Change Agent Tip #20: Accentuate the Positive!

Jan 15, 2012 No Comments by

Most of us have heard the old adage “Change is Good“.

As regular readers of this blog know, I don’t completely agree with that cliche.  After guiding changes for dozens of clients and tens of thousands of stakeholders, my version of the cliche reads more like this:

“Good change is good and bad change is bad.”

In other words, people will typically evaluate an upcoming change from their frame of reference and decide for themselves if it’s in their interest to adapt or resist.

“Good” changes get more initial traction and stakeholders gladly begin to prepare themselves. “Bad” changes typically need to overcome a bit of resistance before stakeholders commit to building their readiness.

A Recipe for Readiness: Over the past few articles, I’ve laid out a recipe for building stakeholder readiness to adopt change. The first three ingredients in that recipe were:

  • Knowledge based on awareness and understanding – and hopefully some dialogue.
  • Skill or the “know how” to apply knowledge within a specific context.
  • and the Capability of your stakeholders to use their new skills to produce results.

In this final post of the series, I’ll introduce a fourth ingredient that makes the first three click: motivation. I’ve found the following rule of thumb useful for motivating stakeholders to prepare for either “good” or “bad” change:

Actively promote the positive aspects of your change while being truthful about the negatives and the challenges.

So Bing Me! Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters summed up my point almost perfectly in the lyrics of an immortal ode to positivity that went something like this:

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
And latch on to the affirmative.
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

With this in mind, (and that catchy tune in your head), here are eight tips for motivating stakeholders in preparation for your change:

1. Look at the Bright Side: It seems obvious that Change Agents should latch on to the affirmative and emphasize the benefits of their change. Yet, it’s surprising how often this simple technique is overlooked or under-utilized.

Here’s how to pump up the good aspects of your change:

  • Take some time to document ways in which the change is in the interest of the overall organization and particular groups.
  • Capture as many clear “upsides” as you can.
  • Keep each one as tangible and real as possible.
  • Remember that some positives may only affect certain groups of stakeholders – so be clear about who will experience what benefits as you make your case for change.

2. Fire ‘Em Up! Cheerleaders for change can have a great positive impact on building momentum for the transition and getting people interested, engaged, and yes – even a bit excited.

3. …but Avoid the Oversell: Most of us have been involved in a change that promised more than it delivered. Change Agents should be careful not to over-sell the upside.  Pumping up the future is not a bad thing – as long as you’re telling the truth.

4. E-Liminate the Negative! A less enjoyable task for Change Agents is dealing with the potential downside or perceived negative impacts your change may bring. Here are a few tips that can help Change Agents execute this part of their role:

  • Follow the same diligent approach to rooting out the risks.
  • Treat stakeholder feedback as just that – feedback.
  • Don’t over-react. Look for ways to learn from the feedback.
  • Make adjustments as needed, but don’t promise to make all negatives disappear.
  • Instead promise to listen and find ways to mitigate the negatives as much as possible without undermining the overall change.

Just as the benefits of your change can vary by stakeholder group, few changes introduce negatives equally across the community of stakeholders. Be ready to do your research and truly understand the downside of the change from various frames of reference within the impacted community. Be up-front in communicating the challenges without whipping up resistance by focusing solely on the downside.

5. Don’t Mess With Mister In-Between: Another bit of advice the song’s lyrics suggest involves gaining clarity with our change-related messages. Use facts when you communicate and try to avoid slathering on overly-opinionated positive (or negative) predictions that cannot be measured.

Here’s an example from a project that reflects this fact-based approach:

We’ve tested the new process during the pilot phase and so far we’re completing orders in less than half the time“.

6. Mind the Rumor Mill: A couple more areas of concern are negative rumblings and misinformation about the change.

Be ready for the rumor mill to generate all sorts of scary stories as the transition approaches. In some cases this is resistance, but in most cases, it’s less insidious.

In my experience, the top two generators of negative rumors are not resistance or misinformation – but rather:

  • a lack of accurate positive information
  • and a lack of dialogue.

People often “fill in the blanks” when they don’t have sufficient details or feedback opportunities. Impacted stakeholders may fear the worst and paint a story that aligns with that fear.  If you fill in the blanks with the right information to allay their fears, the rumor mill can actually be used to your advantage.

7. Don’t Commiserate! Later in the lyrics to “Accentuate the Positive“, Bing and the Sisters remind us of a very real risk we invite if we commiserate with doomsayers.

“You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene.”

Avoid casually agreeing with negative comments or piling on your own concerns about the change. This is not to say that Change Agents can’t have opinions! I’m only suggesting that your special role comes with a responsibility to take that feedback as input to help the entire change team be successful.

Be careful not to “stoke the fire” and unknowingly reinforce the fear-based predictions of gloom that often accompany the rollout of a change.

8. Stay Aligned: I have one final tip when it comes to motivating stakeholders… Change Agents and Sponsors need to get on the same page early about the benefits and potential negatives that their change will bring. Backing each other up when the winds of resistance and concern start to blow will be critical to getting through the storm.

As Ben Franklin famously said to his fellow Founding Fathers in the midst of the American Revolution: “Gentlemen, we must all hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately…”.

Summary: Building motivation for a change that’s largely perceived to be a good thing is usually quite easy. Creating inertia for a change that’s perceived as having negative implications for some or all of your stakeholders is a much harder thing to do.

And since few changes can be categorized as completely “good” or “bad“, building motivation for your change will also require you to break the change down into components and consider many different frames of reference. The keys to generating motivation in either case seem to be honesty, diligence and dialogue.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Have you ever found yourself unknowingly reinforcing the fear associated with your own change by commiserating with naysayers?
  2. Can you describe a time when leaders in your organization focused only on the “rah-rah” stuff and the positive aspects of a change while ignoring the real challenges associated with a change?

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