Watch the New Year Saboteurs
At the beginning of every new year, executives and managers are given new budgets to spend and initiatives to carry out. Getting your team to buy into the initiatives is challenging especially when they go against the corporate grain.
I experienced this as a young executive at a manufacturing organization. Over the past decade, the 100+ sales team witnessed numerous initiatives that started in marketing, sales or R&D then simply died away without any explanation. Being new, I did not understand the history and was surprised to see resistance to my ideas. These ideas were going to pay the sales people more and increase sales. Yet they still resisted or were apathetic at best.
The typical management style of delegating responsibility to direct reports was not working. I needed to do something different and fast. My job depended on it.
I started holding weekly workshops with my direct reports and staff to understand their resistance. I soon learned that previous executives that tried to implement new ideas were quickly shown the door. They were kicked out because they didn’t get buy-in from their peers and their staff.
So naturally my staff wondered why this situation would be any different.
I also perceived the issue was more than just failed initiatives. I got the sense that there were a number of saboteurs that enjoyed watching executives fail. The culture of the organization was mired in a malaise of dysfunction.
So did I leave? Candidly I wanted to. But I didn’t. I took it on as a challenge. Perhaps out of ignorance.
I mapped out the team into three categories. The first group were the Allies who wanted change and were enthusiastic about the new vision. They represented about 10% of the team. The 2nd group were the Fence Sitters who were waiting for the situation to work out or implode. They represented about 60% of the team. Last were the saboteurs. They represented the remaining 30% of the team.
My natural inclination was to focus on the Saboteurs. To neutralize them or even fire them. At the time, firing them would have been politically dangerous since most of them had been with the organization for 10+ years and were well connected. Neutralizing them seemed impossible given their extreme cynicism. Like a black hole, it would have sucked up all of our energy.
Instead I rallied the Allies to generate traction and show some early wins. They were also more than willing to provide feedback for fine-tuning and improving the initiative implementations.
Yet it was hard. Imagine gaining 20 yards on a football pass play only to have the front line penalized for tripping and the receivers for interference. It was a series of small victories and frustrating set backs.
The Saboteurs were pulling every dirty trick imaginable. It was a game of dodgeball and my own team was throwing the balls at me.
But the tide started to turn when the Fence Sitters started to see success (however limited). A critical mass began to form and the number of Allies increased. This amplified the wins and the rest of the organization started to take notice. At the end of the year, most of our new year’s initiatives were carried out (with mixed results) and we had won the majority over.
In spite of the success, I never completely won over the Saboteurs. To them I was an outsider who wasn’t around for the early building years. Yet we learned to coexist and over time their adversarial mind-sets slowly eroded.
Without their proactive interference, new projects were not as challenging and the Ally majority became optimistic about starting and completing their own initiatives.
While this was an extreme situation, there are always people that will want you to fail. They don’t like you or your project. Focus on your Allies. Support and tell them how much you appreciate them. Let them define the initiatives with you and you’ll receive the buy-in necessary to win over the fence sitters.
You win by incrementally gaining your team’s and organization’s trust. You win by winning.