The 50 years I’ve worked with business leaders have been marked by a dizzying rate of economic, social, and environmental change. In response, senior managers and scholars have produced a flood of research, articles, books, and consulting programs offering countless methods for adapting to new circumstances. Strangely, just about all those efforts overlook four basic behavior traps that thwart organizational change, particularly its elusive human dimension.
Deeply rooted in the managerial psyche, the traps are extremely difficult to recognize because they are almost always mechanisms for avoiding anxiety. They serve to protect egos and prevent discomfort.
In advising companies on organizational and cultural change, my colleagues and I have seen hundreds of clients fall into these traps again and again—but we’ve also found some ways to mitigate their impact. Drawing on that experience, I’ll describe the traps and share examples that show how executives can manage them.
Behavior Trap 1: Failing to Set Proper Expectations
Everyone has seen senior managers announce major directional changes or new goals without spelling out credible plans for achieving them or specifying who’s accountable: for instance, “We are going to reduce the use of cash by 40% next year” or “We are going to cut train accidents significantly” or “We are going to shift focus from midmarket customers to the upper end during the next two years.” Such efforts go nowhere.
More than 35 years ago, in “Demand Better Results—and Get Them” (HBR November–December 1974), I asserted that setting expectations that actually evoke maximum performance was executives’ single weakest skill. Nothing has changed. In all the organizations I have observed, managers commit several transgressions when making demands of their people (see the sidebar “The Seven Deadly Sins of Setting Demands”).
Here’s an example: A large iron mining and processing company was receiving many angry complaints about quality from its largest customer. The CEO met those complaints with apologies and vague promises, and strongly reprimanded the general manager of the guilty operation. The GM in turn held management meetings and communicated with employees about quality—month after month—but there was no discernible improvement. He would have been affronted by the suggestion that his expectation setting was faulty, even though he’d never established specific goals or explicit plans for achieving them.
Another common offense is to describe what must be done and then signal, albeit unintentionally, “if you possibly can do it”—as in, “I know you’ve lost some people, Stan, but you have to give it a go; we really need to increase sales in your territory.”
Such problems are especially insidious because senior managers often lack insight into their own behavior. I vividly remember watching the world-renowned head of a major media company wave his financial reports in the air at officer meetings and refer to them as “confusing junk,” much to the consternation of his CFO. When I quietly suggested that he was reinforcing the CFO’s behavior by not explaining clearly what improvements he wanted to see, he brushed me off. His dramatics continued with no impact whatsoever on the quality of the reports.