Should You Put Lipstick on the Brussels Sprouts? How Leaders Communicate Forced Change

/Should You Put Lipstick on the Brussels Sprouts? How Leaders Communicate Forced Change

Should You Put Lipstick on the Brussels Sprouts? How Leaders Communicate Forced Change

My presentations about leading change usually include a story about Double Stuf Oreos and Brussels Sprouts. You can view the story here, but the basic principle is simple:

A child will willingly change what they are doing to reach a jar of cookies on top of your refrigerator. You seldom see them act with the same sense of urgency to acquire Brussels sprouts.

With that in mind, leaders generate creative tension when the vision they create for change is compelling – like cookies – rather than boring like vegetables.

But what happens when the change is mandated by someone else? And, what happens if there is absolutely no way to legitimately make it anything but a pain in the rear?

That is the scenario faced recently by one of my clients. During a half-day session with leaders, one of the participants pushed back at my example. Here is a summary of his statement and question:

The change we are undertaking is mandated by increased regulation about which we have no control. We are dealing with Brussels Sprouts. Are you suggesting that we call it Double Stuff Oreos even though we know it isn’t?

What a brilliant and honest assessment of the world in which many organizations and individuals live.

There are times when the change you must make is imposed by others. You may even believe that the change is useless and will add no value. But, you don’t have a choice. You must implement it.

The leader in my session referred to the truth that you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. He wanted to know if he should put lipstick on the Brussels sprouts in hope that his staff would see a cookie.

Here is my answer:

Your employees know the difference regardless of what you call it. Clothing a forced change as an opportunity can damage your credibility and create cynicism. Your best option is to call it what it is – a forced change that is out of your control – and then work with your team to make it as positive as you possibly can.

This is not a perfect answer, but making change work is often an imperfect art rather than a science with clear solutions.

Here is my rationale: Compliance can be mandated, but the commitment you need to thrive in today’s marketplace is volunteered. That commitment takes a hit every time you act or communicate in a way that diminishes your credibility and the trust others place in you. In the long run, you are better off acknowledging reality and then involving others to make the mandated change as positive as possible rather than insulting your team with something other than the truth.

In other words, there are times when you need to call a sprout a sprout, but it is probably okay to put a little lipstick on it to make it as appealing as possible.

What do you think?