Agents of change have a risky job. They are, by definition, a threat to the status quo.
One of the more frightening ways that people react to such threats is with anger.
…and as a Change Agent, don’t be surprised if sometimes that anger is directed straight at you!
In my last article, we looked at why it’s not okay to let the sun go down on angry expressions by stakeholders or team members.
In order to remain effective as a leader for your change, you’ll need to act – while avoiding the urge to over-react.
How Change Agents respond in these situations can lay an important foundation for how they might constructively deal with the underlying causes behind the negative display.
I summed up the initial reaction process like this:
1. Recognize what’s happening.
2. Evaluate the risk.
3. Delay any angry response.
Before we get into today’s topic, I’ll remind you that you’d probably better be ready to deal with a few angry people if you’re planning to be a Change Agent for more than a week. Change can generate some high emotions, so it’s not a question of “if”, but “when” someone will blow their stack in your presence.
– I’ve been greeted with venomous words, shouting, icy glares, political back-stabbing and outright verbal threats.
– I’ve been called an instigator to my face.
– I’ve been called on the carpet.
– …and I’ve been called some awful things in hopes that I – and the change I represented – would just go away.
So if you have a weak stomach for criticism or prefer to leave the room when angry people raise their voices, you might want to think hard about your desire to guide change. If you’re okay with taking an occasional bruise for the team, read on.
It’s Clue Time: Let’s get into what Change Agents should do beyond simply weathering the barrage of an angry outburst. Let’s get ready to address the underlying cause of the person’s anger by listening for clues in what the angry person says and how they say it.
Here are some things to listen for as the person vents:
Wants & Needs: The most important thing you can listen for are any clear expressions of what they ultimately want from the situation. Do they want a certain decision to swing their way? Do they prefer to stop something from moving forward? Do they feel a need for more resources or more time to get something done?
Make note of their perceived needs – even if they are expressed as demands.
Facts, Inferences & Judgments: Expect a mix of opinions and facts when people blow up. I use this little rule of thumb to sort out the information as I gather it:
– Facts are readily apparent things we all agree to be true.
– Inferences arise when we cobble together multiple facts to draw conclusions.
– Judgments occur when we mix the facts and inferences with our own opinions and values.
Facts, inferences and judgments each have a place in sorting out an angry situation, but facts will hold up best when the problem-solving begins. Inferences tend to be brought up only when they support our own views and opinions tend to carry the least value.
Non-Negotiables: Listen on behalf of the change and its most critical priorities. Make note of areas where the angry person simply refuses to accept a key element of the change that they will eventually not be able to avoid. Pitching a fit or attempting to intimidate those responsible for making the change happen won’t generally excuse the person from being subject to it.
Blind Spots: Sometime people get frustrated with situations based on false or incomplete information. Listen for gaps in the angry person’s understanding of the change.
Did they interpret a communication incorrectly? Did they ignore available information or not receive it? Do they already have the power to address what’s frustrating them?
For example, I’ve seen people explode after spending hours struggling with new technology while refusing to attend training or read available help instructions.
Summary: It would be great if people loved change so much that they never expressed frustration. It would be wonderful if those we work with never tried intimidation as a tactic to avoid change. But as a Change Agent, it’s more realistic to assume that angry challenges will arise from time to time, so we should prepare ourselves to deal with them.
The first step in dealing with angry responses to change is to recognize what’s going on. The second is to listen for clues about what’s behind the inappropriate outburst.
Next time, we’ll look at the process of triage that can lead to resolution of the anger and a return to making progress with your change.
Questions for Chatter:
- What other useful information can Change Agents gather by calmly listening to an angry person as they vent?
- Have you ever been drawn into an angry exchange only to find the confrontation damaged your ability to influence change later? How did you recover?
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