3 ways not to inspire people

Your grand plan for change will mean little if no one's behind you.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Apr 2017

 After years of climbing, you’ve finally made it to the top of the slippery pole. In their wisdom, the board has entrusted the fate of the company to you, which means you need to deliver substantive change. So, first thing’s first, time to make an inspiring speech...

Everyone gets the email , and two reminders. There’s to be a town hall meeting next Tuesday, where you’ll set out your grand strategy for the future of the firm. Attendance is mandatory.

Taking the stage, you employ rhetorical skills that would have made Cicero green with envy, full of flourishes and poignant pauses, until finally you get to the climax: the big reveal about how you’re going to save the business and usher in a new golden age: Operation Omega.  

The silence is deafening. After a few moments, a couple of known sycophants in your internal comms team start clapping, and the crowd half-heartedly joins in. It can’t be the name, you think, scratching your head. So why aren’t they inspired?

1. You can’t see the little people

If you think inspiration is something that comes from the top down, you need to get off your high horse. ‘The notion that you are the grand leader and that it will be communication from you that will win over the troops is totally naive. If you’re trying to make a big change, think more in terms of a social movement,’ says Harvard professor and change management expert John Kotter.

The idea is that if people inside the organisation get inspired by your plan, they’ll spread the word themselves to their friends and colleagues. ‘It’s through that massive amount of communication, 100, 1,000 times more than you as a leader can do, that you get things rolling,’ says Kotter.

This also means listening to people and not being afraid to ask them for help.  ‘If you’re buried in the biggest bureaucracy in the world and the guys above are saying we’re trying to open that door so you can help, there will be a small percentage of people who will jump through that door,’ says Kotter. ‘In a big company, that could thousands of folks. It’s very much how social movements take off.’

2. You have good ‘messaging’

The real enemy of inspiration isn’t apathy, it’s cynicism. Once it’s set in, inspiring someone is almost impossible. Needless to say, this means a little less pretention, a lot less management speak, and a some more honesty.

‘One of the reasons changes are difficult is because you’ve got this residual response that’s built up from earlier disappointments, or from when people have been jerked around and lied to,’ says Kotter.

Avoid clichéd statement of values like the plague (sorry). ‘They sound so generic, so motherhood and apple pie. You are telling us these are already our values? Well, we don't behave that way. Or we're moving towards that? What's happened recently that's moving us?’

If you’re moving offices to save money, say that. Don’t say it’s about 'serendipitous interactions and breaking down silos' if it’s not - they will sniff you out in an instant.. Above all, remember that actions speak louder than words. No one likes a hypocrite. 

3. You aren’t inspired

It might seem obvious, but if you can’t think why you should get out of bed every morning, you’ll never help others do the same. ‘If you’re uninspired, think of something to lift your mood – e.g. memories, people who inspired you, music, fictional characters. If you’re low, don’t try to inspire others – it won’t work,’ Mindgym founder Octavius Black once told MT.

The key is to find the purpose you want everyone else to believe in. What is your company for, beyond making money? How is this change you want to take the company through going to serve that purpose? Until you know what this is, it might be worthwhile holding back on the inspirational speeches for a while.   

Read more: Communication tips every leader should know


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime