Archives for June 2013

The Powers of Change

cartoon of Jesus Christ with a captive audience of The Hulk, Spiderman and Captain America: '...and that's how I saved the world!'

Creating successful, positive change is rewarding – it’s just the process of getting there that is testing, and makes you wish you had change agent superpowers!

But what is ‘power’, exactly? What kinds of powers are there, who has them and how can they be used?

Power is the ability to make things happen to achieve goals – and it can take a number of different forms.

Social psychologists French and Raven identified five types of power in their 1959 work ‘The bases of social power’:

  • Coercive
  • Reward
  • Legitimate
  • Referent
  • Expert

Raven later identified a sixth separate and distinct base of power – Informational.

In my view, these powers could also be characterised as ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’ powers, and despite the apparent positivity and negativity of each, they all have a ‘light’ and ‘shadow’ (positive and negative) aspect.

Coercive power (‘stick’) is about punishment for non-compliance and the use of physical force, intimidation or other threats (consequences of non-compliance, such as fines, disapproval) to make someone do something against their will or intent. In its ‘light’ form, it could manifest as the protection of a child from harm or stopping a speeding driver. In its ‘shadow’ form, it could be used in political oppression. It may be intrinsic, as a result of physical size or strength, or an extrinsic power such as a weapon or threat of withholding a reward (extrinsic, because both can be lost by the coercer, eg. disarming them of their weapon, which then shifts the balance of power).

Reward power (‘carrot’) is the promise and/or ability to give other people what they want, or remove what they don’t want, in exchange for something you want them to do (light), and also the act or threat of punishment by withholding rewards (shadow). It can be intrinsic, such as withholding affection, or extrinsic, such as withholding money, promotion or a reward that depends on a third party.

Legitimate power (‘authority’) is invested in a societal position role (such as a judge, a King or Queen, a Chief Executive, a Minister), or derived from social rules and norms. Positional power can be used to uphold those norms (light), and it can also be abused (shadow). It is typically an extrinsic power ie. the weight of authority or influence travels with the position, not the person. ChangingMinds.org notes:

A common trap that people in such roles can fall into is to forget that people are obeying the position, not them. When they either fall from power or move onto other things, it can be a puzzling surprise that people who used to fawn at your feet no long do so.

Referent power (‘esteem’) is the ‘popularity power’, that of the charismatic and famous, those people are attracted to and want to be like, or be associated with – think rock stars, elite athletes, social leaders, actors. Referent power is also held by those who have earned respect from others for their integrity, contributions and personal qualities. This power is about social status or standing, and can sometimes overlap with legitimate/positional power, such as in the case of charismatic leaders or political figures. Raven and French offer the following caution as to which powers are in play:

We must try to distinguish between referent power and other types of power which might be operative at the same time. If a member is attracted to a group and he conforms to its norms only because he fears ridicule or expulsion from the group for nonconformity, we would call this coercive power. On the other hand if he conforms in order to obtain praise for conformity, it is a case of reward power.

Referent power can be used as a ‘currency’ to draw attention to issues and causes (light), and it can also be abused for personal advantage or used for coercion by socially excluding others (shadow). It is typically an intrinsic power embodied in a person, although it is also extrinsic in that it is granted to someone by public opinion, and if those with it fall from favour then the power vanishes.

Expert power (‘know-how’) is held by those with knowledge and skill that someone else requires. It can be used to solve problems and determine options for action (light), or to obfuscate and confuse (shadow). This power is intrinsic, although its value can diminish as a result of extrinsic circumstances eg. if the need for that expertise declines.

Informational power (‘know-what’) is possession of or access to valuable information that, if it is accepted, may persuade people to change their opinions and/or behaviours. It could be used for awareness and empowerment (light), or with the selective use, concealment or framing of information in a certain way, it can be used for shaping behaviour that supports a hidden agenda, propaganda etc (shadow). It is intrinsic if guarded and used to control, but extrinsic in that competing sources of information may be able to displace it.

In my experience, there are two other forms of power that don’t fall within French and Raven’s types:

Connection (‘know-who’)

The power of weak or ‘loose’ ties (acquaintances, friends of friends, online connections) as social glue has been well documented since the 1970s.

