A manager writes:
I have been working for 6 months as a manager in an organization that had undergone significant change in organization structure in the previous year. I hear staff gossiping about how unfairly office and program areas were assigned, why some programs were discontinued, and why they now report to new supervisors. As I set out to manage my team, everything I do is looked at with mistrust. Even my bringing cookies for our meetings is greeted with suspicion; they ask, “oh, what bad news are you preparing us for today?” I see myself as a nurturing and empowering manager, and I’m surprised that people don’t feel that they can trust me. This is making it hard for me to get them to focus on our goals for the year.
The stories that people tell about what happened in the organization’s past, which are heightened when provoked by significant events, become part of the organization’s lore. Staff give the events their own meaning, especially if the organization’s leadership hasn’t done sufficient messaging about the rationale and approach to significant change. In this case, staff seems to perceive the meaning to be that managers cannot be trusted; you are a manager, so this includes you. Turning around a narrative like this works best if the whole management team is prepared to assess their approach to managing change and are behind a communication strategy. Whether or not that is not the case, there are still things you can do independently, within your own authority.
Ask people to share their stories about the change at one of your staff meetings. It may take more than one invitation for them to feel comfortable to do this. Ask for descriptions of the kinds of behaviour they thought were of concern, of the messages they heard and what they would like to have heard. Talking about their story doesn’t require that you agree with their version. It does give you an opportunity to acknowledge the significant change and intense emotions they experienced.
Create a new narrative
The new narrative needs to be authentic, believable, come from a place of good intent, and be within your capacity to deliver. Write the two narratives out side-by-side, and assess the underlying meaning of what they both say.
- In your case, for example, the narrative you are hearing from staff speaks to people feeling they were treated unfairly by managers, leading to a deeper narrative that managers cannot be trusted.
- Include in the narrative you wish to create that your intent is to be nurturing, empowering, and trustworthy. Identify the behaviours that would lead to staff trusting you to be so, during regular operations, and in times of uncertainty or challenge.
Translate your new narrative into key messages that you are prepared to deliver on a daily basis, reinforced by behaviours that align with your messaging.
Use these messages and behaviours to demonstrate your intent: for example, delegate responsibilities, mentor staff when they make mistakes, use clear and direct words in your communication, give advance notice of change and the rationale underlying it, and ask for feedback. You’ll be looking to see when your new narrative becomes the dominant one, based on the stories staff begin telling that reveal the trust they have in you as a manager.
Changing a narrative doesn’t happen overnight. Patience and designing effective interventions will support the change that needs to take place to benefit both you and your staff.