How to help your people change

Performance dip - sMost of the charities I work with are having to change. Whether it’s their service models, their income profile or the kind of work they’re able to do. But the one thing that most frequently slows them down, is persuading their passionate but long-standing people, to embrace those changes: to learn new skills, to adapt to new ways of working and new ways of thinking, and to stop doing the things they did before.

It’s a challenge that, if unresolved, can cripple initiatives and hamstring organisations, and it exists not because your people don’t appreciate the need to change. It’s because they fear the dip.

The first time I had the dip explained to me, it was nothing to do with work. A friend of mine had started taking lessons with a golf coach to improve his game. Now, I’d given up playing golf about 10 years prior, having finally reconciled myself to the fact that I was never going to be the next Gary Player, but putting aside my painful memories for a moment, I asked how it was going. His reply surprised me: “It’s getting better now, but the first week or two my game went off a cliff.”

Apparently, the area he’d most needed to work on was his grip. The coach got him to change it and, to start off with, it made things worse. But, the coach persuaded him to stick with it, and after a couple of weeks of practice, his game had just about got back to where it was before, only now it had the potential to get much better. “I had to go through the dip to get to the other side,” he explained. “That’s why you get a coach. If I’d been on my own, I’d have given up and gone back to my old grip, and I’d never have improved.”

We’re comfortable doing things that we know how to do. We feel more purposeful and successful when doing things we can do really well. And we build our self-image, to a surprising extent, upon our confidence in that expertise. So, it’s not surprising people feel anxious when they’re asked to stop doing those things, and to start doing something different.

We fear, and indeed we often find, that we’re not as good at it as we want to be, and if we can’t do it well, it will undermine our standing, our reputation, and our self-esteem. So, we back out of the dip with a plethora of aversion behaviours – I don’t have the time right now; we need to clear a backlog first; the new way doesn’t work; we found a problem, so we had to revert; etc. etc. etc.

Your people aren’t avoiding the change because they’re recalcitrant and obstructive, or because they’re dinosaurs who can’t learn new tricks. They’re doing it from a rational fear – they don’t want to screw up. And that same fear quite often stops them asking for help as well – fear of exposure, of being seen as unable to do it on their own. What they need, like my golfing friend, is someone to lean on, to help them understand the dip is only temporary, to applaud their progress and to inspire them with the confidence to stick with it. Otherwise, like him, they’ll back away.

Your charity will need to adapt more quickly and more often in the future, than it ever did in the past. And one of the core capabilities you’ll need to develop, is the ability and capacity to coach and support your people through the inevitable cycles of personal change they will face. So, if you want to see change embraced in your organisation, first ask yourself this: how exactly will you coach your people through the dip?

 

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