Chapter 6 Fourth Phase: People in the Wider Organization Pull Back Then Embrace the New Reality – Creating Leadership


Fourth Phase: People in the Wider Organization Pull Back Then Embrace the New Reality

The Fable (continued)

What the chiefs least expected when they returned to their villages was to suffer the young chief’s problem. Their people had lost confidence in them and rejected the call to change, saying, “You have betrayed us and we no longer trust you.”

Word had reached the young chief and from afar he stepped in. He asked each village to send a representative to a special meeting where the chiefs would listen to the concerns of their people.

The people’s representatives returned from this meeting saying, “We have voiced our fears . . . but the danger is real and it is not the fault of our leaders. They do not have all the answers and we must play our part in tackling this together.”

With renewed faith the people were ready to plant the new seeds and fight back as one.

The Challenge

Suddenly it’s as though the floodgates have opened. The leadership team buys into the change and is enthusiastic to take it back to each of its members’ teams. To their disappointment, their teams reject that call. The leaders’ new enthusiasm leaves them cold, feeling betrayed and angry. How do we restore their confidence?

Philip: Our Story

Since we had left Addis Ababa, Wambui’s reflection on the way the leadership group was interacting was nagging away in my mind. It wouldn’t go away. At the start of the merger, I had set out with the lofty intention of removing hierarchy and releasing the energy, commitment, and capacity of the team of 500. Ensuring that the entire group understood and contributed to the future shape of the organization was something I passionately believed in before taking over in East and West Africa. But thus far, I had only done this with smaller teams. I wasn’t clear or confident how this would come about in so large a team spread across 4,000 miles and 11 countries. Nevertheless, I felt it was essential if we were to create a sustainable improvement in business performance.

For the previous 12 months, I had focused on engaging the leadership team—getting them to understand the need for change and trying to work through our different responses to the challenges in front of us. Tony and Ben had helped me make a breakthrough in reaching that group of 30 and there was a growing feeling of joint purpose and team identity. After Addis, there was a real sense of elation in reaching a peak that we had been striving for. Now, I had this very real doubt about the strength of our achievement. Yes, my immediate leadership team were moving forward but was it far enough? And what about my wider team of 500? Where were they?

In travelling around the region, I wasn’t convinced that we were communicating effectively on the change. Yes, in some countries you could see leaders were actively communicating with staff. For Otim this was a new responsibility:

I had to do a presentation to all staff. There were some anxieties that jobs may be cut. We needed to reassure people and explain that it’s good for us to work in a new way. Obviously some were skeptical and there wasn’t 100 percent buy-in at the beginning. It took time to sit down with people and explain to them what it meant.

In some countries, effective communication was producing real improvements in delivery but often I could feel a resistance in staff or even a simple lack of knowledge on why the organization was changing and what we were trying to achieve.

When I arrived in one country, staff used my visit to start a “work-to-rule” because of a dispute with management. Before I flew in, I had been forewarned by one of my close colleagues in Nairobi that this was likely to happen, but worryingly, the country director was taken by surprise. On the way to the office from the airport, the country director was urgently ringing people to find out exactly what kind of action was being taken. When we got to the building all was quiet but staffs were wearing black and red armbands as symbols of protest. It was a desperate effort to draw attention to their concerns and to the fact that they felt their voice was simply not being heard. As I came down the stairs, I met a delegation sent to talk to me. It was intimidating and I felt slightly cross at being cornered in this way, but to defuse the situation, I suggested to the group that we convene an all-staff meeting in an hour.

At the meeting, I simply sat and listened. I was clear that I was not promising to solve their issues at this point but I was willing to hear their concerns. As I visited the other offices in the operation, I repeated the same offer. Staff seemed glad of the opportunity for discussion and it succeeded in reopening the potential for dialogue between management and staff. There was clearly a huge amount of hurt and misunderstanding on both sides.

