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Managing change doesn’t make you crazy, clueless, or cruel

by Mary Poletti

Jill Geisler, group leader for Leadership & Management Programs at the Poynter Institute, set out to address some challenges for newsroom leaders in this climate.

Start positive, she said. What’s working? she asked the audience. What are we proud of? Responses included:

  • “Learning new things”
  • “That people are still laughing in the newsroom”
  • “We are still breaking news”
  • “Writing tighter & smarter”

Geisler used a light, pop-culture method to drive home an important lesson. What can managing editors learn from Whoopi Goldberg’s sassy lounge singer-turned-nun/choir director in Sister Act, Sister Mary Clarence? In the film, she turned a terrible choir into a unified, high-performing team. It was a teaching lesson for Geisler, and she showed a clip from Sister Act of Sister Mary Clarence’s first choir practice and urged tables to take notes on what Sister Mary Clarence did well as someone trying to lead change.

After the film, she asked what the audience wrote. Some responses included:

  • recognizing that all of the nuns were different and empowering them to find their individual voices
  • starting out by organizing
  • putting the right people in the right places
  • not alienating the previous leadership and turning it into a group struggle
  • giving the group some of their passion
  • letting them fail at first
  • starting small
  • accepting old leadership at first before putting it down
  • taking small steps
  • using humor
  • coaching — and using coaching language (Geisler: We all used to be really good at something before we became managers, and we’re still tempted to show off every once in a while.)
  • making expectations clear
  • encouraging listening to one another
  • calling out underperformers without humiliating them
  • making clear why what they’re doing matters

Sometimes we get so busy “feeding the beast” in the daily hustle and bustle of the newsroom, Geisler said, that we forget to make it clear why what we’re doing matters.

Organizations differ, but change challenges are similar, as are solutions (that can be customized to your newsroom), Geisler has learned from the large volume of “change literature” she has read, much of which she quoted and cited during her presentation.

Geisler shared five key principles on which she hoped to elaborate: education, emotion, motivation, collaboration, and communication.

Education: We are constantly learning. “Learning something new makes us temporarily incompetent,” a quote Geisler shared read, and that learning anxiety makes people push back — “I won’t get it,” “I’ll look stupid,” “I have to drop what works,” “I’ll be the outsider,” “I’ll permanently lose credibility.” We choose to change when our survival anxiety becomes greater than our learning anxiety. A lot of managers think that means scare tactics, but that doesn’t work. Don’t increase survival anxiety (it’s high enough right now), reduce learning anxiety. Make training a priority. Understand how adults learn. (How, for example, did you learn how to use your new cell phone?) Put training into action ASAP, and have an immediate follow-up plan for its use. Reward risk-taking. Provide role models — and be one.

Emotion: Yes, it exists in newsrooms! We hope for optimism, but we get anger, sarcasm, or frustration because newsrooms perceive their managers as threatening or as jerks. You are managing the space between the platforms, with all the emotions that brings. The emotions of change are inwardly focused: shock, numbness, denial, blame, anger, and depression. Start moving from the inward to the outward. Understand emotions — theirs and your own. Allow people to let off steam (within reason). Don’t react to emotional outbursts in kind. Remember the power of symbols — for example, do something with all those empty desks, and maintain certain newsroom traditions. (And don’t hide out in your office with the door closed for too long!) To focus change emotions outward, bring the best of the past forward, make the process transparent, orient to the future, and be realistic while sharing genuine optimism. John P. Kotter wrote, “Changing behavior is less a matter of giving people analysis to influence their thoughts than helping them see a truth that influences their feelings.” People don’t analyze>think>change, they see>feel>change. Quick wins, new stories, and role models are key to helping people see, then feel, then change.

As an example of the success of a newsroom, Geisler shared about the recent success of a veteran Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, which reinforced a strong sense of mission and really boosted morale in the newsroom, sending a message about the strength of the newspaper.

Motivation: Geisler urged the audience to remember a time when they couldn’t wait to get to work and respond with their memories, like Election Day, the day of a new product’s launch, working on a big stretch assignment, the day after 9/11, and more. The common thread in those memories, Geisler said, is not the extrinsic reward (not so many of those these days), but the intrinsic motivators — what drives us. The key intrinsic motivators, according to Kenneth W. Thomas, are competence (doing more of what we’re good at), choice (letting everyone in the newsroom contribute to big ideas), meaningfulness (“boy, Sister Mary Clarence told us about that” — reminding people of the meaning of what they do), and progress (giving constructive feedback to reporters). In terms of feedback, knowledge workers like reporters value autonomy, the right kind of feedback (non-controlling and attentive, among other things), and a voice in designing their work, especially when it involves change. Which brought Geisler to…

Collaboration: Innovation requires collaboration, Geisler said. According to Keith Sawyer, “group genius generates breakthrough innovation.” According to Lynda Gratton, “boundary spanners” are key — staffers who naturally network, build bonds, exchange information, and solve problems. Geisler encouraged the audience to identify and acknowledge theirs. What do managers do that creates and/or encourages those people? To foster collaboration, Geisler shared what she called a simple tip: Discover what makes a great day at work for others — boss expectations, professional standards, peer values, personal goals.

Communication: Communication fuels change. Relentlessly communicate about that change, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton wrote. “Leaders manage meaning,” Warren Bennis wrote. “They find ways to make dreams apparent and alive to others.” Communicating relentlessly — in many ways, not just in meetings, but in conversations, word of mouth, and what Geisler called “meetings before/after the meeting” — is the key to making change apparent and alive. Remember, with regard to change communication, that what you’ve known for a while, reporters and newsroom employees are just now processing. Information is currency. People don’t hear well when their emotions are engaged. Even stupid rumors need to be addressed.

Geisler ended with a mash-up of motivational film speeches — “40 Inspirational Speeches in 2 Minutes.” “I don’t know if you can rise to that level of inspiration every day, but try,” Geisler said. “Journalism needs it.”

Jill Geisler presents techniques for managing change
Jill Geisler, group leader for Leadership and Management Programs at the Poynter Institute, challenged editors to foster communication among their staff to motivate them in times of innovation and change, Oct. 28, 2009, in St. Louis, Mo. (APME 2009 Coverage Photo/ Emily Stewart)

APME editors respond to Jill Geisler's presentation
Audience members watch as Jill Geisler played a short clip from the movie “Sister Act” to provide comic relief during her conference workshop on change. She suggested managers teach their employees by reinforcing their competence, Oct. 28, 2009, in St. Louis, Mo. (APME 2009 Coverage Photo/ Emily Stewart)

For help or inspiration, contact Geisler at jgeisler (at) poynter (dot) org.

Download Geisler’s handouts:
Change checkup
Rules of change
Four barriers to collaboration

Filed under: Changing times, Discussions, , , ,

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