Drinking the Kool-Aid
February 15, 2019 6:08 AM   Subscribe

I, an intractable mule with a deep antipathy for management-speak, have been appointed to a very large cross-organization working group on a new HR initiative. Help me develop a taste for the Kool-Aid.

For the foreseeable future, I will be part of a HR working group that is implementing some sweeping policy changes. NB: the policy changes are not about diversity/inclusion, which I would have been wholly in favor of. Rather, it’s along the lines of (but not) transitioning to open concept workplaces and why it’s so good for productivity. Again, that’s not actually it, but just imagine some consultant-driven inanity that will allow us to increase our KPIs while agilely immanentizing the eschaton on all six axes of our newest synergistic profit model.

I’m hoping for a promotion this year, and must demonstrate my enthusiasm for this program that is, at best, a waste of time for the next two years and, at worst, actually harmful to people’s productivity and morale. I was appointed to the working group by a really great manager who may well be the next leader of my division, so my participation is nominally part of my own development plan and my successes in this exercise will assuredly be part of my self-assessment for the year.

I am not a manager, but I am a more senior individual contributor at my organization. I actually love my job and appreciate my colleagues. However, I want just to do my job, rather than be press-ganged into a groupthink exercise. But that’s the order of the day.

What are your tips for helping to implement consultant-driven policies that you don’t believe in—but particularly in that zone of initiatives that are deeply annoying, but not like lay-offs that feel per se bad?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Work & Money (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
What are your tips for helping to implement consultant-driven policies that you don’t believe in—but particularly in that zone of initiatives that are deeply annoying, but not like lay-offs that feel per se bad?

This is an excellent challenge (and common occurrence) for folks who are managers and above, so consider this an opportunity to flex yourself a bit.

One of the biggest things, to me, is anticipating resistance. Given these are big changes some people will probably not be happy (other than yourself). If possible, give people an outlet for constructive feedback. Then, assuming there's something in place to see how things are going, share that with the working group/team as you can. I would view it as both a delivery of that data and, potentially, laying out solutions for it.

I would also do as much as you can to put your own feelings aside – which is hard! – when sharing this with people outside of the working group. But if this is something that's so concerning, too, is there an outlet where you can voice your concerns? If that time has passed, it might be best not to bring it up again. But if you can talk with your boss about it in, say, a 1x1, they may be able to give you additional pointers specific to your gig.

Lastly, I would explore the ways that you can feel like this is your initiative. It might be the way you communicate it out, or aspects of it that are potentially useful, or something else altogether.

Hope this helps a bit.
posted by hijinx at 6:19 AM on February 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

You have to commit to the bit.
posted by w0mbat at 6:22 AM on February 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'd try to find any kernel of good, and bear that in mind at all times. Don't emphasise the negatives or how much you are rolling your eyes at this when presenting it to others, but validate their concerns and (work with them to?) outline the steps (if any) that can be taken to mitigate the worst of the impact. You might suspect you know how it will go, but nobody can predict the future, and if everyone goes in with the best will it's got the best chance of at least being at the waste-of-time end of your scale rather than harmful.
posted by london explorer girl at 6:27 AM on February 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Learn more about change management (particularly resistance management, as mentioned above) and start speaking the language and applying some of the techniques to the rollout of this change.

Change management is increasingly my job, though I'm generally a cynical person - it's amazing how far you can get by saying the right stuff and looking as though you're taking the thing seriously and trying to help people work through the change. You don't have to buy into the thing yourself particularly; you just need to look enthusiastic about helping other people adjust.

Focus on how others are receiving the change and you will naturally look like someone who is already fully committed and on board, with the added bonus of potentially actually making the change better for some people who experience it. If people ask you what you think, make mumbly noises and flip the conversation back round to how the rest of the business will experience it. You should also get bonus points for caring about other teams/parts of the business if this is a thing your company encourages.
posted by terretu at 6:29 AM on February 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

I'm kind of in a similar position right now, though with less consultant-driven inanity--though what is considered a normal level of strategic mission vision la la la is still kind of alien and distasteful to me. But my various bosses have decided that I should be a leader, so here I am. It is causing me massive amounts of stress. I feel you.

Anyway, can you imagine yourself as covertly being a force for making this implementation the least bad that it could be? It's a difficult line to walk, to seem to be supportive but at the same time making decisions that mitigate the harm that you suspect is going to be caused.