While this is an extreme example, it was symptomatic of communication problems I had noticed across the region, but overall, my leadership team didn’t agree. Then came a deafening wake-up call! In the annual staff survey carried out by MORI, the scores showing levels of confidence in our leadership have fallen significantly. It’s a big disappointment but it confirms what I feared. Yes, the leadership team is on board, but so far, we or they have failed to reach the wider staff back in countries. The worst result in the region is from our largest business—Nigeria—with 40 percent of the region’s staff.

The truth is that in our heart of hearts, we have all known this issue was present but so far had left it in the background. Now, we had a great opportunity to get our team to look—as a group—at the issue of wider engagement. I could use our next leadership team meeting to raise some challenging questions: How do we engage the 500? How effectively do managers and staff relate to each other? What is it that blocks communication, creativity, and innovation? What is it that leaves people stuck in a cycle of low performance, productivity, and dependency?

We had to get the problems—whatever they were—out on the table in order to spur the team into a new way of working. Yes, we could carry on as we were. It was certainly better than where we had started 12 months before, but it was still far away from our vision of a high-performance team. Alternatively, we now had the chance to press ahead through some very choppy waters toward another step change in performance. We chose to push on.

Working with Tony and my head of human resources, we mobilized the 11 African members of the leadership team each to interview five staff from a cross section of levels and departments in their own country to find out what makes them feel confident in their leaders and what gets in the way. We also asked the 11 country directors to interview three people asking the same question, and the head of human resources to interview a handful of staff across the region. Through this approach, we reached 98 of the 500 staff—almost 20 percent of employees.

But what on earth would come up from this research and how would we be able to deal with it? Was this going to be our Pandora’s box? The issues were deeply sensitive: Not only were we talking about relationships between country directors and their teams, but also issues between UK-appointed and African staff. We knew as a British organization working in Africa, we had the legacy of the United Kingdom’s colonial past to negotiate. The biggest cop-out would have been to avoid the sensitive issues but confronting them meant entering a minefield where we needed to be “inclusive” and hyperaware of the pitfalls that arise from engaging in difficult conversations across cultures, about race, and between groups and individuals in different positions of power. We mustn’t fall into the trap of generalizing or stereotyping. It would have been much easier to avoid all this, leaving in place the barriers to performance. While carefully designing our approach to the coming meeting, we consulted closely with our organization’s Equal Opportunities and Diversity Unit based in the United Kingdom.

The meeting was due to take place in Lagos, a chaotic megalopolis of around eight million people in Nigeria. It’s a place of high energy, of charged emotions, where people speak their mind, tempers flare quickly and just as quickly quieten down again. It was the perfect metaphor for the days ahead. Although we were staying in an international hotel, major rebuilding works were going on next door to our meeting room and our conversations took place against the noisy backdrop of drilling. Twice, water pipes burst in the ceiling overhead filling an empty champagne bucket put there for the purpose and breaking the tension by causing welcome laughter among the group.

So how did we choose to address Wambui’s question on senior management participation in the meeting? Tony and I took the controversial decision of splitting the group for a day—country directors in one room, other senior managers in the other. It was a risk. Would it reinforce the divisions that were already there? How would this be interpreted by the two groups? Would it alienate country directors?

We felt that it was a risk worth taking. Wambui’s feedback had hit home—hard. We wanted to get staff voices into the room without distortion and without being suppressed by the more experienced and influential country director group. We had to build the capacity of the less senior members of staff if they were to have genuine influence on the meeting. If they didn’t have that influence, we would simply not be able to move to a new level of performance as a team.

With the African senior manager group, we spent a day looking at the research. What did it tell us? They took turns to share their findings from each country with their colleagues, and as people listened to each other, the experience was empowering. As Binte from Senegal said,

I kept asking myself ‘here am I standing in front of colleagues and they see me as someone they can seek guidance from.’ It helped build my capacity.

How could this group best present the messages back to the country directors? The group had not only found many common issues but also the courage and determination to present their findings clearly and in a balanced way. They were not naïve: While knowing this was a unique opportunity to expose the real issues, they risked an adverse reaction and needed to plan carefully what to say. All played a part.

