Principles before personalities


As a strategist and organizational behaviorist, I have had the opportunity to work through many large-scale reorganization efforts with a myriad of senior leadership teams. As one might expect, the discussions related to such work often becomes heated. These exchanges turn personal very quickly when someone perceives that their loss is another colleague's gain.

Of course, we all know that reorganizations are not about a given executive's personal "wins" or "losses." Rather, organizational redesign is driven by a desire to re-imagine the way the work is done so that the enterprise can continue to grow and flourish; it is about repositioning reporting structures so to better withstand and overcome the challenges of an ever changing marketplace.

Consequently, when an organizational planning conversation begins to go south, I know that it is time for me to remind meeting participants that the reorganization effort is not about any one of them, but, the collective "us". Indeed, introducing meeting ground rules is often necessary to keep order and maintain momentum. Here are the ones that I like to use. I refer to these as the "Principles Before Personalities, People" ground rules:

Respect each other: Participants will treat each other with mutual respect. Rolling eyes and making faces when someone is talking is disrespectful and inconsiderate.

Dissent with better ideas, or don't dissent at all: Expressing dissenting opinions to an idea under discussion is fine, as long as an alternative is offered or a different suggestion for how to make the original idea work is included. It's easy to criticize, It's much more difficult to develop creative solutions. We know where the challenges lie, we need solutions!

Table when deadlocked: Anyone can call a "Dead Cat" (you can tell that I'm not a huge fan of cats) on a subject that has been discussed for 10 minutes or longer and the group is deadlocked. Our time together is limited, we need to establish a norm that lets us move through our agenda as expediently as possible. We can pick up the discussion of each of the "dead cat" issues at a later time.

We're in a "no BS" zone: Back up broad statements and generalizations with facts, or keep your ideas to yourself. Conjecture are not statements of fact, so be prepared to back up bold and open statements whenever prompted.

When consistently enforced, these simple ground rules help drain contentiousness out of the conversation. In fact, once participants begin to use these ground rules to police themselves, the personalization of issues dissipates almost entirely.

Other Benefits

The adoption of the "Principles Before Personalities, People" ground rules offer additional benefits, as well. These include:

Better Results: A management team can garner better answers to the myriad of questions that arise during reorganization planning meetings, once the personalities are factored out of the conversation. Issues related to human resource requirements, communication, training, union management and information systems can be addressed more clearly, when not blurred by parochial concerns.

Enhanced Expediency: By eliminating the need to "sugar coat" every discussion point, the group can get to the "right" solutions faster. It is simply more expedient to establish a setting where participants can speak directly with one another, without having to be guarded about how they are expressing thoughts and opinions.

Broader Coverage: When the working group establishes a solid meeting rhythm by keeping personalities out of the discussion, they can cover more ground in more depth, too. The time not spent appeasing personalities can be spent on getting decisions made and work done.

Greater Inclusion: As mentioned earlier, when the management team begins to use the ground rules to self police good things begin to happen. One of the good things is the establishment of a sense of being "in it together" (a topic that I wrote about here in the past, see Leadership: we're in it together for more). Having a common goal for the common good makes for greater participation and inclusion in the decision-making process.

The advice provided here may seem patently obvious and simplistic. But working in this often-contentious space for more than two decades has taught me that simple is good, most of the time. When it comes to organizational reorganization work, it should never be about the "who". Instead, it should be about the "why" and the "what". Put another way, it is "Principles Before Personalities, People!"

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About The Author

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr

James M. Kerr is the Global Chair of the Culture Transformation Practice at N2Growth and the author of The Executive Checklist. A specialist in organizational design and cultural transformation, he has been helping clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed for more than 25 years. Kerr’s next book is due out later in 2016 and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting.