Here’s the plan
There’s a Dilbert cartoon where a manager is standing, facing his sceptical-looking staff. Beside him is a flip chart with the ‘The Plan’ written at the top and a few bullet points beneath. The manager is saying ‘So that’s the plan. Now I’m going to pretend to listen to your petty concerns’.
What, you’ve never done that? Be honest. I challenge you to tell me you’ve never done that. Anyone that’s worked in a company will have sat through such meetings. How do I know? Because changes are made all the time in organisations and, if the change is big enough, there’s always some form of announcement or town hall meeting. The Dilbert cartoon captures the peculiar character of these meetings perfectly.
Look, I’m not having a go at managers here. It’s not that they are unconcerned with feedback. It’s just that they are more concerned that people understand there is a change, and that they are serious about it. If they admit to uncertainty, confess to ambiguity, or acknowledge scope for alteration, there’s a risk people will walk out with a message different to the one they want to get across. So they employ a classic technique for giving difficult messages called the ‘broken record’ and body swerve tough questions.
And come on! We’re all a bit guilty of listening to a plan and thinking we could have come up with a much better solution. If only they’d listened to me. Sometimes our questions are straightforward requests for clarification, but sometimes – maybe even subliminally – we want to unsettle managers, demonstrate our superior understanding of the issues, show off to our colleagues, or simply register our opposition.
I recall making a serious misjudgement about the dynamics of these meetings during a training course where some head office types came along to talk about a proposed change in financial reporting. I loved the idea and started asking innocent questions to understand more about why it had been introduced and their reasons for choosing the particular approach they had adopted. We broke for lunch immediately afterwards and, standing in the queue for lunch, it quickly became obvious that I had behaved in a way that everyone in the room had thought inappropriate. A colleague standing immediately behind me made joked that I was always stirring things up. Someone from South Africa was more direct. He said that in Europe we waste time asking a lot of questions where in South Africa they just got on with things. That was quite an early lesson in how not to influence within a large corporation. I had misread the social pressure on people attending such meetings to just hear what is being said and get out.
So managers go into ‘pretend’ mode. Their big announcement is a one-way communication; they’re not really interested in having a dialogue. Neither are employees who just want to get the thing over with so they can discuss it among themselves privately. Cut the managers some slack. If they’re any good, there will be plenty of time for proper consultations in less formal settings. For now, like everyone else, they just want to get out the room.