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Let’s be honest: four ways of winning over your cynics in times of change

There’s no doubt about it. Storytelling is an immensely powerful weapon in times of change and uncertainty. It can change mindsets, alter people’s belief systems and inspire people to follow where they may not ever have considered following before.

But how can you win the hearts and minds of hardened cynics and sceptics during times of intense change (think middle management)? The answer – or at least part of the answer – is ‘be honest’. I recently read a great article in Harvard Business Review, which inspired me to write about honesty and credibility when creating and engaging people in your strategic narrative.

Too many leaders start their strategic narrative by painting a wonderful vision for the future.  They go on to weave a fantastical story of what lies ahead, and the great things that they are going to achieve together. Inspiring? Yes. Credible? Not always, particularly for companies which have been going through painful change. That's not to say that an inspiring vision isn't important, of course (and often we open our leadership meetings with a short but powerful film that makes a fleeting reference to the vision) – it's just that you need to be careful about its positioning.

So why isn't it credible? The reason is fourfold.

Firstly, painting a glorious vision of the future, when all people have been experiencing is pressure, confusion, waves of redundancy, losing colleagues, bosses, and are being expected to adopt completely new ways of working, is not necessarily the best place to start your story. People cannot connect their own experiences to it. They can’t connect to it in a meaningful way. It’s a distant land of milk and honey in which they can’t even begin to imagine themselves living when the present and immediate future still holds a good deal of uncertainty, sense of loss, fatigue and fear. You risk turning them off from the start, and getting them back ‘in the zone’ and envisioning a future state can be a real challenge.

What’s important is to reconnect people to why they joined the organisation in the first place; remind them of the pride they once held and the higher, motivating and emotionally compelling purpose of why the organisation exists. This will enable people to move out of their current state of instability, even if temporarily, to reconnect with the organisation in a real way. It enables them to recapture the moments which inspired them to want to work there in the first place, and lifts them into a more positive place. Like a good marriage counsellor, you are asking them to remember what attracted them to you before things went awry. ‘Remember the good times?’ It needs to be real. From the outset.

Secondly, your story needs a burning platform – a case for change. This needs to be an acknowledgement of what’s really going on out there: a reality check which clearly articulates the threat to the business and the risk it’s facing should it not change. It may not be comfortable. It may even feel like an ice-bath after the warmth of the bit where we talked about pride and purpose. Again, this makes things real. This part of your story could be a reference to the external forces which are driving change, such as competition, changing consumer behaviours, legislation or the competitive environment. It may be an honest statement about the fact that we’re not performing at our best. Or, as we have experienced with many a client, it’s an opportunity for the senior management team to acknowledge the pain the business has collectively been experiencing. In some cases, even to acknowledge their own role they have played in ‘not getting it right’. Every story needs an antagonist or ‘baddie’ in it, and this element of the current reality should appear early on in your narrative, warts and all. Be honest. If you’re not, people just won’t believe you and will continue to resist. The cynics need to hear this honesty – not just a few hours of corporate rhetoric.

Thirdly, in telling your story, you need to allow people to interrogate it. As much as they ‘get it’ rationally, there may well be tough questions as they start to process and internalise the content. They need to see a visibly united senior leadership team who are speaking as one. They need to be able to ask those questions to dispel any sense of whitewash or brushing under the carpet. People need to feel that their pain has been acknowledged. That they have a voice. That they’re being listened to. If you aren’t honest and if you don’t allow these moments of interrogation and questioning, you will find that people just put their heads down, tut, roll their eyes, put up their metaphorical umbrella and wait for the shower to pass so they can get on with what they were doing before. They also need time to work out what it means to them before they go on to communicate it with their teams.

Lastly, don’t make your story a piece of fantasy or a metaphor. ‘Once upon a time, there was a wizard that lived in a far-off land’ immediately makes cynics want to vomit. Sorry, but keeping it real and grounding your strategic journey in reality by illustrating your messages with real facts, proof points and anecdotes about colleagues and customers which create an emotional connection is the route to believability. People can imagine themselves in the situation. They may have even experienced such situations themselves. In this way you are creating a credible, honest and real articulation of your strategic journey of change that people can empathise with and see the part they can play.

If they can’t relate to it, they will continue to feel that change is being ‘done to them.’ They’ll feel like victims rather than heroes, resistant rather than compliant. And, cynic or not, everyone wants to be a hero.