Meanwhile country directors worked on the issues blocking our ability to deliver the change program. When we came back together, the country directors surprised the African senior managers by presenting an imaginative and playful analysis of the challenges we were facing in our capacity to deliver. They made a clear commitment to communicate the vision, clarify expectations, bring resources, create openness, and empower staff. They underlined that failure to do this would ultimately mean closure, while on the other hand, success would enable everyone to deliver relevant programs and interesting jobs. So far, so good.

Then it was the turn of the African senior manager group to provide feedback. The session that followed was uncomfortable. You could hear a pin drop. For the first time, the whole group (including country directors) was really listening well. The feedback was direct, personal, and emotionally charged. It started positively. The African senior managers’ first point was that they valued the vision, the sense of direction, and the willingness to work as a team to address the points they were about to raise. Then Foluke from Cameroon stood up to communicate staff concerns. This was her first leadership team meeting and, initially shy, she soon found her voice in giving feedback to the leadership team on issues that were personal and highly contentious:

You seem indifferent, aloof. You don’t say hello. You don’t reply to emails. In short, it feels like you lack respect for us.

You are secretive, you fail to consult, and present decisions badly. In short, we feel taken for granted.

You overload the capable staff and condone poor performance.

We need to modernize the management–staff relationship from one that feels like master–servant to one of two-way, mutual accountability, with feedback in both directions.

On pay and conditions we need rigor, transparency, and staff involvement.

Foluke’s clear delivery of these points contributed to the deeper shift in the leaders’ attitudes and behavior that was to follow.

Next the country directors were asked to respond. Quite a number were simply stunned. There was silence suggesting very mixed emotions. For the African senior managers, there was a sense of exhilaration as some deeply felt concerns were finally being expressed. They had finally won the attention of the country directors and their voice was fully present in the room.

Instead of provoking a bun fight, we decided to pair up each country director with the senior African manager colleague from their own country to review the findings and identify and explore in greater depth exactly which aspects applied to them. We could see that some pairs were getting straight down to this while others were having difficulties. One country director simply avoided sitting with his colleague! Another bursting with anger said that this approach had been “wrong” and “too negative”: “I felt doors slamming in my face.” Blinded by a red mist, he failed to notice that he was talking all about himself while his country colleague, an African senior manager, was ignored as he sat patiently beside him waiting for the storm to pass.

After the allotted time, the country directors asked to be given the chance to respond as a group.

There was a hush in the room. One country director simply thanked the country-appointed staff for what they had said, acknowledged the importance of the issues, and asked for time to consider his response. Others were uncomfortable with the emotional nature of the discussion and tried to depersonalize and rationalize what they were hearing. Anthony, for example, stood up and said,

I can see what you’re saying. Actually, there is a taxonomy of behaviors here and I think I can see a new model of leadership that we can draw up.

Francis, on the other hand, was angry and not liking what he was hearing. He started to question the process:

Hang on—where did you get this information from? Why is it confidential? I’m not sure any of it’s true anyway and I think presenting it anonymously in this way is simply unfair to us.

Although the country directors had asked for the floor, finding themselves under the spotlight in this way was a lot to cope with. The conversation lurched unpredictably between hurt feelings and clumsy attempts to recover.

A long, meandering but moving discussion followed with the African members of the team telling stories from their research about the impact of leader behavior, highlighting cultural differences, for example, in the way people say “Hello.” People were bursting to speak but the individual contributions didn’t connect with each other, as though each person was on their own with their emotions, venting and thrashing around. The conversation became frustrating to listen to and it looked as if Tony was finding it tiring to facilitate. On the positive side, people were no longer finding clever ways to reject the findings, but were now struggling as if to digest some exotic, unknown food. While in each case the speaker was earnest, they were not yet a team taking responsibility. An hour passed and the conversation still had life but it was not clear where it was going.

