Imagine you are at your lowest of lows. You have screwed up royally and you got caught. Then, someone gives you a second chance, a chance to get back on track. That is how I interpret being on probation. When breaking the law is your status quo behavior, the transformational journey to law-abiding citizen may feel impossible. You might ask what a probation officer could teach you about leading change. The answer is: a lot.
Kimberly Gruenberg, Assistant Chief Probation Officer for the Massachusetts Probation Service, started as an intern in 1990 before becoming a full-time probation officer in 1993. Not much gets by her. Over the past few decades, she has learned that creating lasting change is truly a marathon where encouraging the right behavior works better than punishing the wrong. "If you trust the process and do the work, you will be successful," says Gruenberg.
Whether you are leading your customers or your team through a large-scale culture transformation or working to change your own lifestyle, Gruenberg and her team have a lot to teach you when it comes to making the right change stick:
1) Value relationships above all else
Employing the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS), Gruenberg and her team of Probation Officers (POs) work with their probationers (also referred to as "offenders") on one ultimate goal: to rehabilitate by promoting law-abiding behavior. More than a set of transactions in a long process, ORAS is about rapport and support. "ORAS places heavy emphasis on the relationship between the PO and the offender," says Gruenberg. The PO and the probationer work together over a long period of time. The program builds toward a strong relationship that emphasizes commending offenders on their accomplishments, leveraging their strengths, and overcoming their weaknesses as they move from law-breaker to law-follower. Facing change is scary and mistakes will happen. People are more likely to stick to it if they feel like they have someone in their corner.
2) Use a building block approach
Change does not happen overnight. It requires a well thought out process where each step builds from the previous and toward the next. The approach only includes actions that are required for change; focus is key. "At each meeting, the probationer identifies and actively pursues changing limiting behaviors," says Gruenberg. For a probationer, that may be disengaging with old friends or gaining steady employment. Each building block requires the identification of limiting behaviors or environments that will get in the way of your stakeholder's ability to change. Don't just remove the barriers. Figure out how to get your stakeholders to actively eradicate the barriers that stand in the way of progress.
3) Establish clear ground rules and common goals
For folks who are having change thrust upon them even when that change is positive, understanding the road ahead and what outcomes and achievements are expected from them is critical. "In the first meeting, we review the conditions of probation and review what is negotiable and non-negotiable. The negotiables are usually about timelines and not outcomes," say Gruenberg. Do your stakeholders know what is expected of them? As a leader, it is your job to communicate expectations of outcomes, behaviors, and timelines. Always provide the right breadth and depth of wiggle room, being careful not to sacrifice change goals, so that your stakeholders feel some sense of control. Perhaps you create monthly goals but your team needs six weeks - let it go. Negotiating over timelines within a few weeks is better than negotiating over context and impact.
4) Meet people where they are
"We start every meeting asking questions about the probationer's life, his or her feelings, what their experiences have been like. We can't help them if we don't understand their fears. When people are scared, they tend to fall back into past behaviors," says Gruenberg. Change is a personal process. When people feel threatened or uncertain, they tend to crave status quo, even if that status quo was harmful or inefficient. While large-scale change may prevent leaders from talking to each individual, pulse checks through online surveys serve as a great way to understand people's concerns. Use this information to acknowledge and address the right fears at the right time and to maximize on the good people are feeling.
5) Instill accountability
"We set hard but attainable and immediate goals that require different behavior," says Gruenberg. Unless your target populations feel responsible for making personal change happen such as adopting a new process or working toward a different vision, your transformation program will fail. Simple as that. Leaders tend to create grandiose goals that take too long and require too much change. They also don't assign these goals to specific people or align daily work that impacts the new mission. Set weekly, monthly, or quarterly goals that can only be completed if the person doing them acts in a different way. And make sure to have consequences for achieving or not achieving the objectives.
6) Don't work harder than your followers do
"Probation officers are responsible for giving probationers the tools, information, and contacts to achieve the goals they set up together, but they do not solve the problem for them," says Gruenberg. Change leaders tend to be impatient. When a stakeholder doesn't move fast enough in the transformation journey, it may be tempting to jump in and do the work of an entire team. And when a follower fails, and that will happen because change is more about finding what works through what does not, the leader may want to fix the problem. Remember: people don't change because you tell them to; they change when you enable them to change. Change is in the doing. Trade micromanaging and executing for coaching and providing the right tools and information that enable your stakeholders to make change stick. Don't expect constant perfection; focus on progress instead.
7) Create the right change mechanisms at the right time
"ORAS processes, reward systems, and tools evolve as probationers work through their program. It also allows for the probation officers to override the system where it makes sense," says Gruenberg. Because change is individual, a one-size-fits-all approach seldom works. Not everyone is coming to a change journey from the same place or with the same set of baseline skills. And tools that work in the beginning of a process are most likely not going to be relevant as skills and behaviors progress. Instill a continuous evaluation of training and reward systems to ensure that people have what they need to be successful.