The Mama Test

I generally don’t follow the drama of Hollywood — who’s sleeping with (or partying with, or dissing, or hitting) whom. The self-absorption that permeates the celebrity culture is gross and I figure my time is much better spent on more lasting and productive things.

So I heard about Kanye West’s rude behavior at an awards show, but I didn’t really care. Besides, I agree with a fellow blogger that the whole thing was probably a publicity stunt. West’s appearance on Jay Leno’s new TV show just a day later seemed especially well timed.

However, in a brief interview with West, Leno asked a question that I don’t believe West expected. He asked West what his deceased mother would have said about the incident. The question left the rapper speechless and the studio silent for an uncomfortable amount of time.

It’s a great question that a lot of people should ask themselves before impulsively expressing the first things that cross their minds. Serena Williams should have asked it before she cursed a line judge at the U.S. Open. Congressman Joe Wilson should have asked it before he called President Obama a liar. Cable TV talk show hosts and guests should ask it before they say the stupid things they’re prone to say that inflame political discussions and further polarize Americans.

Just because we have the freedom to express ourselves doesn’t necessarily mean we should always freely express ourselves. Among the things that separates us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the ability to reason, to think at a much higher level. Unfortunately, it seems many people lately give in to their basal instincts and spew out the first thoughts that cross their minds. This does nothing to enhance our communications or to make our points more valid. In fact, such unchecked impulses lead to further strife and dilute our messages. What we have to say might be valid, but the validity gets lost in a medium gone haywire.

It’s interesting that West, Williams and Wilson each apologized for their outbursts. They still believe in what they were trying to express, but they acknowledged that the ways they expressed those beliefs caused more harm than good.

More of us could apply the Mama Test before we attempt to communicate. We’d probably find that our messages are more readily heard.


Not Much Has Changed About Change

With all the attention communicators give social media these days, some of our long-time antagonists get pushed to the side. Measurement? No time for it. Good grammar and writing skills? Out the door. Strategic planning? Yeah, well, never did that anyway.

One issue seems to have reared its ugly head again, though. It’s big, it’s bad and it’s back with a vengeance. It’s change and it’s coming to an organization near you.

Just in the last week, I attended two professional development programs about change, both with emphases on communication. I’ve also seen an increase in articles, blog posts and even Tweets about it. Seems reasonable, since the only constant is change — at least that’s what every business leader and their mother says when forced to talk to employees about it.

There’s just one problem. There’s nothing new about change, which seems a bit ironic. Executives act like they’re the first to ever lead a business through change. HR consultants like to pretend they have new, foolproof “systems” for navigating it. Employees feel as if it’s never happened to anyone but them. But let’s face it: change hasn’t changed.

There are, however, some truisms that bear repeating since we humans have remarkably short memories about how to manage change. Here are some of them I’ve heard in the last few weeks, some of them wrapped in new terminology:

  • Change sucks. People hate it. We are creatures of habit. Even those of us who profess to live adventurously like certain things to remain the same. When was the last time you changed brands of toilet paper or toothpaste? We resist change because when it comes right down to it, we need a certain amount of stability and predictability in our lives.
  • We respond emotionally to change. Author/columnist Dan Heath, speaking to our local chapter of the American Marketing Association, said there’s a pattern people follow when dealing with change. We see it. We feel it. Then we might change. He wisely pointed out that many business leaders focus on the seeing and not so much the feeling part. People might see and understand the logical reasons why change must happen, but unless we emotionally invest ourselves in it, we’re unlikely to change.
  • Telling stories is a great way to get people to feel change. My friend and fellow blogger Susan Cellura Williams led me to this excellent Harvard Business blog by Peter Bregman in which he advocates for storytelling as a change agent. The gist of the idea is that organizations get stuck in their ways because the stories they tell each other — or, perhaps, that management tells them — reinforce the current culture. Changing a culture requires telling new stories, recognizing people when they do things differently, giving people a clear vision of where you want to go and helping them feel it. The implications for communicators is huge.
  • Change doesn’t happen overnight. At a PRSA panel discussion on change, the vice president of public affairs for a large organization talked about a major change that took five years to complete. It’s easy to get impatient, especially leading people who are resistant. We live in a world of 24-hour news, instant communication and immediate gratification. Don’t expect organizations, especially large ones, to change that quickly. Have a plan, allow for some flexibility and stay on course. Keep talking about it and keep that vision out in front of people. Help them see what it will feel like when things change.
  • When people learn how to change, those skills are transferable. At the same PRSA panel talk, the leader of a large government organization told how her employees sprang into action to deal with a crisis efficiently and with minimal disruption to business. Their experience in dealing with changes to the organization prepared them for the crisis.
  • People don’t have to like change in order to deal with it. I’ve seen business leaders make two big mistakes of opposite extremes: forcing change to happen with the attitude that people “will just have to get over it” or trying to make sure everybody likes the changes taking place. Sometimes people will hate change, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be willing to go along with it. In the early ’90s I worked in a manufacturing facility that changed from a five-day to a seven-day work week. Management did a great job of explaining why the change was necessary and they engaged employees in dialogues about it. A survey after the dialogue sessions showed that while only 33% were satisfied with the change from a personal standpoint, 53% were satisfied with it from a business standpoint. People can understand and make changes, even those they dislike, if you keep the communication lines open.

Let’s hear from you. What other truisms about change have you observed? Don’t worry if they’re not groundbreaking. Sometimes the greatest learning comes from timeless wisdom.