Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Visitor, Complainer, Customer for change - how aware and involved are your people?

Summary: This second post in the People and the Change Journey series tells you how to assess people's level of awareness, involvement and readiness to engage with change. Learn the differences in how Visitors, Complainers and Customers view change and how to "pace" your interactions with each to produce success.

What is "resistance" to change?

One time a senior executive I was coaching recounted how a change initiative had manifestly failed to take root among this team.

Punctuating the end of his story, he threw his hands up and said, "I don't get it! I TOLD them exactly what I wanted from them. What went wrong??"

I'm not trying to be tough on the guy. Faced with a need for action and urgent deadlines, he was just trying to get his point across ASAP. His choice of technique was, however, not very likely to produce success - a bit like the English-speaking tourist in Paris who SPEAKS EVEN LOUDER when the waiter doesn't understand the food order, or an exhausted mother who screams harder so her child will finally do as it's told.

When you're frustrated it's easy to conclude that the other person is being willfully stupid, rebellious and is intent on resisting you. But what if, like the French-speaking waiter in Paris, the other person literally doesn't understand what you're saying because you each have a widely different view of the situation?


Someone who does not see any need for change

A Visitor believes things are fine just as they are and does not recognize that any problem exists. On the surface, Visitors can seem rather naive and may be in denial about the need for change: nope, everything's just fine here, thanks! Their agreeable nature is easy to mistake for engagement, when it may be just compliance, paying lip-service with no real understanding of the situation or what's required and expected of them.

Another class of Visitors are sometimes labelled as lacking in motivation, willingness and desire to cooperate. These employees are largely content to "just show up" and do the minimum required; disengaged and disenchanted staff also fall into this camp: well it's not down to me, is it?

Whichever the class of Visitor you encounter, they are united in one thing. In behavioural terms, Visitors are quite wary of the possibility that they might have to change something about themselves, most often because they simply don't see any reason for such change.

Someone with a problem but who does not (yet) feel the desire to take action

Complainers are impossible to miss: they are definitely aware that a problem exists...and seem determined that everyone else should know too. Given half a chance they will describe in excruciating detail just how bad it is, how they are suffering, moan, moan, moan, etc.

When offered suggestions on how to remedy their dire situations, a Complainer will reply: Wellll...I can't do THAT because of X and that other idea won't work either and I tried that already but those stupid people in (insert: accounts, marketing, engineering, senior management) never cooperate...Yes, but I can't...Yeah, but...Yeah, but....Yeaaahhh, BUT!

In behavioural terms, Complainers do not see any need to change their own behaviour. It's always someone or something else's fault and the need for change is located externally to themselves. They are great finger-pointers, masters of the "blame-storm."

What Complainers fundamentally lack is awareness that they themselves need to DO something about the situation they're complaining about. Though they clearly feel frustrated by their difficulties, they aren't (yet) ready to change. They will instead adopt the role of helpless victim. As a result Complainers are often labelled "resistant to change." In fact, they are not so much resistant as powerless: they actually feel they can do nothing, lacking the resources, skills, talents and attributes required to act.

Someone who knows there is a problem AND is ready to do something about it

Customers for change are a delight to work with. A Customer for change sees there is a need for change, recognizes that he/she has a part to play in it and wants to do something about it. Customers, in short, are ready to roll up their sleeves and get down to creating solutions. You may safely give them direct tasks to complete and have confidence that they will accept the task and will find it useful.

In behavioural terms, Customers are clearly motivated to change their own behavior. They understand what's required of them, know what they want and accept that they need to work to get it.

Turning Visitors and Complainers into Customers

As a change agent it's useful to assume that people are doing the best they can with the resources and level of awareness that they have available to them at the time. The Change Journey often involves going to where people are in order to bring them along to where they need to be in order to succeed. To achieve this, try "pacing" people - meeting each different view of change according to its speed of moving forward.

VISITORS - Walking pace
Imagine a Visitor meandering along at an ambling pace with little awareness of any need for change and no urgency. If you meet them with a running pace and urge them to move faster, they're likely to ask, "Why?! What's the rush...?" If you grab an arm and try to pull them along to move faster, they're likely to respond by moving even more slowly. So when interacting with Visitors, it pays to remember the old adage: When it comes to people: fast is slow, and slow is fast.

Or put another way, Resistance leads to Persistence: the more you resist accepting the Visitor's reality (moving at a walking pace) the more that person will persist in the behaviour. Rather than being disappointed, impatient or frustrated with Visitors, you'll need to modify  your pace and find ways to engage with them at their own speed.

A useful technique is to highlight the strengths and positive characteristics that you notice the Visitor exhibiting. Remembering that your goal is to create an awareness of the need for change, you'll find positive feedback is far more likely to elicit an interested response than will criticism.

COMPLAINERS - Jogging pace
Complainers move faster than Visitors, however they often don't expend that extra energy in productive ways. The goal at this stage is to transition a Complainer into a Customer who knows there's a problem AND that they need to do something about it.

With Visitors your choice of language is important. See if you can reframe the Visitor's complaints about the negatives, barriers and obstacles they face into positive statements about things that they actually want to have happen - as goals for change and requests that  can be acted upon. To be clear: do not give a Complainer any tasks to complete. A Complainer's self-concept is often that of helpless, passive victim. The suggestion that he or she should act will often elicit a long explanation of why it's impossible to act, with lots of "Yeah, but" statements.

Rather than telling Complainers they need to act, enable them come to the conclusion for themselves. Use very passive, indirect language, "what needs to happen to improve the situation?" and assign them observation tasks: "what is happening that you want to continue to happen? What else?"

CUSTOMERS - Running (even Sprinting!) pace
It's worth mentioning as well that among Visitors and Complainers you may find "hidden Customers." Hidden Customers have goals that they want but may not be well-versed at expressing them or are simply stuck in the rut of avoidance and ineffectual whingeing about their situation. Again, pace yourself to the person's reality and help them to frame a goal that meets their preferences, helping them to become a Customer for change.

People will shift back and forth between the three states of Visitor, Complainer and Customer over time and in different contexts. Working with Customers is the ideal - then your task as change agent is to agree on the race, then point them in the right direction and just get out of their way!

Follow these tips to achieve success with your team and remember that sometimes when it comes to change: slow down in order to speed up!

Adapted from material by Stephen Covey, John Kotter and Fletcher Peacock in his book, Water the Flowers Not the Weeds.

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