5 keys to shock and awe

shockadThe initial strategy in the Iraq 2003 invasion was described as ‘shock and awe’ (apparently technically it is called ‘rapid dominance’). The aim is to “overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events such that the enemy would be incapable of resistance”.

It is a strategy to prompt a sharp change in behaviour.

It is a well established idea. The strategy was the justification for the use of the A-bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; was articulated by Sun Tzu; and is seen as one factor in the success of the German battlefield strategy of ‘Blitzkrieg’.

The rationale is that shock overwhelms the natural optimism and resistance to bad news and enables a sharp shift in thinking. It is for this reason that sometimes leaders seek to follow a similar strategy: Find a shocking fact or idea, use it powerfully to generate high visibility and impact and so promote an urgent and vital change in behaviour.

You may, as a leader, feel that it is unlikely to be an approach that you would adopt. But it is more common than we might think and it is a favoured tactic for lobbyists, campaigners and politicians trying to move public opinion.

Most recently it has been used about global wealth inequalities  (see Guardian). Similarly it has been sometimes used by environmental activists (on everything from fish stocks to carbon emissions), politicians (in warnings about extremist parties or Islamic terrorists) and business leaders (in turnaround situations).

The aim is to create fear or revulsion at what might happen and through this a change of heart.

But, in case you are tempted to follow suit when leading change – beware! The research suggests that it often reinforces resistance not undermines it. Indeed whilst it brought Japan to the negotiation table in 1945, it did not do this in Iraq.

Why is this?

The insight comes from advertising, especially from the many charity and public information advertising campaigns that have used shock tactics.  These include the UK Government’s ‘Kill your speed” to reduce speeding; “Think!” to encourage people to wear seatbelts; and Barnado’s campaign to raise money against child poverty. Shock has been one of the core strategies in this area. (For an entertaining selection of the most gruesome, have a look at the Guardian.)

Shock clearly attracts attention and without attention you cannot secure change. The Barnado’s press campaign used images of babies being fed through hypodermic needles or with bottles of meths. It generated more coverage and discussion on child poverty in 2 days than they had raised in the previous 2 years. Shock cuts through.

But attention is not action and the evidence is that a fear-provoking message on its own is unlikely to work. This is why health campaigners seeking to prevent alcohol, drug and tobacco adoption by young people no longer major on using these kind of messages.

Shock too easily raises the natural defences that stop behavioural change. You might aim to generate fear but instead provoke anger, puzzlement or guilt. None of which help change. Even if you provoke fear, this can cause people to freeze or dig deeper not change. But, apparently especially with younger people, it may simply be ignored as neither credible nor applicable to me (such as people not believing that an organisation in trouble will make ‘my’ role redundant, “I will not lose my job”).

So there are many reasons for shock tactics not to work as intended. No message lands on a blank canvas. People’s pre-existing views shape the impact. The result? Without supporting tactics and careful message crafting, it is unlikely to be productive.

So what are the keys to making sure a message works?

There are five things:

  1. Focus on creating emotional interest, identification, and urgency. These are the keys to making the message appear credible, applicable to me and urgent. This isn’t easy. It needs careful thought. It is very easy for us to avoid owning a problem and taking necessary action. Landing a message where there is a big problem that is a long way off, is tough. Sometimes a focus on the nearer issues is more effective – perhaps fish stocks and energy security versus climate change!
  2. Ensure your perceived remedy is effective. People will try to change the message if they do not perceive that they can readily address the underlying issue. The way forward and the credibility of the solution is critical and needs as much work as the shock message.
  3. Build up strong, visible support mechanisms. People need to believe that if they change, that they can succeed. For this, they need clear supporting mechanisms. Mechanisms that tip the balance to new behaviours. These might be increased penalties for not changing or greater help to move forward (e.g. giving away free needles or nicotine patches, increasing random breath tests or tighter smoking regulations).
  4. Encourage dialogue. A big bold message should not mean a big bold delivery with no right of reply. Leaders need to encourage dialogue, to enable people to engage with the challenge. This increases the credibility of the message. It helps people to interpret it more effectively and it only happens when people can contribute and own the challenge.
  5. Build resilience in your teams (i.e. better decision making, assertiveness and coping skills). People are better able to take on a big challenge with these skills. It makes it less likely that they reject a tough message. Working on these basic personal skills before and during a change can help the message be heard.

These five tactics help to make a real problem something to be tackled not something to be avoided in any way possible.


Leaders – different from followers?

mae westMae West had a great repertoire of one-liners. One of my favourites is one that I am frequently reminded of when I hear some political and business leaders speak:

“That’s enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”

There is real danger inherent in the leadership position that sadly we all often fall into. Perhaps the most powerful drive of people (the social animal that we are) is to be recognised as special and appreciated. The more recognition – the better. This adulation drug comes umbilically attached to the leaders chair and is administered sometimes unknowingly but with dangerous risks of addiction.

