Over the last few years we’ve been working with groups at several different universities. On more than one occasion we have been asked to help groups that are having a challenging time adjusting to a reorganisation. This is usually a change that they have been required to make rather than choosing to. (Sound familiar?)
The people affected can struggle to understand the reason for the change. They frequently feel that “leadership isn’t listening to us.” Equally, the people leading the change are often confused and frustrated by the vocal and passionate resistance they experience.
Frustrations and emotions run high. Communication is poor. Tempers rise.
People are very easily triggered, and because no one does anything differently this pattern keeps being repeated.
Institutions reorganise for many reasons. Sometimes they are compelled to do so by changing markets, reforms to regulatory landscapes, or financial pressures requiring a different approach to programme and service delivery. At other times, a reorganisation is needed as organisations evolve and grow. It can be a painful process and research from the corporate world has shown that 80 percent of reorganisations fail to deliver improvements that were hoped for. Whilst some are successful, one thing is definite: organisational change is disruptive, transforming roles and leading to a variety of reactions from the people involved as they navigate the change.
In one case, when we brought together the people who were affected by a change, they spent most of the sessions complaining about how awful this thing was that was being forced on them and that no one was listening to them.
After working to de-escalate their anger, using tools such as I Statements, FONT and Circles of Influence, by the end they were saying things like, “Oh actually, we’ve got more power here than we realised. I just assumed we had no choice and no control. It is up to us to shape this.” Which was great.
They were still angry, but now they had some agency, which helped them to engage in a different way.
When we talked to people higher up, they said, “We did consult and we are listening. We keep saying, ‘You are free to design your own solution.’ It’s not true that we just tell them what to do.”
In many instances, from where we are standing it appears that people struggle to feel heard and understood, are quick to blame each other and are confused as to how to behave differently.
All sides make assumptions about what is happening and base their responses on those assumptions. They all believe everyone thinks the same as them.
What happens in organisations
This reminds me of that story about the blindfolded scientists who are touching an elephant. One is touching the tail and thinks it is a rope. Another is touching a tusk and thinks it is a spear. Another is touching a leg and thinks it is a tree. They all think they are touching something different. None of them can see that they’re holding a part of a whole.
This is a useful metaphor for what happens in organisations, where people make the mistake of believing that everyone else shares the same viewpoint, and fail to recognise other people’s points of view. If everyone could pool their knowledge they might have a clearer view of what is really going on, as other people do have different views to us. That is not surprising. They have different roles. They’re sitting in different parts of the organisation. In terms of power, they’re experiencing different things. Their whole context is utterly different and even if you do agree on one or two things, you are still holding a very different perspective.
Why listening is important
In most organisations people don’t have enough time – or don’t make the time – to make sure they are listening to other perspectives. Then some people don’t speak up because they believe they are not going to be heard. Other voices get louder – indignant even – because they are trying really hard to make sure they are heard. Leaders get swept along thinking that everyone is on the same page and run into difficulties later because it turns out that some people are not actually as committed as they thought they were, because they hadn’t done enough work to include them.
A common refrain we hear from leaders is, “I feel really confused and frustrated, because we did talk to people. We set up meetings where they could contribute. Yet they are all saying that they weren’t heard. Truth is I didn’t really notice that they hadn’t said things.”
If you’re in a position of power, do you need to do more to make sure other people in your team feel heard? What could you do?
The reality is that even leadership teams don’t work in this way. They are often too busy focusing on tasks, and not thinking about raising concerns, or creating space to challenge and discuss.
And sometimes progress can be achingly slow: in our work with clients we can spend a whole afternoon just getting to a point where we’ve clarified that there’s stuff people agree on but there’s also quite a lot of difference.
The solution? Practise bringing people together and try to acknowledge what’s going on for everyone. Be patient, and in those spaces people can discover that they do have things in common and that they may have a lot more power to influence good outcomes than they realise.
This is a really important aspect of our work.
If any of this resonates, or if you’re taking steps to create supportive environments to ensure people feel heard and bring out difference, we’d love to hear how you’re getting on.
At Then Somehow we help universities and institutions build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.
If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation perform better, get in touch here, or if you’re looking for 360 feedback review for individuals – have a look at our new 360 service: AdviceSheet.
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