Also, keep an open mind. This plan may or may not be absolutely terrible, but being in the position that you are now in can also give you a perspective on where management might be sometimes coming from that you didn't have before. I'm trying to do something at work right now in the realm of a culture change (which is a term that 6 months ago I would have way rolled my eyes at) and it is definitely giving me a view into some workplace dynamics that I would have chalked up previously to management being dumb. I have had to come to accept that some of this stuff is not actually dumb. Or, even if it is dumb, it's not nefarious.

I also think about a big department shakeup we had a couple years ago. I thought my boss was great, we all really loved him, and from my perspective he was very good at his job. Until one day he got fired. Turns out, he'd been unable to get on board with various changes, butted heads laterally a lot because he really was quite dug in about, basically, all these changes being stupid and pointless. His successor was much more inclined to take the directions from above willingly, and then implement them in the smartest, most impactful (ugh, sorry, what is happening to me), most dynamic way.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:30 AM on February 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Emphasis the good bits....there have to be good bits right?

Also imagine that for the bits that you are neutral or don't like there is likely others that have a different perspective.
posted by mmascolino at 6:35 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

where I would probably start is having a frank 1:1 with the manager to consider the initiative and ask them what they personally hope for the outcome to be. Maybe they sympathize with you and believe that it isn't going to achieve any of its objectives, but they can neither deter it or cancel it, and the best expected outcome is to mitigate any negative effects on the office while also giving you some connections with other high achievers in your company.

Maybe they actually believe in the mission of the group and hope that it will solve some kind of pain.

Both of these potential scenarios will prompt a different approach, but at the end of the day, it's asking the manager to share what they want to get out of it and using that as your guide. The former (the manager thinks it's also a waste of time) means you can loop them in on your concerns and potentially use them as an ally in steering this big bull in your particular china shop. The latter means that you need to press the manager to answer "what is the actual problem that we're trying to solve" and then articulate how the initiative fits as a potential solution to the problem, but in the end it's just one of many, and just the one that's being actively tested now, and your role should be to try and build the solution with or without the initiative.

Let's say, for your hypothetical, it isn't open office. It's a team reorg that's going to shuffle some members of your teams to a cross functional matrix model to unlock synergies, synergize collaboration, and allow folks to collaborate on unlocking. Ask the manager why they think the reorg needs to happen. What pain currently exists in the division that's attributable to the current team structure. Do they really think that the reorg will solve this or is it just an experiment?

If they think it's an experiment and don't have super optimistic hopes for success, then talk about what worries them and sort out how you'd want to update them on progress so that they can be appropriately mollified if things work out well or alarmed if their fears start to be realized.

If they think that it's necessary because the current org model requires too many TPS reports to be created to keep teams in the loop, then the actual issue is a communication problem, and depending on how great your relationship with the manager is, you can keep asking "why" to try to get the root of what they want to solve.

"Why are we changing the teams?"
"Because we're writing too many TPS reports to keep other teams in the loop, if we go cross functional, those teams can just talk to each other like human beings."
"Why are we writing so many TPS reports?"
"Because without those reports too many teams step on each other's toes and get in each other's way."
"In the absence of these reports, why are we always colliding with each other?"
"Because the responsibilities of each team and how we ask for work and handoff work to each other is unclear."
"Why are they unclear? Maybe we can solve for that."
"Because ..."

To a degree you are asking the manager to walk through the same exercise that your company probably went through with the consultants, and that's simply necessary to ensure that you're on the same footing with them as far as understanding the picture that the other higher ups see that made them bring this team on and spend all of this money on their ideas. Ideally that conversation identifies a specific problem that you are excited by and can try to steer the group towards. But also, even if you aren't loyal to the initiative, it sounds like you're loyal to this manager, so your interest should be in proving out their support for you regardless of the outcome of the exercise.
posted by bl1nk at 6:37 AM on February 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

So, it kind of depends on whether you have any input to what the New Thing is and how it’s implemented.

Find out why you’re doing it:
1. Are there benefits? To the company? To teams? To employees? They should be able to tell you what some benefits are. You should be able to get some examples. Let them sell you on it.
2. Is it necessary? Sometimes the end result isn’t really better, but like the old building’s lease is up, or there are new regulations, or your software is out of date, so you have to do New Thing anyway.
3. What problems do you have? Does this solve any of them? Could it solve any of them?

