Pushing elephants through keyholes

Grumpy, disillusioned, angry, or fearful (choose one!) teams and / or stakeholders can seem like a mammoth change task.

To get them unstuck we can issue orders, develop new policy and/or a strategy with clear deliverables. We can also talk about the vision and run team-building exercises, etc. These are all good things to do.

But what if the elephant is stubborn, remains unengaged and reluctant to show that they are listening? They may be in flight, fight, or freeze mode.

How do we support them so that they may actually move forward? How do we get them unstuck and focused on the needs of the organization, not just themselves?

Change the narrative! Engage the elephant in a new dialogue.

How? Here are some approaches and steps:

Reacquaint them with their knowledge of the capabilities they already have. Help them see what’s working and what doesn’t need to change. Don’t worry if they seem, at first, unrealistic. You’re helping them see what the team brings to the process.

Remember, the goals for the required change will adjust constantly as the team begins to align with the needs of the organization. They are in a constant state of production, making sense of things their way.

You can indicate that there’s no urgency to arrive at a solution. They likely have to make some intense transitions and will only get it over time, one step at a time. This is counterintuitive, but it will speed up the process.

Our role is to help them with dissolving the problem – their way. Help them shed some useful light on the problem by asking how they manage to cope. But, don’t encourage too many more details on the problem.

Help them switch to the dormant side of their thinking, i.e., being helpful. Ask what it would be like if the problem no longer existed, i.e., what they want, and how that would be useful to the organization, other teams, etc. This helps them a) build a new back-story / identity, and b) evaluate the effect they might have on others by working on solutions.

Your job is to link the story – their narrative – together, to let them see the counter to the problem and let them transition themselves out of their fears.

Keep asking them if they’ve got any ideas about using the new learning. Frame it as a beginning. Help them notice the initiatives they might take to begin the change.

What happens if your leader wants fast action? Why not simply fire some or all of the team and replace them with new workers? Just ask yourself which approach might have the best ROI. In helping the elephant through the keyhole, the team probably has a bunch of valid, useful ideas for the organization that they were unable to express through the keyhole.

With grateful acknowledgement to Jim Duvall. More on the narrative approach to change  Innovations in Narrative Therapy