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How to Progress While the Rules Are Changing

I was speaking with a high-potential middle manager who’s struggling with a raft of organizational changes including modifications of sales policies, comp plans, and various other crucial aspects of work life. He expressed tremendous frustration about the latest round of changes, which had come on the heels of other policy revisions.

He resented the numerous meetings, updates, and shifts in perspective — and particularly having to explain the “new” new policies to employees who had already experienced sweeping organizational change and were suspicious and unhappy about the most recent modifications. Some team members objected because their pay had been adversely affected, some because their pay hadn’t been affected at all, some because they didn’t understand, and some just because they were tired of changes. The series of meetings left him dispirited and not really wanting to bear down and do his job.

Who Benefits?

Our discussion focused on whether there was actually anything wrong with these new policies. “Once the policies are in place and everyone has adjusted to them,” I asked him, “will they be worse for the team?” “No, not really,” he said, “not once everyone gets it.” “And will the policies be worse or better for the business financially?” His answer was surprising: “It seems like they’ll actually be better.”

So what was the problem? The manager explained that the changes had been communicated by senior management as fiats with no room for discussion, and with fierce pressure to get everyone on board promptly, but no emotional support or interest in the angst about why things were changing again.

This manager prided himself on his ability to work with his team and on his personal credibility — both of which he felt could be marred by this new round of changes. His staff’s vocal discomfort was stressing him out and sapping his energy.

All About Attitude

What drove the manager’s internal conflict? He considered it beneath him to behave passively and present the changes to his team as if he had nothing to do with them, as if they were being forced on him, even though, in fact, they were. He knew he had to acknowledge his team’s displeasure even while explaining why and how the new way would be better for people — otherwise they might believe he was unreasonable and uncaring and therefore resist even the beneficial parts of his message.

He needed to be simultaneously his own person — not just a mouthpiece for the company, but someone who understood the team members and their concerns — even as he nudged them to move in the inevitable direction of the company’s changes.

Going for the Win, Anyway

What helped the manager the most? Focusing on the typical day-to-day responsibilities of doing the work and making things work. Making everything feel usual and normal — without giving the policy changes too much power over daily work life. Successful daily performance made the other stresses fade a little; it also helped the manager remind the team that whatever happened over their heads, they were still capable of doing a sterling job.

If results had drooped, everyone would be unhappy — the management, the team, and he himself; plus, he would have lost the standing to address the big, conceptual problems. But because he maintained support for the team and the work itself, the impact of the policy changes actually faded away for the majority of the team. The manager was therefore able to focus his extra effort on a few people who really needed special attention, and also maintained a high level of credibility with his management, eventually gaining an opening to propose adjustments to the most problematic changes.

It can be more effective to keep the ball rolling than to pick it up and hold it while you’re thinking about how to take your next shot.

Onward and upward,


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