Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Facebook Can Teach HR About Foisting Change Upon The Peeps

Can you stand another article about the Facebook change fiasco last week?   I hope so, because this might be one of the few pieces you'll read about the HR side of things.

I don't know about you, but I liked Facebook, circa September 1, just fine.  I knew my way around. My FB friends knew their way around. We knew how to find each other and look for the latest postings of people whose opinions either matter or set our hair on fire (or both).  Suddenly, for no apparent reason at all, kablaam! One more universe as we know it – gone.  And Facebook has left it up to us to poke our way around again, learning new paths and procedures.

Where we once had a variety of interesting things to talk about, our main topic now is about how Facebook has let us down. Interestingly, not one of my FB pals are complaining about change itself. We're complaining about the arrogance and hubris reflected in the way the change was made – specifically and worst: the fact that FB has taken it upon themselves to tell us what stories are important in the news feed.  Personally, I can do without the minutiae of lost socks and cat horror stories that populate my feed.  But I don't want to leave it up to some adenoidal intern to write a program that deletes stories about the latest political outrages and leaves the socks stories intact.

Here's the piece that ticks us off: Not only did the FB dweebs make the changes, they didn't ask us for our participation in the decision-making process.  And therein lies the connection to HR.

Don't assume gratitude will generate blind loyalty. In the employment world, the hubris comes out as, "hey! Just be glad you have a job."  In the FB world, it's "how can you complain about something that's free?"   Where there's a choice that they can exercise – or even the possibility of choice – don't treat your people like sheep.  (Don't treat your people like sheep anyway, but even more so where there's choice.)  Your people will always have a part in the decision-making progress. In the social media world that choice looks like Google +. In your world, that choice shows up as a community of employees suddenly dressing up — like they're going to job interviews or something.

The price of discretionary effort is a sense of ownership around how things get done around here.  You love it when your employees contribute over and above, right?  That shows that they're personally invested in the successful outcome of your business.  So where do you want that feeling of passion to stop and employees revert to docile indifference?  Do you think you can be the one to decide where that line is? Think again. Most employees know that there are certain things that go on in the C-suite that they have no part in. But they at least want the courtesy of being fully informed as to what decisions were made, why and how.

Preferably before they're made. That way they don't walk into work the next morning and are shocked to see everything changed overnight.  Which is what happened to Facebook users.

Trust that your people are more level-headed about business realities than you might think they are.  Just a couple of days before the Facebook surprise, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings issued a lengthy apology about the ham-fisted way the company reconfigured its pricing structure.  There may have been some anger around that price increase, but I sure didn't hear it.  Most people know that companies have to do what they have to do to stay profitable.  And Netflix set up the change in such a way that the consumer still has a choice (although I'm not so wild about the name Qwikster – I fear a sudden craving for chocolate milk).

Facebook, however, did not. Only choice left, really, is to leave. That is not engaging people management.

Don't mess with your people's personal stuff.  It's one thing to change the business model. It's an entirely different thing to go into your employees' cubicles in the middle of the night and rearrange their pictures of spouse, kids and good dog Spot.  That is the emotional experience that Facebook users had last week when they signed on to their page, only to be shocked by the fact that someone has been moving their personal stuff around in the middle of the night. Is there any wonder that the outcry had a huge streak of the personal in it?

Here's a positive lesson:

There will always be a few evangelists for change embedded in your population who can usher the rest along toward the future.  Personally, I'm still not wild about the ticker scrolling down the right side of my screen. But my 65-year-old retired friend in New Hampshire assures me that I'll come to love it.  If there was a way that Facebook could have identified him as an early adopter/evangelist and recruited him to be his circle's change shepherd, maybe the rest of us would have been more docile in following along.

Every organization has early adopters and evangelists for change who can positively influence the enthusiasms of the rest.  Do you know who they are?  If you don't, find them.  Equip them with all the knowledge they need to answer questions about where things can be found (like that missing picture of Spot) and reassurances around policy changes (like, for instance, privacy).

That way you won't have to do all the work yourself.  And wouldn't that be a nice change?

Martha I. Finney works with companies to achieve their objectives through harnessing the passion of their people. She is the author or coauthor of 16 books, including HR From the Heart, with Libby Sartain. Her books have been translated into Spanish, French, Tamil, Chinese and Arabic. Her Career Landscapes team-building workshop builds trusting and productive relationships among team members through the shared experience of authentic storytelling.

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