is the foundation for change success, yet it is often sorely lacking. Our research showed that 92% of employees do not trust and buy in to change when announced by senior leaders. To overcome the “nods” rampant throughout the business world, leaders need to overcompensate. Go out of your way to listen, communicate, and do what you say you will do. Building a strong foundation of trust will allow your team to follow you, no matter what kind of change your organization faces.


About the Authors

Executive team coaches Antoine Gerschel and Lawrence Polsky are managing partners at PeopleNRG.com. The global leadership and team consulting firm has transformed the teams of more than 30,000 leaders in 11 industries in 30 countries on five continents since 2008. Visit www.PeopleNRG.com.

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