Knowing who is who, who does what, what they are interested in, what they are looking for, and who can help you or others, enables matching of ‘offers and needs’ and is very powerful in making things happen, especially where there is little money.

This is, in fact, how informal economies work – through social capital (see Trust) and gift culture. It is connection that has, among many examples in the digital era, powered the emergence of the sharing or collaborative economy (see Shareable, Collaborative Consumption and The Mesh) and augmented the speed and reach of popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring.

‘Connection’ power has been defined elsewhere as ‘access to others who can provide rewards or sanctions’, but my interpretation here is different.

Trust (‘relationships’)

If people know and trust you, it means you can Get Stuff Done. It is the power of relationships, which was identified in a survey of leaders as the single most important power that they currently leverage with their superiors and their peers, and which is seen as the most important power to cultivate in the future. Underpinning the emergence of the sharing or collaborative economy is the idea of ‘trust between strangers’. Reputation, a measure of how much people trust you, is literally a new currency in the digital age, expanding circles of trust and access to resources, skills and contacts far beyond those which could previously only be cultivated through in-person interaction.

So maybe you’re not in a position of influence in your organisation or group – but it doesn’t mean you can’t be influential:

…relying on legitimate power as your only way to influence others isn’t enough. To be a leader, you need more than this – in fact, you may not need legitimate power at all. Anyone is capable of holding power and influencing others: you don’t need to have an important job title or a big office. But if you recognize the different forms of power, you can avoid being influenced by those who use the less effective types of power – and you can focus on developing expert and referent power for yourself. This will help you become an influential and positive leader.

In fact, in the long run, it is the intrinsic, personal powers that are the most effective, not rewards, coercion or pulling rank – even the most powerful positional leaders must operate from this basis if they are to be successful:

Paradoxically, unless it is well supported by other forms, legitimate power lacks higher-order legitimacy.  Lack of such legitimacy is why organisational hierarchies are often ignored…employees simply fail to volunteer referent power to those occupying superior positions in the organisational hierarchies.

So never assume you are powerless or don’t have as much power as someone else. Do a stocktake of the powers at your disposal – these may be powers you have, or those others who are willing to support you have. For example, you may have the best plan or idea, but someone else may be your best messenger. Assess what you already have and do well, stick to the ‘light’ side with your use of power, and cultivate those powers you’re not as strong on yet. Know the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of of power, and when it is appropriate to use them.

index card with Venn diagram - circle A 'what your job description says' nested inside circle B 'what you can do'

Image credit

Even superheroes don’t have all the powers they need for what they must do. Superman was stopped in his tracks by Kryptonite. Batman couldn’t turn invisible. Spiderman couldn’t breathe under water. They can all do different things well because of their unique abilities, but for certain tasks, they too need the abilities of others.

If you’ve ever hit a brick wall or ended up down a cul-de-sac with your change efforts, feeling powerless and frustrated, remember – there is more than one kind of power that you can leverage.

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The Corrosive Effects of Green Puritanism

cover of Hwang Dae-Kwon's book 'A Weed Letter'

One of the greatest things about the sustainability movement is the feeling of collaborating on a shared purpose for the common good, whether it’s engaging in action on climate change or getting involved in your local community garden.

As with any other movement, or group or coalition of groups, there can be friction or difference, which is not surprising. This is what helps test and hone ideas, and forge connection and understanding, within and beyond the movement.

But every now and then, there are things I see or read about that drive me crazy.

During the Economics of Happiness conference in Byron Bay in March this year, I experienced a truly cringe-worthy moment.

One of the invited guest speakers at the event was South Korea’s Hwang Dae-Kwon, an author, farmer and eco-activist.

In 1985, he was arrested by the military government, tortured for sixty days until he confessed to being a spy, and was then placed in solitary confinement for the next 13 years as a political prisoner.

On his release aged 43, he wrote the best-selling A Weed Letter, which described how observing weeds and plants while in jail helped maintain his mental and spiritual health, and awakened an ecological consciousness within him.

Here is his talk ‘Know Your Body for Reconnecting to Nature‘ from The Economics of Happiness conference (17 mins):

In question time after his talk, one audience member came to the microphone and asked Hwang Dae-Kwon that question greenies just LOVE to ask:

How many trees he had planted to compensate for the printing of his book?

