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Lessons on Leading Change from Charlie Brown and Lucy

At last, you roll out your big change initiative to your organization. You’ve done your planning, brought the key decision makers on board, and made your awesome slides. You present your vision, confident that this is really going to make a difference. And the reaction? Blank stares.

What went wrong? Did you forget a lesson from your Effective Presentations training? Was there a problem with the slides? Or maybe the employees in the audience just don’t appreciate the value of what you’re proposing.

Most likely, it’s none of those. The cause may well have to do with what I’ve come to think of as the Charlie Brown Challenge.

Back in the day – ok, back in my day – the Peanuts comic strip and TV specials would feature a recurring scenario. Our hapless but lovable Charlie Brown would encounter his nemesis Lucy van Pelt, who is holding a football. She offers to hold the ball for him and he can run up and kick it. Charlie Brown always greets her offer with skepticism: Time and again he’s charged that football only to have Lucy yank it away at the last second, then gleefully watch him soar through the air to land flat on his back, smarting and humiliated. Yet Lucy always manages, one more time, to reason with, cajole, and flatter him into making one more wholehearted, optimistic, full-bore run – which always ends in one more painful (if endearing) failure.

So if we’re considering this scenario in the context of management proposing a change initiative, guess who’s Lucy?

I’m not suggesting you or your organization takes a mischievous delight in setting up your employees to fail. But I am suggesting that the ambivalence about a proposed change in your organization may be due to management’s past failures to follow through on its commitments. How many times has your leadership proposed some grand initiative that generated initial enthusiasm and commitment, only to abandon it for the next bright shiny object, or because maybe it just got too hard?

I’ve been part of leading change in the context of previous management failures. In conversations with employees about giving it “one more try,” I often discovered that these people were the true believers last time around. They got energized by the picture of the future that management was painting, and gave their best to help create that future. And when management lost interest, or found something else to get excited about, these people saw their expectations of success evaporate - often without the courtesy of acknowledgement, let alone thanks or regret on the part of anyone in leadership. And so when that next proposal of big change comes out, employees’ reluctance to commit again is rarely because of Theory X laziness masking as world-weary cynicism. It’s because they don’t think there’s anything cute or endearing about having been played for a fool by someone they trusted. Individual managers come, go, and are forgotten, but when it comes to broken promises, institutional memory is long.

Plenty of management teams are quick to acknowledge the price of lost credibility they pay for failed change initiatives; but I’ve come to believe that the roots of such failures go deeper than that. Jesus Christ said that if a man can be trusted in small things, he can be trusted in greater things. My younger, snarkier self used to think that, in a management context, Jesus should have read The Peter Principle; but my more experienced, hopefully humbler self sees that Jesus had it right. We trust those who demonstrate integrity, which is to say those whose words are integrated with their deeds. And there’s no threshold below which the integration of our words and deeds don’t matter. It’s worth reflecting, therefore, on whether management’s failures in large initiatives may stem from its comfort with lack of follow-through on promises of raises, promotions, other career opportunities, or other workplace improvements.

You may defend yourself by pointing out that business conditions do change; leaders who start things change; and obstacles arise that can’t always be overcome, none of which can be attributed to a moral failing on management’s part. That’s all true: but the net effect on your workforce is no different. All the more reason, therefore, to cultivate a management ethic that doesn’t make promises without first ensuring its own commitment to keeping them.

So when you’re trying to build employee commitment to change, remember that every such attempt is a reminder to your audience of all the past times when like Lucy, intentionally or not, you pulled away the football. And the best way to get your people to buy in is to give them reasons to recall all those past times when you kept the ball in place just like you said you would, and helped them land not on their backs, but squarely on their feet in triumph.


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