There are children, all over the United States, who have an unshakeable belief that every December 24th, a rotund, bearded man will enter their homes through a chimney and leave gifts. Later, after seeing overwhelming evidence to the contrary, (including the fact they live in an apartment and have no chimney), they will accept that Santa lives only in our imaginations and will happily go on with their lives. How might we respond to an adult co-worker who continues to hold that unwavering, core belief that Santa is real? Imagine walking into a directors meeting or client pitch with someone who is openly thinking, no, believing, “Well, we could just ask Santa for more revenue.” We could call it Miracle on Fremont Street.

Santa claus standing in chimney while using laptop
Hmmm. Everybody wants revenue? Credit: Thinkstock

This scenario plays out daily with individuals, L & D professionals and organizations across the country. Not adults who still believe in Santa, but people and organizations who hold on to beliefs, processes, and culture way past the time when overwhelming evidence suggests they should change. Change management is a core function of a learning and development professional’s role. We are tasked with facilitating new sales initiatives, implementing new governmental regulations, and everything in between. When a key stakeholder, or even ourselves, is essentially a Tooth Fairy truther, in regards to processes or culture, our task to facilitate changes are more likely to fail.

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

Feelings over Facts

Many feel we’re living in an unprecedented era of “Alternative Facts.” The quaint idea that we can disagree about something minor, like what color we should paint the office, has been replaced by unshakable “feelings” from some of our coworkers that we don’t even have walls to paint.  Why are our feelings more important than facts?

It is popular to believe that confirmation bias, when we selectively pick and choose facts and information based solely on if they already support our existing views, treats facts like the Hulk treated Loki in The Avengers. How we feel about something, especially something we created, promoted or inherited often eclipses even the most well thought out forecast, historical trends or logic. This type of thinking is especially problematic for professional development efforts that require a paradigm shift within an organization.

Yet saying how a person feels about something is more influential than anything else in their decision making is dangerous. According to an article by John Cook and  Sander van der Linden, “The apparent choice between “fact” and “feeling,” or between “cognition” and “culture,” is a false dilemma. In reality, both are related and address different pieces of the decision-making puzzle.”

It’s important that, in the extremely unlikely chance we are wrong, we have a process to alert us we need to change our minds. I’m reminded of a quote often attributed to Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” For us to embrace change, we must listen, understand and guide stakeholders, and ourselves, to reach sound conclusions.

Are We Ready to Listen?

Not Listening
La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la Credit Thinkstock

One of the first steps to knowing if a currently held belief is in need of a revision is to be ready to listen. How often have we walked past another grown person at work, looked each other directly in the eyes, said “How are you?” and just kept walking? At no point during that interaction were either of us actually ready to listen. It would be jarring if one person suddenly stopped and responded with, “Well you know my corns have been acting up lately and I’m not sure I get the new TPS reporting process. I mean, did you understand that memo?”

Well-meaning professionals routinely sleepwalk through conversations, large and small, missing visual cues and context.

Well-meaning professionals routinely sleepwalk through conversations, large and small, missing visual cues and context. Most of us have never been taught how to listen. It’s a skill, like anything else. And extremely hard to do without proper instruction and practice. We’ve got to be mindful, attentive and curious. It’s rare to find someone who is good at all three of those things. We’ve got to work on it daily. There are several great courses, articles, and videos on how to be a better active listener. Pick one and practice at it. It’s the crucial first step in testing a belief for worthiness.

Seek First to Understand

If someone brings a new idea or process, look to understand why they are doing it. “Have you ever seen Fear Factor?” For the chance to win $50,000, contestants would eat live cockroaches, lay with leeches or a number of other amazingly gross(?) tasks. (Not judging. If you like it, I love it for you)  The point is, how many of us understand why they did those things? Money? Perhaps. The chance to say they’re on TV? Likely. Heck, maybe they thought the cameras were a little annoying, but really wanted to try out some new Cow Pie options. Whatever the reason, if we felt there was a more effective way to achieve their goals, we must do what we can to understand them first.

It’s fascinating how some people will assume the absolute worst in others but only the noblest intentions in themselves. For example, when some kid puts gum in our child’s hair, that other kid is a menace and should be held to the highest level of account. When our perfect little angel does the same thing, we look for nuance and try to understand the behavior. The same is true in our organizations. One of the blinders to seeing if we are wrong is the belief that everyone else is a monolithic, single-issue T-1000. Our co-workers, direct reports, and supervisors have reasons and nuances, just like we do. It’s extremely rare that everyone else is simply ignorant or “out to get us.”

Yes, it’s true they may be just like Dennis Green said: “They are who we thought they were.” But that should not prevent us from the effort.

Block Chart
My Pilot

Let Results Be Our Guide

Some would argue that seeing results, specific and measurable metrics, would be sufficient to change a core belief. “If I got better results, I would obviously be open to hearing a different point of view. Harumph!” This would be fantastic, if true.

Nice to meet you UmFooFoo

Every day, well-meaning organizations look at poor results and insist that a new training session, CRM or E-Learning program will overcome the pervasive culture of fear and intimidation sliming every desk, plant and person in the office. Results may draw our attention to a problem within a system or process. They don’t often force us to scrap the system completely.

Imagine if you introduced yourself to someone and they said, “Nice to meet you UmFooFoo.”

“Excuse me?”

“I said nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, but my name isn’t UmFooFoo.

“I think it is. And because I feel that way, it must be true.”

“Here’s my driver’s license, a notarized copy of my birth certificate and a video of my parents naming me. It’s an unbroken shot of me being born, named and having a tattoo of my name inked under my left kneecap. I know. They were weird. But I’m wearing shorts. Take a look.”

“Still don’t believe you”

“Wait, what?”

People don’t see themselves as the name doubter above. Yet, time after time, stakeholders, managers, and ourselves reject obvious evidence that shows a change in thinking is warranted. Learning professionals are taught to get upper management buy-in and to take organizational culture into account before making a change recommendation. That allows us to present results based data more likely to influence decision makers. It’s okay to take an additional step and ask what evidence would need to exist to make a change. If it’s an important enough project, keep asking until we get an answer. Because without it, our co-workers get to call us UmFooFoo.

It’s easy to understand confidence and conviction. Strong leaders display both to navigate their organizations towards success. More importantly, when action is required, we don’t want hemming and hawing to get in the way. Where we may get into trouble is when we have unshakable certainty, to the exclusion of all other data. If our convictions are right, they will absolutely stand up to occasional scrutiny.

What do you think? How would you know when it is time to change course? What’s your process? Leave a comment below and have a chance to win our monthly giveaway.

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