A Case Of Lost Influence: The Need For Flexibility And Exchanges - Part 1
Prof. Allan Cohen
- Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart
Alice began calmly but the facts overwhelmed her as she spoke with a shaking rage in her voice. “Louis, despite promising the staff not to change the way they worked, you went back on your word. You insisted on cutting back on my staff’s roles and changing their jobs. You insisted they could not work flex time because you wanted a supervisor overseeing them at all times. They felt mis-trusted, devalued and betrayed, so they all left.”
“You insisted on moving and merging the operations before the new system was installed and tested. Now we have no working system at all. You insisted on moving all three departments to a new facility at the end of the month when the accounting consolidation work would normally be done, so instead of closing the month, we’re losing a week moving boxes. You moved even before the phones were working.”
“I’ve asked you to meet on these things, but you’re always unavailable. I’ve provided ample facts to support a change in your thinking, but there’s no way to change your thinking and now we’re sinking here. There is no billing going out, the cash flow is drying up, my best people are gone, we have no billing software and the phone is wringing off the hook. You’ve reduced my effectiveness and cut my role. I’ve tried for six months to pull this together, but on every point it’s your way or no way. If you don’t shape up, and soon, I’m out of here!”
Louis sat quietly with the sound of the slamming door ringing in his ears. How did this all happen, he asked himself.
Louis was very pleased upon hearing the news that he won the new job. “I’ve faced all these problems with billing operations management before,” he thought to himself, managing the methods and systems of digital billing, staff work flow, coordinating different functions, creating new processes, and keeping internal customers happy.
“Yes, I’ve done all of this before; now I’ll just have to stay focused and apply all the solutions that I’ve learned.” The whole idea was to get the 3 hospitals to coordinate their billing processes for greater efficiency. There was a great deal of pressure on him. This was a test-bed to be watched by upper management for later application to consolidate other processes within the three-hospital group. He’d simply have to avoid getting sidetracked by differing agendas, inter-department issues, varying work methods and the thousand other problems that these kinds of multi-company collaborations can experience. He knew he could do this if he stuck to his agenda and pushed forward.
The software consultant's words echoed in her ears. Well . . . with just 1 partly experienced person left from your original eight staff and three jobs now unfilled, I don’t see how we can finalize the design and bring the beta system up. We just don’t have a sufficient knowledge base to gain good design input and certainly don’t have the people to conduct a run through period on the beta. We have no choice but to push this whole thing back another 6-8 months, or at least until you have some staff who’ve had a chance to learn your operations.
Alice’s mind went numb. She knew it was coming, she could see it all along, but still it hit like a bomb. She had almost no staff left now and in 2 months the support program for her existing billing software would be terminated by the manufacturer. The new system was needed not just to replace the old, but was also needed to handle the new operating processes defined by Louis. Now the promised new system wouldn’t be available for 6 months at best, her best staffers were gone, internal customers were already grousing, and the cash flow would soon begin to dry up because billings weren’t going out. How did so many things go wrong through this whole process?
Alice managed the physician billing and financial service office. Her department was the largest of the three billing departments being merged and her numbers indicated that they were far more productive than the other departments, much better than even Louis’s old department. Over the last 6 months there had been many meetings to agree on a plan that would work for all stakeholders, or at least she thought it was for all stakeholders. It was clear now that all the problems that kept cropping up over the 6 months all pointed to the same problem and one clear conclusion.
Alice had built her operation from scratch and she wasn’t about to let some early bumps knock her down. These were her people, she trained them all and they were a great team. Her staff had a certain way of getting things done. They liked coming in early, some by 6:00 in the morning, and they particularly liked being responsible for the full cycle of activities associated with servicing each account.
Louis had promised that nothing important would change; the merger was intended only to make their work easier. Yet even before a structure and date for the merger was set he began to insist that all the staff start at 8:30 and that each biller would be limited to handling just one part of the billing process instead of the prior method of handling the full life-cycle of each bill. Regardless of the many objections and countering ideas and apparent early agreements to avoid changing these things, Louis’s mind was made up.
As the problems mounted and staff unrest built, Alice and the staff suggested many approaches to problems and sought answers and decisions from Louis, but in every instance his answer was that he’d have to get back to them. Regardless of the topic though he rarely got back to anyone with an answer. This drove her people crazy; they worked for doctors and thrived on the can-do attitude and quick responsiveness of their environment. This is when the rumbling started among her people.
Alice heard the words of concern, and she called Louis many times to meet. She should have sensed trouble early when upon winning the new Director’s job, Louis did not call to meet with her for 6 weeks. Despite this she set up many meetings to review the operation and plan for how best to make things work, but he cancelled most meetings and for those where he did show he arrived late and left early. When she finally got Louis to meet with the staff he showed little interest in their daily operating issues and in response to the staff concerns he assured them that changes would be minimal and that any changes made would be to make their work easier.
