A Letter from the Trenches: If I Were You, How Would I Engage Me?

on January 28, 2018

Writing actual letters has almost become a thing of an era gone by. With texting and social media, it’s rare we put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in long-form prose to another person anymore. But letters have a way of making a special and lasting impact.

Maybe it is the letter from your son who is away at camp that shares how nature has captured his sense of discovery, awe, and wonder. Or it could be a daughter who just had her first child, and suddenly, she has an overwhelming sense of how self-effacing parenting is and sends you a deep heart-felt thank you letter that you will never forget. Maybe it is your adult son who, at 50, is telling you for the first time that all the annual fishing trips to the lake made a bigger difference than he ever told you, and that he loves you!

What would the people we lead say to us if they could share the best way to engage them, amplify their contributions, and build a sense of tremendous pride in winning in the marketplace? In other words, “If I were you, how would I engage me?” Here is a letter from the trenches.

Dear Change Leader,

If you really understood what goes on in the trenches, you would realize that all the facts of change, calls for transformation, and images of burning platforms really don’t incite a call to action with inspired urgency, but rather an almost infectious sense of fear. This fear is ignited in part by worrying about losing what we most value. But what really spreads the fire of fear is self-concern. So many questions abound. Will I be valuable in the future? Will I be given a chance to change? Will I be able to change? Will any of my skills of the past be desirable in the future? How much time will I have to prove myself? Is there already a list of those that you think will make the cut and those that won’t? Am I on the list? Which side? Will there be mostly new people for the new destination? Will those of us who have been around for a while be replaced by those who weren’t part of building what we have today?

Most of us don’t resist change; we resist being changed by someone else. Our greatest dread is that we no longer control our destiny. The reality is, we want to be part of something big – we want to be connected with a purpose greater than ourselves. And we know we can achieve even more when we understand the big-picture workings of the business and where it wants to go in the future.

As I, and many of my co-workers, see it, we have to embrace the simple notion that human beings work here. I am sure that you know that strategy without execution is meaningless, and execution without truly engaged people is impossible. So here is where I would start if I were trying to help you understand us… Resist the desire to tell us where we need to go. Show us that you understand how we feel. Empathy is where I would start if I were in charge of engaging me – and a whole lot of other people, too. It is a very human trait. Convey to us that you understand our predicaments before we have to tell you, including how we feel, what we’re afraid of, and the sources of our anxiety.

It wouldn’t hurt to share your fears, too, as it helps validate that what we feel is normal and ok. We need to know that you know what it’s like to be us. After all, you probably were us once upon a time, right? We need to know what you are aware of, and what you care about, on a personal level. Can you spot resistance?  Expose it and validate it? Use it to create a forum to talk about uncertainties?

Unless you embrace our fears, change is just talk. You also have to be able to show us your vulnerability if you want us to show you ours! Be transparent about where we, and where you, have screwed up. Be candid about the behaviors that you or the leadership team fall back on when things aren’t going well (even though you know they’re not productive or effective). Let us know it’s okay to talk about company weaknesses and things that might need fixing – including the strategy. Be open about what you and we need to do a lot better. If you want us to take the personal risks to change what we do, you have to have empathy and expose your vulnerability for us to know it is safe to take the same personal risks.

Finally, lasting change can only occur when I feel a stable sense of value – you must impart to me and others that we are valued. I just want to have a sense of belonging – that I fit into the long-term direction of the company, that you need me to get where you’re going. When I appreciate that you value me as an individual, I will feel safer, I will show you I’m willing to commit, and I will feel safe even when things seem uncertain. I will be comfortable in the midst of necessary discomfort. Don’t underestimate the power of expressing to me that I matter.

Each of us has intrinsic worth, and this is often lost in the message of change. Show us we are valued for the future and we will be in it to win it with you!

I hope this letter gives you some insight into where we are – we the people of your business who want to be the change you wish to see.

Sincerely,

The Trenches

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