Leading People Forward: Go Backwards First

Good leaders look to the future. They have a firm grasp of the where they want to go, and they’ve developed a roadmap to get there.  With the new plan in hand, they pull everyone together to walk them through the vision for the future.  They’re full of hope, and energy and enthusiasm for the new plan, that is until they look at the faces in the crowd.  What they see is not a reflection of their passion, but rather an audience of neutral, passive, or even angry expressions.  Sure, there are a few people that are nodding their head, but they’re in the minority.  What’s wrong?  Why don’t the masses get it?

Dick Hallstein, a well-respected coach on change, referred to this as the N-1 factor. “N” represents the current state. Management focuses on getting to N+1, some better future state. Management extols the benefits of N+1 and all the great things that will happen with it. Unfortunately, there is a natural human phenomenon of people not jumping to N+1. They don’t even stay at N. They go to N-1 – they go backward.

They don’t go to N-1 because they oppose the future, but because they have some deep, but likely unspoken, concerns about how N+1 will affect them. Questions might include:

  • Will I be competent?
  • Who will be on my team, and will I like them?
  • Is my job secure?
  • Who will eat lunch with me?
  • Will my new boss honor my special work schedule agreement?

For the manager, there may be apparent answers. But if they are left unsaid, the employee is left to fill in the blanks. Most people fill those blanks with a negative bias, even to the point of catastrophizing.

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One key to getting buy-in is to think through the N-1 issues before announcing N+1. If you can guess what these concerns will be, you can answer them proactively as part of the rollout of the change. At a minimum, you’ll demonstrate empathy, and improve your connection with your employees.  More likely, you’ll significantly accelerate the commitment of your employees to the new plan.  To move forward quickly, pause and reflect on the N-1 issues for your people.

Quote of the day

“Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”

— James Belasco and Ralph Stayer
Flight of the Buffalo (1994)

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