Six guidelines for responding to hostile challenges to change

Credit: Vasko Miokovic
Credit: Vasko Miokovic

I’m breaking my silence here at Pros Write with these guidelines. They’re the result of a study made available today in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly. With my co-authors (Pierson Carmichael and Jefrey Naidoo), I offer six practical lessons to help change agents manage communication and maintain credibility with stakeholders who have made a hostile challenge like “Why are we changing a successful system?”

Lesson #1: Diagnose the source of the stakeholder’s hostility in order to determine the component of readiness you need to address.

Once you are familiar with the five components of change messages, you will become adept at diagnosing which of these you must address to neutralize the stakeholder’s hostility toward your change initiative. Does your response need to focus on the discrepancy between where your organization is and where it needs to be? the appropriateness of the planned change for dealing with the discrepancy? the likely efficacy of the planned change? the support of leadership? or the benefits of the planned change to individuals?

Lesson #2: Claim dealing with the challenge isn’t timely as your default response strategy.

Our recommendation is backed by the consistency of findings in studies about strategies for responding to hostility. It may well be most preferred because it implies that the change agents are already addressing the concerns the stakeholder has raised.

Lesson #3: With an efficacy challenge, either deny something about the challenge exists or explain why answering the challenge isn’t desirable.

Because the timing strategy was not preferred with challenges focused on the potential efficacy of the planned change, you need alternatives in this situation. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on our own findings, with nothing in an earlier study to warn against its use. Similarly, our recommendation to use the desirability strategy is based on earlier findings, with nothing in our own to warn against its use.

Lesson #4: Deny something about the challenge exists to deal with challenges to discrepancy and appropriateness, as well as efficacy.

Because the timing strategy may not always be applicable with challenges focused on the the need for or appropriateness of your planned change, you need an alternative in these situations. Our recommendation to use the existence strategy is based on its consistently high preference rankings in our own and earlier studies.

Lesson #5: Claim you aren’t able to handle the challenge with caution and only when dealing with principal support or personal valence challenges.

Preferences for the ability strategy were highly inconsistent. It ranked 2nd overall in our study because of its effectiveness dealing with principal support and personal valence challenges. In contrast, it ranked among least preferred strategies for dealing with other types of challenges in our study and for dealing with all challenges in an earlier study.

Lesson #6: Don’t deny you are the right person for handling the challenge.

Although our results for the agency strategy were inconsistent with an earlier study, we feel justified in cautioning change agents not to use it because it “passes the buck.” Benoit notes that “denial and shifting the blame are not considered by those who are injured by the actions to be as appropriate or effective as other potential image restoration strategies”. Earlier research found the agency strategy least preferred when responding to hostility about environmental concerns, and in interviews with experienced organizational spokespersons, some noted they had been explicitly taught not to use it in public affairs training.

After using these lessons to deal with the hostile challenge in a way that maintains your credibility, you can continue your on-going dialogue about components of the change which your stakeholder finds troubling. My single-minded focus on research has been inevitable during my sabbatical this fall. But I intend to share more often here when 2015 arrives. At least that’s the plan.

Further Reading

Armenakis, A. A. (1993). Creating readiness for organizational change. Human Relations, 46(6), 681–703.

Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration strategies. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Campbell, K. S., Follender, S. I., & Shane, G. (1998). Preferred strategies for responding to hostile questions in environmental public meetings. Management Communication Quarterly, 11(3), 401–421. 

Campbell, K. S., Parker, F., & Follender, S. I. (1996). Responding to hostile questions: More insights from speech act theory. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(2), 151–167.

Gore, M. S. (2003). Strategies leaders should use to respond to hostile questions regarding organizational changes: An empirical investigation. Thesis. Air Force Institute of Technology.

Language communicates more than content

We use language to communicate content. But we also use it to manage social relations. And we have to do both within the same message. Watch this 10-minute RSA Animate video of Steven Pinker‘s Language as a Window into Human Nature to explore this topic.

The need to manage social relations explains why plain language, although critical for clear communication, is only one strategy.

My leadership communication students have been discussing the range of strategies. Here’s a simplified explanation of how these are covered in Thinking & Interacting Like a Leader.

On record plainly means being direct and brief.

  1. To warn the public you say, “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Tunisia”
  2. To solicit sex you say to an individual, “I want to have sex with you”

This strategy is effective when content is king (and that might be the case either because there is no threat to social relations in your message or because you don’t care about social relations in this message). Sentence (1) is effective because the warning is more important than any relationship consequences of your message (say, with leaders in Tunisia). Sentence (2) is effective only if you don’t care about the consequences of your offer on your future relationship with the addressee if its refused.

