Its not easy wanting to be a change agent but having to figure it out on my own. It is so hard to know what to do: when to take a risk, when to hold back, what direction to take. Sometimes I fail. Here’s what I learned from a recent experiment.
I was inspired by the book, Leading with Questions. One of the book’s premises is that asking questions gets an organization to change and to learn together. It got me thinking. How can I use this tactic?
My last company had this white board in the break room that posed questions to the employees. Just before I left, I had volunteered to pose a question. The answers received generated discussion among management. The last I heard, positive action was being taken and it was all because of asking the right question. Could I replicate this experience at my new company?
We have these dry erase white walls all over the floor at my present company. The idea of posing a question that generated discussion seemed like a good idea to me. But which question to ask?
I was listening to a podcast with Mark Graban and the topic of culture came up. This interested me because our company has been conducting surveys about our culture and how we can improve it. Mark said one question he would pose regarding culture was “What is wrong with your culture that you wish to change it?”
I figured this would by my question, so I went into our break room and on the wall wrote:
I was curious to see what would happen. Would it generate discussion? Would people write answers? Would it just sit there for a few weeks with no engagement? Would people demand to know why I posed such a question and become angry?
When I came back the next day to see if it had gotten any activity, I found the question had been erased.
I asked one of my co-workers, who knew I wrote it, why she thought it had been erased. It turned out she had erased it. Here was her reasoning:
She said the question was being viewed as negative. People wanted to know why someone on contract and not a full time employee had the right to ask a question such as this. It seemed to be an attack on the company. She also said people wanted to know why someone would pose such a question in the first place. What was its purpose? She said her concern was that the wrong people would see it and I would be fired for it. She said she let my supervisor know about it just in case there was backlash. To protect me, she erased it. She said the survey that was about to go out regarding culture would generate a discussion among leaders who would figure out how to make a positive change. She also said I should go through proper channels if I had concerns such as using the suggestion box (I pointed out to her that its never used), having the Best Places to Work Committee address the issue (she believed the question may have stepped on the committee’s toes) or go up the chain of command–not write a question on a wall.
I’ll make no bones about it. Her words hurt and I was also embarrassed. I thought she was probably being overly cautious, but she had some points I could think about. A lot of what she was saying boiled down to perception. The question is– was her perception indicative of what everyone thinks? Or was it just her? This person was obviously afraid of the ramifications for posing the question. Is she the exception or the rule?
I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised by the backlash. Mark said his question often upset people, so why should this have been any different?
After some thought and bouncing it off others, I believe the question’s phrasing may have been what got it into trouble. I used the word ‘wrong’ which is negative. If I had instead phrased the second part of the sentence, “what is it about our culture that you feel needs to be changed?” perhaps it wouldn’t have hit nerves.
The story doesn’t end here. Our new leaders held a Town Hall meeting and were inviting questions. I thought about posing this same question. However, our department director told me explicitly (in front of the whole floor) not to ask any provocative questions. I was angry, but perhaps this is indicative of the perception people have of me—am I being perceived as a rabble rouser? I would guess that the IT director does not want me to embarrass him or the department in front of our leadership. In other words—he doesn’t trust me. Not a good situation to be in (or, admittedly, he may just not trust leadership).
So, lesson learned– I just found a boundary of comfort for this organization. I definitely shouldn’t have been unilateral about it. Change is not something I can do flying solo. I have to be careful of people’s perception of me and what I do. I’m also going to have to get more people’s trust. I need to better understand how I can do this.
My next step— find a better forum to ask questions: one-on-one, in social situations, during meetings. Get feedback on how people perceive me. Continue to look for things that are working and things that are not. My goal is to get people to have a dialogue about what can be improved so we can come together and make a positive change. Perhaps I should have started with this goal in mind before I posed the question.