“I don’t know”

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As I was about to shut down my Mac for the night, last night, I came across someone’s blurb on The Times’ website about “3 Little words you should never say.”  (http://time.com/3507112/3-words-never-say)

Long story short:  “I don’t know” is not a winning response.   Apparently the PC/smart thing to say is “I have insufficient information on which to base a response at this time” or something like that.

Many years ago, in one of my first experiences in facilitating a change management workshop, I ran out of steam and arrived at the “I don’t know” point.  I had been working with a group of young managers who were planning extensive lay-offs as part of a major organisational restructuring exercise (‘retrenchments’ as they say in the UK and South Africa).  I was grateful for the work, having recently gone out on my own, and I was angry because of the prevailing cavalier attitude of middle management to the people who were going to be losing their jobs.

Race was a factor.  The victims were black; the perpetrators were white.  Not that the black employees were targeted, but simply that it reflected the profile of the company at the time, and the structural change would impact shop floor rather than the ivory tower. To me race was a factor in that I believed that the lay-off conversation was entered into with greater ease because the candidates for job-loss and unemployment were black.

I designed an activity that would SHOW them. During a coffee break I placed a sealed, personally addressed envelope at each delegate’s place. Inside some of those envelopes were letters telling the delegate that s/he had been laid off, and in the others the letter said that lay-offs were happening but that the addressee was assured of his/her position for now.  They were printed on corporate letterhead.  They looked real.

When the folks came back from coffee they casually opened their letters, thinking nothing of it, until they’d read the contents. A dreadful pall fell upon the room.  A deathly silence.  A response far beyond anything I had anticipated.  I froze.

The general manager of the business asked me, after some minutes of awkward silence, “what happens now?'”  I said “I don’t know.”  I had been so caught up in wanting them to experience the horror of lay-off/retrenchment that I had not thought through the rest of the exercise.  Maurice – the GM, said “that’s not an answer, you DO know.  What happens now?”

I recovered.  I said to the group:  “Work in pairs.  If you received a lay-off letter, pair with someone who received a neutral information letter.  Tell them how you felt when you read that letter.  Tell them what you’re going to tell the family when you get home tonight. And those of you who received the information letter, talk about what it feels like to have survived the cuts.”

I paused as they organised themselves into pairs. I felt like throwing up.  There was still a dreadful dark, heavy feeling in the room.  I said “This is a training exercise – those letters aren’t real”.  The atmosphere didn’t change.  It remained dark and grim, but the group, in pairs, discussed their feelings. These were macho men, not normally prone to the heart on the sleeve thing. Their voices were low and their faces were grim.  I felt awful.

By the end of the workshop their lay-off/retrenchment plan had been modified. Although there were significant commercial advantages to the restructuring that would trigger the cut in jobs these managers were planning,  and it was a core corporate strategy, the decision was made by this group to explore significant alternatives to achieving the restructuring with minimal, if any, lay-offs.

Maurice was right.  Much as I didn’t know, in the moment, what to do with the phenomenal impact of those bogus letters, at the heart of it I did know – they needed to FEEL the human impact of business decisions and to be open and honest about it: they needed to consider the social impact of their choices.  It should never be just about the money.  They needed to add the human dimension back into corporate planning.  And, my task at this workshop, with this exercise, was to bring them to the point where they could do that.

Subsequently the Board adopted a policy that no plant team was permitted to undertake the restructuring without having attended my workshop first.  My former boss and I had to report to Norman, the MD, on each workshop: Were they ready? Was their plan sound? And it wasn’t just about the money anymore.

That was then; this is now.  I’ve never forgotten that lesson: where I, the know-it-all HR guru was so impressed with my own creativity and personal anger that I didn’t know how to manage the situation I’d created. But, there had been a man I’d previously viewed as cold, tough and distant, who’d always made me nervous, who gave me a strong and non-negotiable push to take responsibility for the situation I’d created, along with a vote of confidence that I DID know what to do next. This blog is in honour of Maurice Egan.

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  1. suzanne on October 24, 2014 at 7:46 am

    amazing story. Very proud of you Delphine for coming up with that plan

  2. joan on November 6, 2014 at 12:43 am

    you have told this story to me before and I want to thank you for putting it here as it is an interesting story and I was glad to read it. It would make an interesting movie

  3. Delphine on November 6, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    A movie from a blog – now there’s a thought! (Been done though – the movie about Julia Childs – Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Julie and Julia http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1135503/)

  4. Delphine on November 24, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Jim Collins says that great decisions stem from saying “I don’t know!”

    “I built a culture that began with disagreements; that set people up to disagree with each other and disagree with me. I tried to increase my…questions-to-statements ratio…..I learnt this from the Good to Great leaders we were studying. They were just marvellous at igniting dialogue and debate…What we found in companies that made good decisions is the debate is real….We found this process in all the companies we studied, when they made their leap to greatness. It is real, violent debate in search of understanding.”

    Extracted from a Fortune (4 July 2005) interview with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and Built to Last.

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