I was mucking out the rabbit this morning (not a euphemism) and for some reason I thought of a session I once ran for a group of managers in the legal department of the organisation I was part of at the time.

I was feeding back my insight from their employee survey, in the hope of gaining their perspective and together agreeing a way forward to address the issues raised and improve engagement levels, making their department more effective in future. The usual. These four were great; highly experienced and intelligent and, because of their training as lawyers, I assume, generally adversarial. It was like playing four games of chess at once. While riding a unicycle.

With the support of the head of department and the local HR business partner I survived unscathed and we all went away wiser and better for the experience. I ran many such sessions for a wide variety of audiences over the years, and there was always a wide range of reactions from the various teams I spoke to. I thought I would use this blog to examine some of these reactions, to see if anyone found them familiar and had any thoughts on how to deal with the various reactions.

Before going in, I think it is important that anyone going into part of an organisation with any insight or communication is responsible for that information and how it lands. There is a great cop-out to this, called “assuming positive intent”, which is a rule applied to the receiver of the information which basically means “if this upsets you, it’s your own fault, not mine”. In this, as with a great many other things, I find myself more on the side of Leonidas, King of Sparta, in 300 when he gets a message from King Xerxes via a messenger. The news is not good, and it doesn’t end well for the messenger. Clearly Leonidas should have assumed positive intent and the whole nasty business could have been avoided.

Anyway, as in Sparta, when I go into a room and tell a leadership team what it’s like to work there, you can be damn sure I take full responsibility not only for that information, but for how it lands.

First up, there is the blank looks and complete acceptance. The information is taken at face value and accepted fully and without question, as though I were some guru or sage, whose words are gospel. Now this is an issue, because wise, sagacious even, I may well be, but I have only a limited amount of knowledge, based on my exploration of data. I will have done some homework too, usually a chat with the local HR people prior to the session, but I cannot know all the operational and strategic issues at play in every part of the business at the time of the survey. For the department to move forward requires genuine insight, and this can only come from analysis of the data combined with the local context; any recommended actions based on data alone are unlikely to succeed, despite the warm glow you get from speaking to a group of people who nod heartily after every sentence and agree with all you say as though you have some preternatural ability.

My approach in such cases is to drop the data as soon as I see that things are being taken too easily, without questions and fire out a few myself. “What were the big issues at the time…” “one of the comments mentions such and such, can you explain what that was all about?”, that kind of thing. If you have any tips, let me know.

The other end of the spectrum is outright hostility: this is my department, these are my people, you know nothing about them, you can add nothing. Again the data goes into the back pocket and it’s into a coaching conversation to get underneath the behaviours; have they got something to hide? Are they worried what I will think of them as leaders? The trick is not to challenge back but engage in a dialogue; my favourite answer in one such sessions was “I would be a better leader if I had better people” – I invited the leader who said that to have a think about it and what he, as a leader, could do about this, which made for a somewhat better conversation.

Hostility usually comes from fear, in my experience, and so it’s about the conversation, openness and reigning back on any inclination you may have to be a smart arse. Just me? OK then.

My personal favourites in terms of reaction is the one I eventually got with the lawyers – challenging but in a positive and engaged manner. It started feeling adversarial, but I realised they were challenging not the data but the validity of the process; this is where having a good knowledge of that process and its validity comes in handy; and also having a lot of confidence that the data is valid. Fail to prepare, and all that; homework is vital as is really good process and project management prior to the survey.

Once I gave the reassurance they needed, backed up my models with the right level of academic rigour, the dialogue about the data took place and genuine insight was achieved, actions put in place and engagement levels improved.

Other reactions fell at various stages along the spectrum from complete acceptance to complete hostility, and all improved over time as I got to know the audiences and the likely reactions and prepared myself better.

So, if you are preparing something of this ilk, have a think. How is this news likely to go down? Will people challenge you, or the process, or the data from which you drew your insight? Can you be completely confident in the validity of everything you intend to say, and do you have all the sources and background likely to be needed to meet any such challenges? After all, you don’t want to end up being kicked into a well by a bad-tempered monarch.

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