Eliminating the “GM Nod”

Lawrence Polsky Foresight, Leadership, Productivity Leave a Comment

Executives have the responsibility to make sure that employees don’t just nod yes but do nothing. Here’s how to make it happen.

GM recently fired 15 people because they gave the “GM Nod” – just nodding yes and doing nothing – for years as the company failed to deal with a major safety problem. It took the company 11 years to recall vehicles equipped with a defective ignition switch. “Throughout the entire 11-year odyssey, there was no demonstrated sense of urgency, right to the very end,” according to an internal investigation by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, who was hired by GM’s management in March.

In our work with executive teams around the globe, we’ve found the “GM Nod” is rampant. Among 1,300 professionals who responded to our 2012 Global Study, 81% reported they say yes to changes but do nothing.

Executives have a responsibility to lead change. So what can leaders do to get their teams to really embrace change instead of just nodding and going about their business? Here are three actions leaders can take:

1. Create Real Urgency Through Action –  Employees are smart. They won’t move past the “nod” unless they feel a true sense of urgency from their leader. Otherwise they will “hide under their desk and wait for change to pass,” as one client told us. For example, we worked with the CEO of Americas for a global industrial conglomerate. They had acquired several companies, yet the leaders of those companies refused to integrate into the new culture. He waited for them to “get on board,” but the only thing that happened for a year was conflict behind the scenes. The CEO finally took action to support his words. He brought us in to work with the top team and address the issues. Forcing everyone to sit down for a day and talk through the integration issues demonstrated the CEO’s resolve. Once the upsets were aired and discussed, strained relationships turned positive and collaborative. The leaders took ownership, and a united culture emerged. It only happened because the CEO took action.

2. Create Real Urgency Through Words Words alone can create urgency. Think Steve Jobs’ “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” or Martin Luther King’s “I dream of the day my children will be judged by the content of their character.” People need to emotionally connect with the mission of the change. Our research also shows that the reason to change (the WHY) has to be more emotionally powerful than the negativity people feel about the change. It’s the leader’s job to motivate, educate and inspire by giving employees “The Why.” The 60-Second Change Speech is a tool we use with leaders to help them capture “The Why” quickly. Try it now. Try communicating “What” is changing, “Why” we are changing and “What is not” changing in 60 seconds. It sounds simple, but it’s not. It takes thought, preparation and practice. To do it successfully, focus your message on why it is critical we succeed, what will happen if we fail, how our customers will benefit, and why it matters to our communities and other key stakeholders. Finally, don’t forget to remind people what is not changing; it gives them some stability within the storm.

3. Create Real Urgency Through Personnel Change GM’s CEO Mary Barra took action to fire 15 people. This too is a strong move to communicate urgency of a new culture. Yes, it was after death and catastrophe. Often action only comes when the pain is great. Nothing is clearer than knowing that if you don’t get on the bus, you will be asked to take a different bus. Many executives we have helped over the years find that the barrier to cultural change in their business unit is one or more employees. Sometimes people will not change despite all known motivational methods and will only respond to the threat of losing their jobs. Even then some still will dig in. These people must go. The good news is that once they realize from your actions that the change is real, many employees who aren’t up for it will leave on their own. We have seen it time and time again.

A final word of advice

Our research showed that 92% of employees do not trust or buy into change when announced by senior leaders. To overcome inertia to change and the “nods” rampant throughout the business world, leaders need to overcompensate in building trust during change. Even if you have good relationships with your team, you need to go out of your way to listen, communicate, and do what you say you will do. Doing so will build the trust that will allow your team to follow you no matter what kind of change your organization faces.

By Lawrence Polsky and Antoine Gerschel

Executive team coaches Antoine Gerschel and Lawrence Polsky are managing partners at PeopleNRG.com. The global leadership and team consulting firm has transformed the teams of more than 30,000 leaders in 11 industries in 30 countries on five continents since 2008. Visit “http://www.peoplenrg.com/“.

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