One of the dangers for the leader is that we swallow the PR and somehow begin to see ourselves are fundamentally different from the people that we lead – maybe just that little bit better or unique?

After all we are in one of the top chairs and everyone recognises how marvellous you have to be to get there don’t they?

In truth you are unique and special. That is not the problem.

The problem comes if we fail to see the special-ness of those around us: their gifts, strengths, talent and uniqueness. When we see others as not quite as capable, as committed or special as ourselves.

When seeking to lead this can be poison. When seeking to lead wholehearted change it can be a lethal dose.

Despite what many leaders think, people have an almost infallible sixth sense that tells them if the leader sees them as one of the great unwashed.… even if the leader has a well practiced style that conceals this. People are not fooled.

“So what?” you say or maybe even, “There is an element of truth in being different – or I would not be in the position that I am in!”

The ‘so what?’ is this – as you communicate this difference, you give permission for those you lead to pass the buck in your direction. This is fine if it is your responsibility but there is a widespread tendency for people to pass you much more, including a lot that is their responsibility! The result is that they stop engaging their hearts, minds and initiative in quite the same way.

You know how it works….

You need to get an event organised and setup by 7pm (or a presentation client ready, a set of figures collated and correct, a tough repair complete, or …whatever it is that is needed).

You have the team and nearly enough time, information or awareness of the issues to achieve the right result. All you need is everyone’s wholehearted commitment to work on it together. Without this it is easy for there to be loose ends, obstacles that prove too tough, unforeseen issues that blow off course. With commitment, these inevitable events get managed. Without it they get in the way.
It’s not that people don’t want it to work. It’s that they respond to your attitude by expecting you to achieve the result rather than them. The result can be a vicious circle because of course your expectations of them not being quite as smart are now being proven by their behaviour and so it justifies your position (and indeed theirs!).

Leaders seeking commitment in change need to break the circle and this has to start with a real recognition of the good points that everyone has and the uniqueness of their gifts.

There are many different ways to administer an antidote – genuinely useful and observant friends, 360 reviews, effective appraisals, a keen mind that always seeks better answers to less than perfect results and multiple views not just agreement.

But all methods rely on us having a high degree of self-awareness and being open to healthy self-critique. This is tough to achieve unless we can recognise the special qualities in the others that we are leading. We need to continually challenge ourselves on this: to see the uniqueness in those we lead and recognise their contribution to any team success.

Sounds soft? It is not about being soft.

It is about begin clear:

Clear about my responsibility, what I uniquely bring and my commitment to delivery, and then

Clear about others responsibilities, unique contributions and commitment. We need to expect them to live up to their responsibility and identify, acknowledge and appreciate the specialness that they bring to the task.

The outcome needs to be seen as a joint enterprise where we succeed or fail together by bringing our best.

Such realism moves beyond great one-liners to genuine commitment.


Leading well: 4 critical behaviours?

shutterstock_142550515Few people would argue against the importance of leaders in effective organisations. Similarly most see them as vital in helping organisations through change. We recognise that where leadership is missing or misaligned, things do not go well. As a result, leadership has been high on the curriculum for management analysis and development for many decades. Thousands of articles and researchers have pored over its shape, its impact, its origins, how to sustain it etc etc.

It is a huge area and seemingly still growing – but not without controversy! Analysts still struggle to agree over its definition, components, drivers, roots and impact, even before the disagreements begin on how best to encourage its development.

So it is perhaps not surprising that my attention was drawn this month to a fascinating but short article in McKinsey Quarterly (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/leading_in_the_21st_century/decoding_leadership_what_really_matters)  this month that suggests that, in their analysis of twenty different leadership skills, just four represent 90% of the difference between good and poor leadership, as represented in the health of their organisations.

There is not enough information for me to comment on the quality of the research base but McKinsey typically do a good job in an area (management science) that is as much art as science so there almost always something to learn from what they suggest.

Their conclusions are as interesting as much for the sixteen skills that are not highlighted as for the four that are chosen. Looking at the full list of twenty skills (which are defined at a high level) the question that struck me was a simple one:

Looking at the whole list, and knowing that just four seem to deliver 90% of the difference between good and poor, would I pick out the selected skills?

It is difficult to tell after sight of the article but I suspect that I along with many people would not.

We might have chosen one or two of them but few of us would have selected the four as a package and then I doubt that we would have given them the apparent significance that the study suggests of them almost entirely explaining the differential results.

Interestingly, if we had read the list and latched onto some obvious leadership skills like: clarifying objectives, giving praise, making good decisions or developing a shared mission, we would have chosen unwisely. None of these make the cut.

The four key skills are:

Being supportive
Having a strong results orientation
Looking for different perspectives
Solving problems effectively

What an intriguing bunch of skills.