The most heartfelt issue was the paralyzing effect of decisions and conversations avoided, particularly those that relate to staff who were not performing. But above all, what worried me as the conversation went on was that a chasm seemed to be opening in the room leaving the African members of the team as victims of a bad former colonial power. Then Yahya from West Africa proposed a practical action that began to heal the rift:

If a director phoned a few people up to speak to them personally they would be so delighted, so confident and he could have so many supporters!

Mark, a country director from East Africa, seized the moment and built a bridge with his honest disclosure:

I know how bad some of you feel, because I’ve also felt badly treated by the organization at various points over the years.

This surprising contribution drew the group together again in common cause. As the afternoon came to a close, things still felt inconclusive and “up in the air,” and in the goldfish bowl atmosphere of the meeting, I found myself exasperated. I felt that we were still avoiding some of the issues. Ben was exploding with impatience, wanting to blow up the entire group, and this was when we nicknamed him “Mr. Dynamite”! Tony, who had been holding the space as facilitator for the entire afternoon, was exhausted, but seemed to accept the need for people to vent and explore before taking responsibility. Despite the frustrations, he was confident all was OK, but he was wrung out and seemed barely able to continue speaking! With strong emotions still swirling around, everyone needed time to reflect—often in private and not just overnight but in the days and weeks ahead.

The next day we asked each country director to work with their senior manager in country “pairs,” thinking through plans for how they should respond to the feedback in their country operations and how they would communicate the discussion with their teams. We also completed a quite different topic on prioritizing our key stakeholders, which served to switch everyone’s attention back out of introspection into the external delivery challenges we faced.

In a coffee break, Tony and I were relieved to see new and spontaneous mixing among the group with different clusters forming instead of the usual obvious cliques. Tony told me that conversations seemed more open, and he noticed that it was easier to draw ripples of laughter from the group. Personal chats with a few people had taught him more about previously unmentioned challenges faced by staff, including the difficulty of speaking about their personal performance, the isolation of the country director role. He reported one African senior manager had received death threats while introducing a new company purchasing system! We were bringing skeletons out of the cupboard, and there was no going back. We could expect the word about this meeting to spread fast to all staff and success now depended on the leaders showing they had listened and changed their behavior.

In spite of the difficulty of the conversations, this meeting was a critical step in getting all senior managers to a common understanding of the issues and barriers to engaging all staff in the change process. As Otim, an African senior manager, said:

This open and frank discussion led to change in the way people behaved and the assumptions they made, which I thought was extremely positive. It opened the way for us to work together, irrespective of who you are, and it created a fundamental and positive impact for the region.

During the course of the meeting Ian, one of the country directors, had picked up some strong and affecting stories:

It revealed an awful lot actually about some things that needed to be uncovered: directors who went into their office and never said “Hello” to people; some people feeling that they had to kind of psyche themselves up for 15 minutes in their car before getting out of it and going into work. So there were some really quite deep issues of morale and feeling among some staff that through a brave move Philip unearthed and those issues could then be talked about and dealt with.

In my closing remarks at Lagos, I took the opportunity to thank Ian, who was due to move back to the United Kingdom, for his significant contribution to the region’s work over the past 18 months. Ian’s support in the early part of the merger had been vital, both for his practical work in reducing the product range and for his personal support helping to enroll West African and smaller countries into the new enlarged region. Spontaneously and with real affection, the others in the leadership team responded to my few words with a standing ovation, leaving Ian shuffling from foot to foot in embarrassment.

This poignant moment marked the end of an era in this team’s life. We had just made a difficult crossing and having got safely to the other side, now we had to say goodbye to someone who had helped get us there. Everyone had appreciated Ian’s hard work and he had the respect of the entire team. It made me reflect on the key qualities I valued in Ian and other colleagues in positions of authority over the years. It seemed to boil down to this: integrity, commitment, and service to the group rather than the self. All of these had come to inform my sense of what a leader could and should do.

