Leadership and Management

Disrupting Complacency Without Being A Caveman

What is the right way to create urgency in the workplace? I started reading John Kotter‘s Leading Change this week, and he discusses creating a sense urgency as the first step in meaningful organizational change. I wholly agree with the need for urgency, but I can’t decide if I agree on all of Kotters’s prescribed tactics. I squeamishly read about some of his recommendations like bombarding employees with messages about problems and threatening to shut down underperforming departments. Is this really how I should try to get through to my team? Aren’t there more constructive ways for me to create urgency?

I had a meeting with my managers recently where we all agreed not to be cavemen managers. Less evolved managers boss around their direct reports, threatening a good bopping on the head with their caveman clubs for non-compliance. “You make fire faster!” says the caveman leader, “And bigger, or else!” (note: in this particular day-dream, I am picturing Jack Welch, famous bully manager, in a caveman outfit). Does Kotter really want us behaving like cavemen managers, resorting to threats and constant negative feedback?

These cavemen managers achieve their goal to a certain extent as their direct reports urgently try to find jobs elsewhere. The Jack Welch or Darwinian readers might say, “Let them leave.” I say, “Don’t be such a caveman.” Top performers leave first when managers start threatening and pressuring employees, because they are the most valuable in the job market.

By the end of our manager meeting my team agreed we could probably find more intelligent ways to motivate associates to urgent action. We chose to focus on some of Kotter’s constructive techniques. My favorites are setting high performance standards and short term incremental goals, making feedback and coaching systemic, and over communicating our long term vision. How are we doing? Work in progress.

I am enjoying Kotter’s book. His eight step program for creating lasting change seems logically sound. Hopefully I am right about not needing to revert to the stone age to solve the urgency problem when leading change.

2 replies »

  1. John – – –

    I certainly agree with you about trying all conceivable positive tactics to create urgency rather than fear tactics. If the situation in a firm or department really is dire, wouldn’t candor — in this case, an honest reporting of the financial and operational facts — usually be more than enough to create urgency? Coupled with “modeling” behavior — i.e., managers acting with urgency (but not panic) every day, day in and day out — would seem the most effective course for most organizations. Of course, this becomes more difficult when times are good at the moment but storm clouds are gathering that most people do not see yet. I have to believe, though, that even in these cases, steady reporting of honest but dire forecasts over the course of time is likely to be an effective way to proceed.

    Great food for thought, John.

    Michael Brisciana

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