His vague answers left the staff uneasy, so Alice kept calling Louis to get their plans and problems ironed out, but when she brought up the continuing staff concerns he told her to simply show a positive attitude to them and to be reassuring on all their problems.
The bells started to go off to many people when a couple of weeks into the planning phase Alice’s most experienced biller announced that she was leaving to take a new job elsewhere in the hospital. Other staff members now began to apply for new jobs elsewhere in the hospital. This got Louis’s attention and another staff meeting was set where everyone voiced their concerns about the new billing system, their roles, hours, customer relations and many problems.
The pressure was mounting, Louis knew his way would work, if the rest of the people would just follow him. At the meeting he listened to all their points and felt that he comfortably answered them by pointing out the facts and benefits of his original plan. They’d heard all this before, however, and now people were even more uncomfortable. One staffer, seeming to speak for all, expressed her lack of faith in this approach and an unwillingness to change a successful operation. In exasperation, Louis felt the need to exert authority and told her that his approach had always worked, it would work here and she needed to do something about her bad attitude.
Things just got worse. People began to leave in waves. The software project was falling behind, The doctors who were their internal customers were getting unnerved. Upper management was expressing concerns.
Alice had to act.
Alice’s problems are, unfortunately, not unusual. It can be difficult to get the kind of responsiveness needed from a new manager, especially one who feels a great deal of pressure to get results. But she is also under pressure, and if she can’t get Louis to respond, she will have to leave. What can she do?
The basis for influence is exchange, giving what the other party values in return for what you need. When what you need is new behavior, it is imperative to figure out how what you are asking for is in the best interest of that person. Then you have to show the person how failing to change can lead to the opposite of what the person wants.
In this instance, Alice needs to do some diagnosis of Louis’s interests. First of all, he has a stake in the integration of the departments and the adoption of new methods going well. And he does not want to lose all the staff, as we saw from his reaction when Alice brought to his attention that staff members were applying for other jobs in the hospital. This gives her some leverage to bring to the discussions. But her style of dealing with Louis, asking for appointments and passively waiting for him to respond, then exploding when things have gotten bad, also has to change. She needs to be clear about what she wants, and the consequences for him and his objectives if he doesn’t help.
She might start by insisting that they talk, and refusing to be put off. She has already fired the warning shot by threatening to quit, and it is unlikely he will stall her now if she is insistent. First, she should discuss with him just what she perceives his concerns to be, and test to see if that diagnosis is right. It appears he wants to show he can do the new job, wants to get the departments integrated, and certainly wants to show that he can achieve good results. And he probably has concerns about looking good to his boss in this new organization. Maybe he is also determined to use what he knows, or thinks he knows, about what can work. All of this can be tested with him.
Then she should show him that he is getting in his own way by his actions. Such as insisting on fixed starting times, breaking up whole tasks , and avoiding serious consideration of employee concerns causing mistrust and resistance, the very resistance he does not want. This can lead to a good exploration of the concept behind letting teams do whole tasks, and giving them the latitude to arrange their work days. He probably fears letting go. One way to approach this would be to discuss how he can stay informed, and be reassured that they will do the work needed and not spiral out of control.
If he still resists, then she can escalate to another kind of exchange - -information about the costs to him that he may not see. For example, does he realize that he is acquiring a reputation for not listening, not being available, and not understanding modern work concepts? Does he really want to be seen as the guy who drove good employees out and caused the integration to miss important deadlines? Does he want the wrath of the doctors who are expecting results? If not, then can he be more responsive? Alice can tell him that she does not want to go around telling people about how he has broken up the group, or that he is so certain of his one way of implementing that he is missing great opportunities to build on what was a committed group. That ought to get his attention even more strongly than what he learned about requested transfers.
Finally, Alice can ask if there is anything she is doing to cause him to both ignore her and her advice. Has she been too passive? Has she failed to explain the consequences of his choices (and hers) clearly enough? Has she acted in a way he finds threatening? (These are only possibilities; she needs to be open to any answer). Then she can adjust her behavior in return for his cooperation.
These methods do not come with guarantees, and she can always decide to quit. But until she has tried the full arsenal of influence methods, the problem is hers and not just Louis’s. Fuming, and reassuring yourself that you are right, rather than actively setting out to influence your colleague (or boss), is not sufficient for a leader, and dooms her to similar problems when she next finds a boss who does not automatically do what she wants.
In Part 2
Next month Professor Weintraub will apply his own counterpoint views to this situation.
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