The Route to Real Engagement

I once had the privilege of working with Dan Yankelovich, acclaimed social scientist and father of modern opinion polling and market research, to collaborate with a shared client who had become the target of whistle-blowing and subsequent congressional hearings regarding alleged violations of federal regulations. In addition to Dan’s insightful research, articles and books, he advised corporations facing public opinion catastrophes.

Dan was an original thinker; every conversation was enlightening in unexpected ways. One evening at dinner, I was recounting the actions the client was taking to address the hearings and whistle-blowing. Dan stopped me mid-sentence.

“Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but they haven’t internalized the situation.”

“What do you mean “Internalized the situation? “ I asked.

Dan responded with the following example:

Let’s say a man comes home from work and there’s a note on the refrigerator from his wife that says, “I’ve taken all my things and left for good. Don’t try to find me.” What does the man do? Likely he gets a beer out of the refrigerator, finds some leftovers and has dinner. This may go on for days or even weeks until the day he comes home and says; “Oh no, my wife left me. How did that happen and what am I going to do now?”

“Now,“ Dan said, “he has begun to internalize it. Before that moment he knew she had left but he hadn’t internalized it. Our client has read the note but they haven’t internalized it.”

“How do you know when people have internalized it?” I asked, intrigued by this idea.

“When they show some humility. When they start taking a really hard look at themselves. When they stop looking out there and start looking in here. When they’re ready for real change in how they operate.”

The next day I could see what Dan was pointing to in his assessment of the client. Their talk and behavior was more about the “disloyal” whistle-blowers and how to put a good spin on everything for shareholders than honestly looking at themselves and analyzing what had got them into the current predicament. As I worked with Dan over the following months, I adopted the following definition from Webster’s as getting close to what Dan was pointing to:

Internalize: To make something an important part of the kind of person you are.

I have carried Dan’s insight with me since that evening and have found it to be a powerful lens to examine events both personally and professionally. While my client example with Dan dealt with a significant corporate breakdown, I have also found this perspective to be valuable when clients are attempting to bring about major cultural or strategic changes. Everyone got the memo, but have they internalized it?

Signs people are internalizing a significant organizational event and/or cultural or strategic change:

  • The language shifts from “them” to “us”
  • People drop old behaviors and adopt new behaviors
  • People see things they hadn’t seen before; new arenas come into focus
  • People shift their perspective onto important issues
  • People talk differently, drop old language and use new language
  • People are interested in what other people have to say
  • Openness versus defensiveness pervades
  • An energy of renewal and rejuvenation is experienced

If the above is missing, I would say “they got the memo.“ Look into your organization at areas where things aren’t moving or where there is perceived resistance and see if people haven’t internalized the reality of the situation or the changes you are attempting to bring about. I offer that becoming aware of Dan’s principle and looking through its lens, may put ‘your eye on a different ball’ and lead to new actions and conversations you hadn’t considered.