News & Insight
December 2008

The Power of Surprise

Mark Walztoni

New leaders have a special opportunity to engage their team during their first months in a new role. Psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote that "unfreezing" someone's thought processes could lead to new behaviors, and new leaders can improve their effectiveness by applying this insight through the "Power of Surprise". The following are four examples of this principle and questions to stimulate your thinking about next steps you can take to increase your impact within your organization.

Connect the Dots

I vividly recall my first day of employment at American Express, which was also was my first job after college. The branch manager came to my office within my first thirty minutes. He expressed confidence in me (although we had never met), told me that the purpose of my job was to help him build the best office in the company by hiring talented people, and that he would stop by from time-to-time to give me feedback on how I was doing.

He "connected the dots" from my entry-level role to his personal mission and belief that I had a critical and accountable role to make it a reality. He only invested ten minutes of time, but his return was a positive effect on my performance and that of hundreds of colleagues as I modeled his behavior during my career.

Show the Gloves

John Kotter, noted Harvard professor and author of such books as The Heart of Change and What Managers Really Do, writes that there are eight steps to leading organizational change: increasing urgency, building Guiding Teams, getting the vision right, communicating for Buy-In, enabling action, creating short-term wins, no letting up, and making it stick.

The principle that best applies to the "Power or Surprise" is "Increasing Urgency". Kotter believes that there is a greater acceptance of the need to change when people see, touch, or feel the problem. He illustrates this principle with an example of a manager who researched a large company's use of gloves in their manufacturing process. He found that each plant ordered 200 varieties of gloves from multiple vendors for prices that ranged from $3 to $20. Rather than prepare a long report, he gathered samples from each plant with the price tags in place, and brought 200 pairs of gloves to his next staff meeting and placed them on the table. The team's response was, "This is crazy! We need to change it!" And the manager had a solution in mind, needless to say.

Aim for the Heart

I worked with a senior manager in the early 80's that thought fanny patting was a sign of team spirit. Needless to say, eventually an employee filed in internal grievance.

I was ready to quote company policy, legal liability, societal norms, and disciplinary consequences to him, which probably would have brought a reluctant apology and begrudging compliance. My associate, though, took the path of surprise by asking, "Would you approve of someone patting your daughter's fanny at her office? The first response was anger, but after a long moment he said, "I never looked at it that way and I'll never tolerate it being done again."

Your Greatest Strength May Be Your Greatest Weakness

A person's greatest blind spot may be relying on an overdeveloped strength when they enter a new role. For example, a person with strong knowledge of employee relations law may view the answer to rising employee complaints as retaining more lawyers. I met Anne, who had exactly this background, at a large global company. She prepared a business case to retain more lawyers based on the ratio of second stage grievances and lawsuits to existing staff. However, her expertise in handling complaints (her greatest strength) blinded her to the option of addressing the root causes of the complaints and reducing the amount rather than just handling increasing complaint volumes more efficiently.

Finally, the "Power of Surprise" is only another tool in your toolbox. Here are a few questions to ponder as you think of applying it as a new leader:

  • How can you connect the dots between individuals and team responsibilities and organizational goals in your own workplace?
  • Where are the gloves in your organization? What can you show, illustrate, or monitor regarding your version of the "gloves" to build the case for individual and organizational change?
  • How will you creatively use language to aim for the heart?
  • How will you know if your greatest strength is your greatest weakness?

The first months in a new role are an opportunity for leaders to create learning opportunities for their team. The "Power of Surprise" offers a unique way to influence people and accelerate organizational change.

WJM Faculty Member Mark Walztoni has over 25 years of human resources leadership experience in leading companies such as American Express, Ernst and Young LLP, and Thomson. His consulting and coaching specialties are comprehensive onboarding for new leaders and team and accelerating the return on human capital investments for private equity firms and organizations investing in mergers and acquisitions.

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