Do you remember how just two years ago millions of people both inside and outside the US were enthused and excited by the possibilities they saw for the future, and delighted in using the phrase “Yes we can!”
One morning last week on the “Today” programme on BBC Radio 4, I heard a report on the American mid-term elections featuring interviews with several people in Waltham, Massachusetts, an apparently solidly Democratic small city.
I was particularly struck by one man’s comments:
“I bought into it, I bought the whole promise, because we wanted it so bad. Others with a clearer vision.....knew better, knew that we shouldn’t get our hopes up, but things were so bad – that it was almost impossible not to hope for hope.”
The interviewer then asked if he would vote this time.
“Possibly” there was a pause “Probably not.”
The whole tone of his speech was one of resignation, implying that there was no point in hoping any more.
“Yes we can” has become “No, he can’t.”
And on Tuesday the American people made their choice and created the biggest swing to the Republicans in Congress in over half a century, placing a huge question mark over all of the things that they had hoped for in 2008. So why would they do that?
Recently Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “Obama and the High Cost of High Expectations” by Ron Ashkenas, exploring some of the reasons that the President has ended up where he has, and suggesting how he might deal with it from here. Ashkenas also makes some proposals about how you can avoid suffering Obama’s fate in your business.
The key message of Ashkenas’ article is that now “Instead of creating expectations, Obama needs to manage them.” Really he should have started doing it as soon as he was elected.
It’s something that, so far, the coalition government here in the UK seem to have done reasonably well. They have trailed their actions so effectively, that, according to recent polls, the two coalition parties together would still win over 50% of the vote, and Prime Minister Cameron’s personal satisfaction level is at it’s highest level ever. In other words, by the time that they officially announce something potentially unpopular, they have made the argument so widely and effectively, that the majority of people are already (at least broadly) in agreement with it.
One of the biggest differences between the Coalition and the Democrats is that the Coalition partners started aggressively managing expectations even before they had formed the government, and have continued to do so ever since.
What they have achieved as a result of this is that they have so far avoided the population spiralling down into resignation. They have managed to announce some of the deepest cuts in public expenditure ever, which will lead to the most radical shift in the balance between public and private provision of services since public services were invented, and still left the majority of people feeling relatively positive about the prospects for some undefined, yet tangible, point in the future.
Obama created and stood for such massive hope before, and immediately after, his election, that without an immediate shift to expectation management, a spiral down into resignation for the majority of people was almost inevitable. What he created, whether deliberately or not, was a hope for change in the short term that he has not delivered.
When you create a hope and fail to manage expectations people loose trust and quickly become resigned, and that resignation becomes an enormous block to causing the change you were promising.
So what are the lessons for your business?
1. Create Hope / Opportunity at the deepest emotional level.
2. Manage Expectations aggressively – if something is going to take time, effort and, possibly, sacrifice let them know that.
3. Engage People in the journey to causing the change
4. Build and maintain Trust. Do whatever it takes – if you lose trust then resignation will set in and you are will face a massive battle to recover.
5. At the first sign of Resignation, return to 2 and repeat the process.
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