Once you know why, communicate to people. For God’s sake, tell people what is going on and why. Ask for people’s input, if there’s a real chance that it’ll help with New Thing. If people can feel like they are contributing, or that it will help them with any of their problems, they’ll be more open to change. Ideally you could build some excitement, but at least if people know what’s going on there’s less likelihood of dread.

Lots of business processes and software are complicated and stupid. The New Thing will probably be complicated and stupid in some ways, but they will be different ways from what everyone has gotten used to. Maybe it’ll be better, maybe it’ll be worse, but there will be adjustment regardless of what you were doing before, and regardless of how good New Thing actually is.

Practice. Ramp things up. Pilot. Let people get used to doing things the new way, and find out what is working and what isn’t. Make updates if you can. Be willing to bail on parts of the project if it’s not going to work, or if it’s not ready.

I just want to wish you good luck. We’re all counting on you.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:41 AM on February 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Don't pre-emptively telegraph your feelings to the people who are being affected. Sure, you should be open to listen to their complaints, but don't poison the well in advance.

Not an exact analogy, but I'm involved in a national, mostly volunteer organization. A few years ago some changes in procedures came down from above which were necessary for Reasons, but also created more work for the volunteers involved. The person tasked with presenting this message to some of the local chapters came off as "I know you're going to hate this, but..." which was not a good way to approach it. "Here's what we're doing, here's why," leaving the people affected to reach their own decision about how they felt would have been better. There probably would have been grumbling anyway, but this presentation didn't help and increased the feeling of an us-vs.-them situation. Not saying you have to pretend to love it, but at least present it in a value-neutral way and let people reach their own conclusions.

In a different situation, I moved to an open office plan about four years ago. I thought I would hate it. Surprising myself as much as anyone, I didn't. And it probably helped that management didn't approach it as "I know this sucks, but..." which would have primed me to hate it before I got a chance to experience it by myself. (I know you're just using the open-office thing as an analogy and that's not the actual thing you're dealing with; I am continuing the analogy.) There may be some people who will actually like the change. Let them like it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:45 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Can you push for including some sort of evaluation? "Reformulating the input matrix seems like it could really help with widget throughput, but it's always hard to know exactly how things will work out. I think it's important that we measure what's working and what - if anything - can be improved, or even reversed if needed."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:10 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Why do you want a promotion if you don't agree with the values of your organization?

How do you know the open-concept workspace (or whatever it is) doesn't work? Do you have any data? Do you not trust the management team?

I think you need to think like a leader, and act according to your values. If what you're being asked to do contradicts your core values, tell someone. If that doesn't do anything, quit.

If what you're being asked to do does not totally contradict your core values, figure out a way to act in good faith when helping implement or manage the change.

Communicate clearly. Listen, and be seen to listen. Try to make things better for the people whose work life is being affected by the change.

If this all seems uncomfortable to you, maybe you should reevaluate your ambition for a promotion at this organization.
posted by JamesBay at 7:50 AM on February 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

Assume the business is making this change for a good reason, with good intentions. Ask questions about the goals they are hoping to achieve with these changes. Communicate these changes to your reports in good faith, along with the goals for context, and give your reports an opportunity to ask questions, share thoughts and raise concerns about the change. Answer the questions you can answer, and collect their feedback. Bring that feedback and any questions you couldn't answer back to the business. Advocate for your reports en masse but don't be fighty about it, just work towards making sure things that can be addressed are addressed. Remember that change -- even good change -- can be difficult for everyone, so try to be someone who makes change easier instead of harder.
posted by davejay at 7:59 AM on February 15, 2019

There are things you shouldn't do. No sarcasm, no eyeroll, no side-eye, no This plan is from a consultant (i.e., clueless) and we have to comply (even though it's goony and pointless). Understand that the plan will have unintended consequences and many of them will be good. The process of building a thing brings people together. Standard response The plan is thoroughly vetted, and were going to give it th efull implementation it deserves.

