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Keep the Change

"Should I Say This?" 12 Real-Life Change Statements

Lawrence Polsky
Contributor: Lawrence Polsky
Posted: 11/06/2011

Sometimes the best lessons are learned by the mistakes of others. We have heard leaders use the quotes below over the years (first hand or through colleagues) when communicating change. Some of them are clear "no-no’s." Others could work in the right situation. For each, I have included the statement, who said it, and a short comment. Read, laugh, and learn. And leave a comment with your thoughts.

1) "Why have you laid out this room differently? We always use a boardroom set up."--Said by a CEO on the first morning of an executive briefing on driving change. Need I say more?

2) "Just suck it up!"--Leader of Governmental Agency. Although sometimes this is the truth, as employees can be whiney and childlike about the work they need to do, this statement is quite heartless and insensitive.

3) "I know this change is not what you want, but just stick it out and I will get you a promotion / raise next year." --Executive in Pharmaceutical Industry. Never make commitments you can’t be sure to keep. A better way would be to focus on what the employee will learn or get out of the change, how it will help them for the future, how it will help the organization, etc.

4) "I am now requiring you to fill out these forms to get grant money. If you don’t fill out the forms, you will not get any money for your department. If you don’t get any money, you will lose your job!"--Actual statement by a school administrator. The problem was not only that this is a ridiculous statement, but that it was not true. The grant money was to be used for supplies, not salaries. Know your facts and find better ways to motivate than threats.

5) "If you can get on this train, which is leaving the station -- then hop on and I will support you. If you can't get on the change train, then decide if you want a caboose as the last thing you see on the way out."--CIO of an insurance company. The train analogy is common and can illustrate the stark reality of the situation. You will upset and shock some of your people. Make sure this is what you want to do.

6) "I hate change. We have done what we have always done and we are still here. If we change something it may cause us to go belly up."--Said by a senior manager of an automotive supplier after the big automotive crisis in 2009. The company had just lain off over 200 workers. This is what got them to where they are!

7) "Don't worry. This will not affect you." --Financial Services Executive. This may be true in many cases. However, this was heard in the context of change that would affect everyone. Dumb move because it will get employees confused and increase resistance to change implementation.

8) "You can ‘change’ people, or you can change ‘people.’--Senior Executive at an Energy Company at an internal meeting. Great play on words! However, it is a threat. See numbers four and five above. Remember too that both are more difficult to achieve than they sound.

9) "I have never met a more dysfunctional group than you people."--Said by President to his senior executive team when all members put forward vehement objections to his idea for changing strategy midstream. Clearly a condescending, emotional outburst. Labeling a group negatively does nothing to solve the business problem and shades a bad light on the leader.

10) "It will get better when this is over." --Senior Manager to his team of Leading Retail Chain. Really? When is change actually over? With our research showing that 81 percent of people are involved in more than three changes at a time, change is ever present. Such a statement sets the wrong expectations for employees.

11) "We haven't laid anybody off YET!"--Said by President of an Equipment Manufacturer at a company-wide meeting, in an effort to make everyone feel comfortable about the 2008 bank crash. The following month, he laid off 10 percent of the workforce.

12) "I know this change feels uncomfortable at the moment, but trust me— the next phase will be a lot worse." --Senior manager in healthcare talking to staff in an attempt to get them on his side. What is he trying to do – scare people away? De-motivate them? Try to focus more positively such as, "I know this round is hard. It will get us in better shape and help us prepare for the next round, which will also be hard. These changes will take a lot of hard work, and I am confident we have what it takes to pull it off"

Yes, we all say stupid things sometimes-- sometimes driven by the stress of change, sometimes driven by the false belief that blurting out unedited language is okay because it is "honest and direct". And sometimes driven by a buildup of emotion, which comes out in the wrong words at the wrong time.

First, give yourself a break and accept that you will mess up. But remember that there is no substitute for preparation and practice. Not just so you don’t look bad—but so your employees, who are relying on you for calm in the storm, don’t end up even more stressed out than they were before you opened your mouth.

Please leave a comment with your thoughts.


Lawrence Polsky
Contributor: Lawrence Polsky
Posted: 11/06/2011