I’ve drawn one of the most powerful lessons on change from a philosophy Jim Collins refers to as the Stockdale Paradox in his book “Good to Great”.

The Stockdale Paradox refers to the inspiring perspectives that not only kept Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale alive but turned his 7-year stint as a POW at the Hanoi Hilton into one of the “defining moments” of his life.

Stockdale was the highest-ranking US soldier captured during the Vietnam War. The Vietcong’s strategy to discourage American participation in the war was to use propaganda, getting American prisoners to voice, after torture and under duress, their disapproval of the US government’s policies. Refusing to cooperate with his captors, Stockdale cut his face, bashed himself with a chair and even slit his own wrists.

In his book, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

And Stockdale added:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.

When facilitating change in organisations, I find it incredibly useful and important to engage staff in frank conversations about the brutal reality surrounding the change.

My experience informs me that managers often fail to bring up these fundamental realities. Some underestimate their staff’s ability to handle the “truth”, seeing it as their role to “protect” them. For others, this is revealing of their personal pessimism about the future. And thus, they fail to utilize an invaluable tool for engaging the hearts and minds of their staff, so powerful in helping them get out of their comfort zone.

Take the example of a manufacturing concern in Singapore looking to restructure its organization to eke out greater efficiencies. The brutal reality here is that they are in an industry and environment where staff want growing returns year on year, customers are conditioned to expect annual price reductions and their main competitors are from countries with significantly lower labor costs. By communicating this reality and then asking the “consequences of the status quo” question, staff typically draw the same conclusions that the change in not only desirable but necessary.

This applies equally to the publicly listed organisation in Malaysia seeking to outsource part of its I.T. operations in order to reduce operational costs and enhance competitiveness. And the government department in Australia seeking to transform its “top down”, “do as you’re told” culture to one that fosters greater collaboration and innovation in order to retain and attract top talent and in the process, enhance its credibility with its clients.

Just as it’s important to have the “brutal reality” discussion with the team, it is equally important to instill hope through a clear and compelling vision of the change. It is through leveraging this paradox that you create what Kotter calls a “true sense of urgency” for change that comes from within

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight Eisenhower

In summary, to strengthen emotional buy-in for change, draw from the lessons given to us by James Stockdale to help staff confront the brutal reality whilst always keeping the faith that the team can and will prevail by moving with courage towards a compelling vision.


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