It has happened to all of us. We are inspired by a compelling idea that will drive gains in quality, only to have our bubble burst by peers that don’t share our enthusiasm. “It’ll never work,” suggests one colleague. “Now is not a good time,” says your supervisor. If now is not a good time for quality gains, when is such a time going to present itself? Improving quality is hard because anything new is hard, but you need not resign yourself to the status quo—it’s all in the approach.
I’ve been involved in building quality improvement programs for more than 30 years. A study we conducted of 150 projects over a 10-year period in 10 different organizations demonstrated an ROI of 7-to-1. Most of these projects leveraged lean or Six Sigma principles. Gaining traction for something as intimidating as Six Sigma taught me a lot about people and how they react to change.
On publication of the study, I asked one of my mentors why, when we were demonstrating such compelling returns, were other companies so reluctant to get on board? “What they are telling you, Ian,” he said, “is that they don’t want to work that hard.” For years this made sense to me, but 30 years in, I have come to believe it is not that simple. There is a spectrum of how people will react to new ideas, and it is the challenge of those seeking change to decipher how others are likely to respond, in advance.
GE made famous the expression that E = Q x A, where the effectiveness (E) of any effort is a function of the quality of the effort (Q) and the acceptance (A) that this is the right solution for right now. Unfortunately, most strategies focus on the technical approach, without regard for the fact that people may resist its implementation, or even sabotage it. Leaders that rely on generic messages, or worse, fear and intimidation, will find that they are unable to gain acceptance. You can guess what happens next: they blame the solution, when it was the execution that was flawed!
We humans are literally pre-wired to bring a personal bias to new opportunities; some will embrace change, but the vast majority will demonstrate fear of the unknown. Broadly speaking, some will want more data, while others will question the impact of the change on customers. “Your bottom line is not my problem” may not be spoken aloud, but it is an undercurrent to much of the resistance encountered with a new idea.
The good news is a couple of simple rules will put you on the path to being “emotionally intelligent,” that is, sensitive to the needs of those around you. And while I can only offer a gross oversimplification here, the rules of emotional intelligence are simple to apply and universal in impact.
It starts with the recognition that everybody needs something different to accept change. Ask yourself, “Is the individual I wish to convince task-oriented or people-oriented?” Task-oriented people are planners. They have lists of lists. Their greatest fear is making the wrong decision. If the person you aim to recruit is people oriented, on the other hand, their greatest fear is the impact of change on customers, staff, and themselves. They fear the uncertainty of change.
With this in mind, you are prepared to navigate the change you wish to make in the world:
To the task-oriented individual, ask “What do you need to feel comfortable to support this intended change?” They are most likely to ask for data and time to assess it, but by asking them, you immediately empower them to place one foot on the train;
To the people-oriented individual, suggest: “We’ve researched this path, we’ve secured the resources to help us, and at the slightest sign of risk, we can revert back to a safe place. How does that sound?”
These approaches are vastly different because people are vastly different in how they assess the implications of change. But the emotionally intelligent leader, recognizing there is no “one size fits all” approach, can successfully direct the course of change, and bring quality wherever it is needed most.