Off record means being deliberately ambiguous.

  1. To warn the public you say,”The Department of State believes U.S. citizens could find better places to travel than Tunisia”
  2. To solicit sex you say to an individual, “Do you want to come up and see my etchings?”

This strategy is effective only when social relations are threatened and that threat is more important than content. I can’t think of many situations in which sentence (1) would be effective since the warning is critical.  Sentence (2), however, is effective if your offer may be declined and you’re concerned about how that will affect your future relationship. The downside is that your offer can easily be misinterpreted or ignored because of the level of content ambiguity.

On record politely means being indirect and less concise without being ambiguous.

  1. To warn the public you say,”The Department of State reminds U.S. citizens of the dangers of travel to Tunisia”
  2. To solicit sex you say to an individual, “How do you feel about sex after dinner?”

This final strategy is effective when there’s a threat to social relations but content is important, too. Sentence (1) would be effective if you want to recognize addressees’ autonomy in making their travel plans but also convey the warning.  Sentence (2) would be effective if your offer may be declined and you’re concerned about the impact on your future relationship. Your offer can be ignored but it is less ambiguous than the off record version.

Pros, including anyone who wants to lead others, sometime convey messages that threaten social relations (called “necessary evils”). That means they must learn to use multiple strategies and to identify the best strategy for each message.

Amateurs fail after a misdeed

Anyone who avoids full responsibility after making a mistake counts as an amateur in my book. This past week, my students discussed the purpose and effectiveness of a letter from a publications manager to a group of volunteer editors. The consensus was that it effectively informed readers about the reasons for performance issues in the manager’s area, as well as plans to address them in the future,  but it was still an “epic fail.” (The letter appears as Application 2A in Thinking & Interacting Like a Leader, but you can view the entire text here: non-apology letter.)

Why an epic fail? Because the letter writer did not take full responsibility for the situation by apologizing to readers. There are two sentences near the end of the letter that might be construed as an apology.

Those who have been most affected by our delays have been extremely patient. I would like to express my thanks to you as we work to resolve our performance issues.

Those words do not, however, perform an unequivocal act of contrition. Several writers over at Macmillan Dictionary’s blog have talked about apologies over the past few months. Simon Williams and Jules Winchester note that contrition requires both an understanding of and sorrow for a misdeed. Theory supporting their view comes from speech act theory: two of the conditions our words must meet in order to constitute an apology are (a) expressing an act which resulted in harm to the audience and (b) sincere remorse for carrying out the act.  So — our letter writer appears to have an understanding of his area’s misdeed when saying some readers were “affected by our delays” and “performance issues.”  But praising readers or thanking them for their patience does not convey sorrow or remorse.

Michael Rundell’s blog post made the point that proper apologies require speakers to accept their role as agent of the misdeed. Again, speech act theory supports his view by including a condition that our words count as an apology only if we express a harmful act we carried out. Our letter writer implies his area’s agency for misdeeds by writing, “our delays” and “our performance issues.” Because the letter writer expressed no sorrow about the misdeeds, it’s not possible for him to accept agency.

Stan Carey wrote about issues with the following words as an apology:

[My] Apologies.

Stan rightly notes that the use of “Apologies” lacks some weight because of ellipsis — the reader has to fill in critical missing information. Once again, speech act theory supports this view by  describing the clearest apology as one with a first-person singular pronoun and the performative verb: “I apologize.” Several of the comments on Stan’s post lament the use of the following:

I’m sorry if . . . I hurt you . . . or . . . you were offended.

The problem noted by these folks is that the use of “if” makes this a pseudo- rather than actual apology. The conditional “if” is a presupposition trigger and does not presuppose the truth of the proposition expressed.  To be more clear, its use when expressing an act which resulted in harm to the audience weakens any attempted apology by implying the harm might not have taken place.

The bottom line for our letter writer is that he didn’t use any words related to “apology” or “sorry.” He expressed no sorrow about the harm done to his readers. So, despite the fact that he accepted some responsibility for that harm, he wrote a letter that failed as an apology. It would have been painful to convey his remorse after his area caused harm to the volunteer editors. It would have been humbling to communicate his full responsibility for that harm. But it would have made him a leader. And a pro.

No, thank YOU, you @#$%^ machine!