Why these four?
Do they really represent the key (90%) determinants of differential leadership?
Does everyone cover the basics so well that it is these ones only that make the difference or is it that these alone are the keys to better results?
Are these skills to focus on in development programmes?
What should this mean for how we should change what we currently do?

It is difficult to know the answers to these questions.Yet I am struck by the four as a package.

Taken together, they seem to build on a foundation about attitudes to people that resonate with me for the world of change and innovation.

If the question had been, which of these skills are the most important when you are leading people into and through change, then I suspect we might have put some of these to the top of our lists.

They represent leadership of a kind that recognises the reality of living under uncertainty, of needing to do new things and of trying to make progress when it is not always clear what is the best way forward and how much progress can be made. They are great skills to have.

Maybe indeed that is what it is.

Social, technological, market and logistical change all around the globe is moving at an unprecedented rate. We face new challenges – to keep up and these are collective challenges that leaders need to engage all staff on because this is only way to succeed.

Maybe this is the story of where we are in organisations all around the world. The rate of change has so increased that we need to speed up change in our own organisations if they are to keep pace. People on the frontline know this and recognise leadership that makes this easier – and conversely leadership or management that makes it more difficult.


Gaza – lots of heat, no light


As we enter the third week of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza and the bloodshed rises to over 1400 civilians on the Palestinian side, you wonder whether it can only be the horrified stadium of global observers who are asking how the assault can possibly help secure any real change.

The Israelis say that they want security – from terrorist attacks through tunnels, rockets from the sky and the narrow-minded threats of Hamas. Their immediate aim is to destroy all the tunnels that protect these tools of terror.

Yet even a small amount of consideration of what possible end stage outcomes can be would show that the destruction, bloodshed and opprobrium that this assault is generating is simply not worth it. 2 Israeli civilians killed in recent years by rockets have been exchanged for what? Thirty times that many Israeli soldiers killed and a new generation in Palestine that hates the Israelis.

There is no scenario that can be envisaged that provides a lasting security solution, other than one where both sides sit down and negotiate a settlement that allows both sides to live in some sense of freedom. The current stalemate is unstable and unsustainable.

It is easy to see how the assault starts: an opponent who wants to wipe your nation off the map, who continually attacks you and whose violent rhetoric equally refuses to work out a stable solution. The sense of rights infringed and injustice provokes an aggrieved nation.

The emotion.

Words about rights and justice.

All sound reasonable and can be said by both sides.

But there is no end game here. Gaza cannot just disappear. It cannot remain the open air prison that it is today. Similarly Israel cannot just disappear and is one of the few stable democracies in the Middle East.

The limitations of the violent talk of Hamas are evident in the ineffectiveness of its attacks.

The sadness of the current position and the events of the last few weeks is that it demonstrates graphically how real change is only possible when those involved really want it and are prepared to face the difficulties that will be encountered in achieving it and sometimes that is still too much.

In this case it still seems to be the case … for both sides.


“So what DO you want?”

8038863343_731f18f167_mHow many times do you find a difficult conversation with someone provoking this feeling inside. A person can be so awkward and so militant that sometimes it is the only question that we are left with as reason seems to vacated the discussion completely!

We all know conversations that rise to this incredible level of stress and anxiety. The reasons can be varied. The purpose of the argument can have got lost in the discussion. The demands can be contradictory. The needs impossible to reconcile. The rationale now totally lost in illogicality.

At these times, ‘So what do you want?’ is often the question that really begs to be asked. However, we all recognise that even when this is the case it can be almost impossible to ask it ….at least in a way that is really a question asking for an honest and reflective answer rather than a statement of exasperation at the impasse evident in the conversation.

There is ample evidence that ‘emotions’ trump ‘rationality’ in our brains. They get to the action centres ahead of any messages from our prefrontal cortex (the rational bit that helps to moderate what we think about something and how we act) and pump up the body reducing the desire to pay any attention to it when it finally catches on what is going on!

Yet especially when trying to handle a change it is often this sort of question that is essential if the conversation is to unlock the route to a solution rather than simply more aggro.

Only last year, one of the great thinkers on culture and change, Edgar Schein wrote about the power of questions put honestly and gently in ‘Humble Inquiry’ (Berrett-Koehler 2013). Others have similarly reflected on the powerful effect of even simply listening, and being recognised for doing so, in unlocking thinking in the other person.

In a difficult situation where someone is not helping things to go forward, often my wife will use precisely this approach with shop assistants, customer service staff and others. She will explain the situation that she is in and the answers that she has been given in trying to get a solution and ask them what they recommend.

Honestly asking a question demands a thinking reply not an emotional one and if asked in the best way can tip even a difficult conversation over to a route to a solution.

It is too easy to ‘get stuck in’ in a confrontation that will only escalate into total impasse when what is needed is an artful question.

Questions are powerful allies in change if used well.


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