If it's a fake good thing, like We're going to scrutinize every department, every employee, every project, looking for waste (people and things to eliminate), use your role to protect undervalued assets, and to hold C-level areas responsible, as well.
posted by theora55 at 8:00 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Looks like you’ve been getting some good answers here, so I’ll address the “Kool-aid”. In popular culture, “Drinking the Kool-aid” is a flippant reference to the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 900+ people committed murder-suicide by ingesting Flavor-aid drink dosed with cyanide. Many were elderly and black, and dosed or injected against their will as they slept, and 304 were children or babies. Others were forced at gunpoint. When the scene was found, bodies were layered more than 3 deep, and so decomposed that some remains had to be scooped up with snow shovels.

It’s not really a super funny event, and as someone in HR, probably something you shouldn’t reference lightly. If you find yourself at the brink of murder-suicide, please consider looking for another job.
posted by Secretariat at 8:21 AM on February 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

1) You can be the measurement guy! Measure how successful stuff is, learn what works and what doesn't and why. It's good for the company, and will give you a super solid basis for advocating whatever you want to advocate in the future (including undoing these changes, or preventing similar ones, if necessary).

2) There's a saying: "A change is as good as a rest". Clearly, this is not true in the most important ways. However, it might be that this will stimulate at least some of the people in the company to be open or learn stuff or try new things, and that's an opportunity. (This will also throw off any measurement you do, so you can do some research to try to adjust your results for that.)

3) If there are improvements/changes that you know people really need, now is a good time to try to find an opening for them. Maybe that nap time people want is somehow "Agile", whatever, you see what I mean here. I mean stuff that's really true, like maybe naps _are_ Agile.
posted by amtho at 8:32 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you have to stop thinking that it is a waste of time. Even if it makes things worse for your colleagues in some ways, you need to find the positives (and there will be things) and you need to help your colleagues embrace this change.

It is helpful to understand what the underlying goal or objective is, so that you can be part of holding the cross-organisation group to account. But unless you really, really trust your manager, you need be wary of being seen to be dragging your feet and doing it unwillingly, so ask questions carefully and from a place of genuine willingness to understand rather than second-guessing decisions that have already been made.

I agree with others that doing this well, will develop your change management skills which you will need if you want to progress and will provide you with good experience to talk about in future interviews. I've already convinced myself that there are positive benefits to you personally from doing a good job on this, see if you can do the same.
posted by plonkee at 8:37 AM on February 15, 2019

I think you have to stop thinking that it is a waste of time. Even if it makes things worse for your colleagues in some ways, you need to find the positives (and there will be things) and you need to help your colleagues embrace this change.
This sounds to me a lot like "shut up and buy in," which is almost never good advice. OP's spidey sense is almost certainly correct here: these plans are bad.

I've been in orgs that convened enormous working groups of high-achievers and then tasked them with nebulous goals about culture, or internetworking, or some other buzzword, and I've generally been among those pressganged into participation.

The sad, ugly truth is that, generally speaking, once this starts happening the organization is probably doomed to become a much less interesting or rewarding place to work. Assigning this kind of crystalgazing tomfoolery to high achievers is distressingly common, and is in and of itself evidence that dumb things are coming. It never augers well for the org as a whole.
posted by uberchet at 11:49 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Assigning this kind of crystalgazing tomfoolery to high achievers is distressingly common, and is in and of itself evidence that dumb things are coming. It never augers well for the org as a whole.

Yes, but part of the point here is you need to divorce "how do I feel about this initiative and what does it mean about whether I want to stay at the company?" from "given that I am assigned to the working group about it, how should I act?". It is totally ok to leave over this project, or tell your boss you don't want to work on it (accepting that this may also end up with you leaving), but if you're staying, you actually do have to shut up and buy in (or, as amazon would say, disagree and commit).
posted by inkyz at 12:22 PM on February 15, 2019

Thanks all—I feel like a struck a chord here, as the responses here are among the most thoughtful and helpful of all the Asks I’ve posted in the past 15 years (including Secretariat, as I hadn’t made the Jonestown connection with the Kool-Aid reference, and will strike that from my lexicon—apologies to any distressed by my choice of words. It was inadvertent, and I’ll do better.)

I’m certainly no more in favor of this policy, but you’re totally right that I can flex into it as a transition to the hoped-for promotion. But OMG the no eyerolling will be tough, particularly as everyone I tell about the initiative immediately rolls their eyes. It’s certainly true that the higher I go, the more of this will be my responsibility, so I’ll be doing my best to keep my mulishness in check.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:45 PM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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