I’ve heard a few folks complaining about automated messages — thank-you emails to be specific. In Auto-politeness, revisited, one of The Economist’s Johnson bloggers wrote,

Thanking is a real human response to a real event; I don’t know if it can be outsourced to a machine.

Here is a personal example from a while back. I received this email after submitting a review for a research journal. My response was neutral rather than negative. So I started thinking about why others respond negatively to this kind of message.

First off, I didn’t — and still don’t — perceive this message as a thank-you. Yes. I know it says “thank you” in two highly salient locations (the subject line and the first few words of the message). But I perceive this message as primarily informing me (that my review was received) rather than valuing me (by expressing gratitude for completing my review). If you’ve watched my tutorial on purpose, you know I find it useful to categorize the purpose of messages into four types as shown in the figure.

So how can I interpret an email that says “thank you” twice as something other than a thank-you? Because the purpose of a message can be communicated indirectly. Any native English speaker knows that “Do you know the time?” is ordinarily a request and not a question appropriately answered with “yes” or “no.” But indirectness does allow ambiguity in a way that “I request you tell me the time” does not. In this case, the indirectness is a conventional means of showing politeness. (There is a history of research in this area referred to as speech act theory. Revising Professional Writing discusses these conventions in the chapter on tone.) So I didn’t react negatively to the email because it never occurred to me to categorize it as a thank-you message.

The Economist blogger rightly attributed the problem of automated thank-yous to the lack of a human writer. Speech act theory includes a list of conditions that must be met for our words to count as a particular act. And one of the conditions our words must meet to count as an act of thanking is this: we must be sincerely grateful. That means when I say “thanks” with obvious sarcasm after a phone answering system hangs up on me, my words do not constitute an act of thanking. When a machine sends an automated “thank you,” it doesn’t constitute an act of thanking either because it cannot be sincerely grateful.

The fact is that, for the 10 years I served as editor of a research journal, I always acknowledged receipt of reviews by sending a short but personal email message. (I used readers’ first names and mentioned anything current and relevant we might share, etc.) I probably wouldn’t have if we had used the kind of automated system now commonplace among research publications. That would have been a mistake. Face-to-face communication with those reviewers was rarely possible. We were distributed across the globe. But I’m sure my personal thank-yous via email helped me develop relationships with the individuals who served as reviewers. Those relationships were important to me and to the success of the journal. A machine couldn’t have done that.

After giving this whole situation some thought, I would advise any amateur creating automated responses for unknown readers to get rid of the valuing or expressive statements: no more “welcome” or “sorry” or “thank you.” Stick with the other three purposes: informing, directing, or questioning. Then make sure there’s a human around to say “thank you” whenever possible.

Related articles

Beyond platitudes for leadership communication

Julia Williams, President of the Professional Communication Society (and one of my favorite colleagues) has negotiated a deal to offer a free eLearning course on leadership communication to IEEE members. Details are available in Julia’s Monthly eNotice. IEEE offers 3 CEUs (or professional development hours) for successful completion of the course.

I created the content for the course, which was professionally produced by IEEE, based on a portion of my 2006 book,  Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader. In short, the course teaches students to analyze the rhetorical context before communicating with those they want to lead. The analysis is based, NOT on platitudes, but on established psychosocial and sociolinguistic theory:

I’ve had success using this material to build rhetorical skills among both novice and experienced professionals within university and workshop settings.

Check out the free IEEE course and let me know what you think!

Parker’s post on genres is great. It nicely captures the fact that, when aspects of rhetorical context like speech act (or purpose) are repeated often, they give rise to genres. One common workplace genre is the directive. You may notice that these speech acts fall within the four purposes identified in my tutorial: representatives = informing, directives = directing, questions = consulting, and commissives + expressives = valuing. Declaratives, however, are something “special.”


Parker's Pen

A helpful way to think about written genres is to view them as speech acts. There are essentially six “acts” you can perform with words:

1. You can describe some state of affairs (e.g. John has blue eyes). Such  acts are called representatives.

2. You can try to get someone to do something. (e.g. Shut the door). Such acts are called directives.

3. You can request information (e.g. When does the parade start?). Such acts are called questions.

4. You can commit yourself to do something (e.g. I’ll be home by midnight.) Such acts are called commissives.

5. You can express an emotional state (e.g. I’m sorry for stepping on your toe). Such acts are called expressives. 

6. You can change the status of some entity (e.g. You’re fired). Such acts are called declarations.

If you think about it, many types…

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