Looking back, the meeting had exposed senior managers, both country directors and their African colleagues, to staff opinion. This helped UK colleagues to better understand the cultural context to the feedback and to start thinking through how they could work together to engage staff. The process also empowered the African managers and encouraged them to take joint responsibility for responding to staff views. This was a major step in getting our teams to work together to address deeply felt and long-standing barriers to change. Yahya used a word picture to describe how important this meeting had been for keeping all members of the leadership team together:

When the river is travelling downstream you have to be careful to ensure that the front water does not separate from the back water. When this starts to happen, before long the stream dries up. It’s as simple as that. So you make sure you carry everyone, all members of the teams, along together.

Otim describes how this meeting finally brought African senior managers on a par with their UK counterparts, creating new opportunities for them to lead change in the region:

Previously, it wasn’t recognized for us to sit on senior management teams and things like that. But now we do have, as we speak, a number of senior management posts that have been created across the region and staff who can contribute at that level actually filling those posts. That was something very positive that came out of that meeting. We recognized what we can do together as a region that can create impact and also we learned that we’ve got talent in the region. It doesn’t matter if you’re African staff or UK appointed, we can contribute equally together and create impact. We removed some real and serious divides between African and UK-appointed staff.

Word spread quickly among staff about the conversations that had taken place at our meeting and the commitments to change from management. This was the opening of a door. You do not change 70 years of working practice overnight, but Lagos was a symbolic ending of an old way of relating. It gave me, as the leader, a platform on which to hold others accountable to a new way of working and through some simple behavioral changes on the part of the leadership team, confidence in our leadership increased significantly. In the global staff survey undertaken by MORI the following year, our results were not only the best in our organization but also matched figures of top 10 performing companies, both private and public sector, in the United Kingdom. This included extremely high positive ratings for statements such as the following:

  • I have confidence in the management team running my country.
  • Staffs are consulted. Change is well managed. I am informed.
  • I am aware of improvements arising from the last survey.
  • I understand the contribution I am expected to make.
  • Training and development is helping me to develop skills I need in my job.

Although we had taken a risk with our approach to this meeting, it had paid off, finally delivering a fundamental shift in the way we worked together as a team.

How Do You Approach This Phase?

The story of this stage in the change process is particularly challenging. As in the fable, the chiefs had gone back home and been rejected by their people who felt betrayed. Observing this had happened, Philip wondered how he could form a “distance repair” without disabling the chiefs and making things worse between them and their people. How do you successfully bring difficult and emotionally charged issues to the attention of senior managers? And, even more tricky, how do you get them to engage positively with these issues when they potentially challenge their sense of humanity and integrity in dealing with others?

The Power of Stories

We wanted researchers to gather stories and to use these to unearth the issues that needed to be addressed. While working at the World Bank, Stephen Denning tells how through trial and error, he discovered and developed storytelling in order to galvanize the organization’s knowledge management activities (Denning, 2004). Denning educated himself in how others, from Aristotle onward, have used storytelling. He was particularly interested in discovering the narrative power of a traditional story and its limitations in the context of an organization. Some stories are boring, some need to be open to provoke people to think, some need to be upbeat and positive to motivate, while others are powerful because they are unashamedly negative and illuminate a problem that needs addressing. Inspired by Denning, we designed the research to collect both positive and negative stories.

Reconciliation of Interests

Nevertheless, we were concerned that as people received negative stories during the workshop they might start to feel sorry for themselves—feeling unloved when they receive criticism or incompetent or badly looked after by their organization—and that they might collapse again into victim mode. Alternatively, they might swing into over compassion for staff and fail in their duty to the organization. We needed a way to call people to their responsibility as leaders, recognizing their accountability both to the organization and to their individual members of staff. Charles Handy, one of the leading thinkers and writers on organizations, defines leadership as “combining the interests of individuals with the collective interests of the larger community to which they belong” (Handy, 2008). The effective leader needs to reconcile those interests if the organization is to succeed. Understanding those interests and achieving this balance, is a central leadership dilemma and one that leaders need to resolve in each decision they take. We shared Charles Handy’s definition as we introduced the workshop and carried it as a reference point as we facilitated the discussion, constantly asking ourselves, Are both sides of the leadership dilemma being expressed in the room right now and how are they coming together?

