I will not help you if you blame me

The people whose help you need to make changes are often responsible for the way things are now. Telling them that there is a problem can easily be experienced as your blaming them – causing them to resist acknowledging the problem. This is Layer 0 of the Nine Layers of Resistance, and the first moment of agreement needed for you to get proper buy-in.

We are busy with a series about the Nine Moments of Agreement. These are based on the concept of the Nine Layers of Resistance – a systematic and structured way of understanding, and leveraging resistance to change.

Let me start with a story that may not be true in fact, but is absolutely true in principle:

Having newly arrived in his new position as manager of exports, reporting to the international trade director, John was quick to notice that there were some processes that were unnecessary. He had seen these in his previous company also, and knew that they were in place to comply with legislation that had already been scrapped more than five years ago. He could see people were overworked as in most export departments, and scrapping these unnecessary processes would be welcomed by everyone. It would also reduce some of the errors that sometimes creeped in whilst documentation was moving through these old manual processes.

Keen to prove that he was the right man for the job, he made an appointment with his director, and explained to him the problem, suggesting that they just immediately scrap these processes. To his surprise, instead of encouragement, he got the cold shoulder. The director pointed out that there were other reasons, related to the information needs of interconnected up-and-downstream processes for these processes still being in place. He also pointed out that in terms of the overall export process these specific sub-processes consumed a relatively small percentage of resources.

When the director retired a year later, John was promoted into his position. He did a quick re-assessment of the situation, and within less than a week stopped the unnecessary processes, with no negative impact to any interconnected departments or processes.

No-one likes to be blamed

Chances are that you’ve felt baffled by similar events in organisations. The reason for this is found in a simple truth that we all would like to believe is not true of our work environment – but is unfortunately more the norm than the exception – and that is that most of us find it very unpleasant to be blamed for something going wrong, or being blamed for something not going as well as it potentially could have.

The person you are talking to may very well be responsible for the way things are now

In most cases when we want to improve something in an organisation, we need the help of people around us – especially those that are directly involved in the very part of the business we want to improve. The only problem is that if we come in there and suddenly improve something that’s been working not-quite-as-well-as-it-should-have for a period of time, then the people that had been there all this time potentially look bad. It doesn’t take a genius to see that coming when you first start poking your nose into their business and claiming that there is a problem, or an opportunity for improvement.

Layer 0: There is no problem

The result of this is Layer 0 of the Layers of Resistance: “There is no problem.”

You see, if there is no problem, then there is no reason to change. We can all just continue as we are. It also means I cannot be blamed for the existence of a problem that doesn’t exist. This need to avoid blame – whether implicit or explicit – can hardly be overstated. It’s deeply ingrained.

So how do you get through this?

1.    The first moment of agreement starts with your attitude

The key to getting through this is to get a true understanding of the situation and to allow your understanding to be challenged.

It starts with an attitude of believing that the people around you, just like you, are doing their best with what they have. It also needs an attitude of truly being there to help, and not of being there to point fingers and show off your ability to spot things that are wrong.

2.    After getting your attitude straight – get your facts straight.

Having checked your own attitude the next step is to collect a few irrefutable undesirable effects caused by the problem, that are as far as possible from being dismissable as “not a problem,” and to focus on ONLY getting agreement that these undesirable effects do indeed exist.

3.    Don’t argue. Focus on Layer 0. Listen.

With these facts, you can go into the part of the conversation of trying to get agreement that there is a problem. You might almost immediately be rebuffed with all sorts of reasons of why the problem exists. Don’t fight that. Accept that these reasons may (or may not) be true. This is not what you want to argue about at Layer 0. There may be blame flying in all directions – up, down, and sideways. This is not the time to try and get this person to take responsibility. At this point you just want to get agreement that there is a problem, so simply take note of the blaming, and get back to the point – the undesirable effects exist, and therefore there is a problem.

How the story could have gone:

So what could John have done differently?

Firstly, John could have done a bit of investigation to understand why this problem has not been addressed before. Showing an understanding of the difficulties faced in the past, and of the fact that maybe there was simply not time and resources to deal with this until now, can go a long way to coming across as offering help, rather than pointing a finger.

Secondly, instead of just jumping straight to proposing scrapping of processes, he could have identified the undesirable effects, and raised only these.

  • Heavy workload
  • Some very manually intensive processes
  • High number of mistakes in those manual processes
  • The above leading to increased stress and conflict in the department

Whilst getting agreement on the existence of the undesirable effects, John could have listened very carefully and taken note of everything that was said around these – because these would help him understand whether he had correctly identified the problem – which would be the next part of the conversation.

But that is also the topic of a next article.

To your success


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