What if it hadn’t been a False Alarm?

When leaders are perceived to cry “wolf” too often, who will take them seriously when the threat comes to fruition? However, when risks manifest themselves into reality, the blaming always begins with whether or not warning signs were ignored. Such were the responses following both the Sandy Hook School Shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, and the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April 2013. This, in turn, may lead us to treat symptoms rather than underlying causes, as we look for quick solutions and misinterpret correlations for causality. Even trained professionals can miss obvious cues, as in the story below.

A few years ago, my father was in intensive care, hooked to a heart monitor. Shortly after I arrived to visit him, the emergency alarm went off, but no one responded. I ran for help but was told not to worry—the alarm goes off all the time—just hit the reset button. The health care professionals had clearly adjusted their behavior to discount false alarms, but needless to say, I was left feeling anything but secure concerning the quality of the system designed to monitor the need for change in my dad’s treatment. What if it hadn’t been a false alarm? (G. Deszca)

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Change agents need to demonstrate that the need for change is real and important. Only then will people unfreeze from past patterns. This is easier said than done. From 2008 through to the winter and spring of 2009, General Motors (GM) struggled to convince the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) that they needed significant financial concessions to survive. The UAW initially took the position that GM had signed a deal and should live up to it. However, the collapse of consumers’ demand for automobiles in the summer of 2008 led to fears of bankruptcy. Political pressure from the U.S. and Canadian governments on both GM and their employee unions in the United States (the UAW) and Canada (the CAW or Canadian Auto Workers) escalated in the wake of bailout requests. As a result of this pressure, the UAW abandoned its position that “We have done our share.” Concessions followed during the next nine months, covering everything from staffing levels, pay rates, health care benefits to pensions.6 The CAW followed suit, shortly thereafter. When it comes to raising alarms concerning the need for change, it is sometimes tough to know when and how to get through to people. With GM, it took going to the edge of the precipice and beyond. They had to go bankrupt!


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