Having Difficult Conversations

We anticipated that after the stories had been presented, and the country pairs had worked together on the feedback, there would be a need for a large group conversation in which the whole plenary made sense of the sometimes difficult topics being raised and the larger process of change they found themselves in. But what sort of conversation did we need to have and how should we facilitate this?

David Bohm, a leading quantum physicist, later in his life devoted himself to the practice of “dialogue.” He distinguished “dialogue” from simple “discussion,” which he likened to a ping-pong match in which we hit a ball back and forth between us, normally with a purpose to win and only occasionally accepting part of another person’s point of view (Bohm, 1990). The purpose of dialogue is to come together as colleagues, going beyond one person’s understanding, suspending assumptions, embracing contradictions and confusion, and achieving a common meaning. The focus is bringing to the surface and altering the tacit infrastructure of thought.

Bill Isaacs and Peter Senge working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built on Bohm’s work to turn dialogue into a practical method. They find that such conversations go through various crises, or “hot moments,” where extreme views provoke distress in others (Isaacs, 1999). Provided people pay attention without falling victim to their strong inner reactions, they are able to reach a deep “crisis of collective pain” in which thinking takes on a different, slower pace, with a deeper sense of connection. Out of this connection, new solutions emerge and become possible. Central to the success of dialogue is what Isaacs describes as “the container,” which means creating a setting that is sufficiently safe and clear so that it is possible for participants to discuss a topic that is dangerous. Tony and Ben’s role in providing this container was critical. As Ian, one of the country directors, emphasizes,

In terms of getting commitment from people and bringing them together, Tony and Ben’s facilitation was useful in that process. It would’ve been more difficult for Philip to do it by himself or for us to do it, so it was critical to have external facilitation.

Deeds Speak Volumes

When the whole group dialogue in Lagos had reached its natural conclusion, we asked country pairs to identify behaviors and actions they needed to take on their return to their workplaces. Most people were tired. Some were quite disorientated and concerned about the quality of the action plans they were preparing. We asked ourselves what we should be looking for from our leadership team. John Kotter says,

Deeds speak volumes. When you say one thing and do another, cynical feelings can grow exponentially . . . The guiding team says we too are being asked to change and, like you we won’t get it right immediately, we need your help and support . . . people love honesty, it makes them feel safer (Kotter and Cohen, 2002).

This is what we needed from our team—simple and highly visible behavioral changes coming out of the meeting that would signal with bright lights, bells, and whistles blowing that something positive has happened and a shift has occurred.

What Are the Signs of Progress in This Phase?

  1. When staff members bring both positive stories (demonstrating confidence and support for their leaders) and negative stories (indicating a lack of fear and a desire to create conditions for success) to their leaders (Denning).
  2. When all in the leadership community understand the organization’s purpose and how they can contribute to and benefit from success (Handy).
  3. When the difficult interpersonal issues are out on the table and the different experiences and expectations of individual members are heard, and in doing so, the group strive collectively to overcome the issues raised (Isaacs and Senge).
  4. When the leadership community commit to simple actions and behaviors that will build confidence and respect in the workplace (Kotter).

What Are the Tools You Can Use?

In this fourth phase, the three tools that follow give the leader ways of engaging others in addressing these key questions: What do you want from me? What do I want from you? To be more specific, What leader behavior helps or hinders staff confidence? What issues do leaders need their colleagues to hear? What simple improvement actions and behaviors will leaders commit to?

No 1: The Staff Research

Following the staff survey, we needed to find a means for staff to raise their real concerns and to have these addressed by their leaders. However, staff felt insecure and concerned that they might pay a heavy price for speaking out. We designed research that protected confidentiality and encouraged honesty.

Each member of the leadership team interviewed between three and five members of staff in their country. We provided questions and a format for the interviews covering the following:

  1. Examples of behavior that give you confidence in the leader
  2. Examples of behavior that take away confidence from the leader
  3. What good things your leaders are doing already
  4. What you would like your leaders to do more of or less of
  5. How could you step up yourself as a leader to provide a more positive environment for others?

After the staff research, we brought together the African senior managers for a full day to analyze common themes, find their voice, and prepare to present the findings back to country directors.

No 2: Rackets

We might promise we’ll go to the gym to keep fit, but we stay late at the office to finish our emails instead. We know we should go to bed early but we lay reading social media messages on our phones even though we know that is going to keep us awake. Often, as human beings, we promise ourselves and others that we will do the right thing but something stops us. We call what kicks in and stops us from doing the thing we are committed to do, a racket. This is because, just like the mafia, we get a “pay off” for stopping something happening. Our seemingly irrational behavior benefits us in some way or is more convenient. The cost for letting ourselves or our colleagues down may not be obvious or we may simply choose to look the other way.

The more aware we make ourselves of our rackets, the less chance we have to get caught in them. That is why we invite leaders to reflect on these four questions and to explore their answers with a colleague:

  1. What is one commitment I am not achieving despite effort?
  2. What am I doing instead?
  3. What do I gain from this avoidance?
  4. What are the costs of this avoidance?

No 3: The Stories—Talking in the Round

The staff research and feedback left the country directors feeling criticized and they wanted the “right to reply.” So, we arranged 11 chairs in a circle and the rest of the group sat round the edge. The country directors were invited to hold a conversation among themselves in the presence of the wider leadership team. After initial comments from each country director this became a very open dialogue involving the whole group of 30. One person spoke at a time while 29 people listened intently, both to the words and to their deeper inner reactions. The facilitator’s role was simply to receive contributions from individuals, giving them time to say what was important, until after about 2 hours the dialogue naturally came to a close. This provided the opportunity for people to get things off their chests, to explain past misunderstandings, some of them culturally based (e.g., “You might think when a Nigerian says ‘Hello’ a second time he is simple—this is not the case . . .”). The session rebuilt the relationship between country directors and their African senior managers, and later sent ripples out to the wider staff. Afterward, the team conversations were more two way, more “in the same boat as fellow human beings” with less hierarchy or formality.

No 4: The Action Plans

Following talking in the round, we thought it important for each country to commit to an action plan that would both communicate the research findings to local staff and put in place the necessary corrective actions. Country pairs were to spend the final hour completing an action plan with a named person responsible and date beside each of the following:

  1. Circulate research findings to all staff
  2. A personal response thanking each interviewee
  3. A “stepping forward” meeting of the country management team
  4. An all staff meeting reporting back from Lagos
  5. A feedback meeting for each leader with their direct reports
  6. A change committee in each office
  7. A regional vision workshop, including progress to date and gaps to close

What Is the Evidence of Completing This Phase?

  • Staff have spoken out on issues that concern them and the leadership community have actively listened.
  • Leaders have got over the feeling of “You don’t love us anymore; we’re angry with you” and come to a point where they recognize “We need you if as an organization, we’re going to survive.”
  • The leadership community has identified how their own behavior is an obstacle to staff engagement.
  • Staff recognizes that they and the leadership are “in the same boat.” They have moved from mistrust to a recognition that “You are in a difficult position too.”
  • Leaders and staff commit to specific positive behaviors that they are prepared to sustain, for example, saying “Hello,” knowing people’s names, explaining decisions, and raising issues constructively.

The key aspects of Phase 4 are summarized in Figure 6.1.

Figure 6.1 Phase 4 summary


  • Give people time to digest. Make sure your influencers in the group know what is coming. Make sure managers have room to respond. Facilitators need to manage this carefully. There is a serious risk that the bad news from staff turns off your senior managers. They become defensive or try and avoid the issues.
  • Find the heartfelt actions—giving emphasis to simplicity and commitment.
  • Seek advice from those in your organization with responsibility for equal opportunities and diversity. Dealing with management–staff issues is a sensitive area.