Hwang Dae-Kwon smiled and replied that it was a fair point and that he should look at taking steps to redress the ecological footprint of his book.

I just wanted to crawl under my seat in embarrassment.

Intellectually, I understand that books require paper and trees and have an impact, regardless of what is printed on them by whom.

In the context of the speaker and his subject, it seemed a churlish question that diminished the contribution of a man who had survived conditions most of us cannot imagine and yet emerged with valuable learnings to share with others.

This is why people who don’t identify as part of the green movement dislike the green movement.

As people discover more about sustainability, or have been living sustainably for years, they are naturally proud of their efforts. Social norms are an effective way of getting people to adopt sustainable behaviours, as is some level of friendly competition.

But when this pride turns pathological, becoming the new form of ‘green one upmanship’, it is off-putting to people who may only just be developing their awareness or making changes.

‘Mine’s Greener Than Yours’ is just ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses, Mark II’.

Then just recently, Post Growth’s current Indiegogo campaign was featured on the Permaculture News, where one commenter felt the need to point out that it was ‘…a very positive and empowering article, which is completely invalidated by the second to last paragraph where it asks for donations.’

Post Growth has been sustained by a voluntary team for three years, around and in lieu of full time work and study (including myself taking a year’s leave without pay in 2011, using up long service leave to help launch it). It has run international events and initiatives, built alliances with other groups, a social media platform and subscriber list approaching 15,000 in total, and achieved widespread coverage for its work on a budget of next to nothing. Now ready to launch an idea to the world, the crowdfunding campaign seeks to effectively pre-sell copies of the book – which will require thousands of hours of work – in exchange for a pledge (not a donation). And we still have to defend what we’re doing from people who either haven’t thought it through enough, or are just looking for a way to find fault?

Please! Don’t we have enough to direct our energies to with the changes we are all pushing for without having to grapple with this kind of thing undermining our motivation and co-operation?

And the incident that wanted to make me tip the bucket on this kind of behaviour: I was horrified at some of the responses to Transition Towns Founder Rob Hopkins’s decision to fly to the US and help strengthen the Transition movement there (Hopkins had made a public commitment not to fly years ago, after seeing Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’).

In his May 2013 announcement in this post, ‘Why I’m Marking Passing 400ppm By Getting Back on An Aeroplane’, Hopkins said:

I recently watched the film ‘Chasing Ice’, and it had, if anything, a more visceral impact than ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My resolution at the end of watching it, re-enforced by the recent passing, for the first time, of 400 ppm of C02 in the atmosphere, was that it was time to get back on a plane, and I want to use this post to tell you why.

When I was born, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was 325.36 ppm. When I watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it was 380.18 parts per million (ppm). On the day Transition Network was formally established we had reached 386.40 ppm. When I sat down to watch ‘Chasing Ice’ it was 395.55 ppm.

In spite of all the efforts of the green movement, Transition initiatives, a slew of international conferences and meaningless agreements, the rise has continued inexorably. I know anecdotally that my giving up flying has inspired quite a few people to do the same, but has it had any impact at all on the rising levels of emissions? Clearly not. But has it been the right thing, thus far, to have done? Absolutely.

Responses on the piece ranged from supportive to disappointed, but also included personal attacks on Hopkins:

  • I think this is a sad day for Transition. As an initiator of a young initiative in the US. I see this as highly unhelpful. The ends never justify the means…Seeing a movement leader cave on a strong and patternable gesture (not flying) will only add to cynicsm and apathy. It’s comparable to seeing Mr. Gore flying about in that movie. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  • Why should the general public take any notice at all of your green advice, when you can’t even take it yourself?
  • I see no difference between you and Al Gore…lots of drivel about how you want us to live….but when it comes to your own behaviour you can always find a reason why your circumstances are ‘special’ or ‘different’ or earth-saving’
  • How do you spell ‘hypocrite’ in your language?

Hey, here’s a word for you to spell:

sanc·ti·mo·ni·ous – adj. affecting piety or making a display of holiness; making a show of being morally better than others

It is not Rob Hopkins’s business whether someone decides to emulate his decision not to fly and then feels ‘let down’ or somehow betrayed by him changing that. It’s up to each person to make informed decisions that work for them, in their specific family, work and personal circumstances.

As for whether Hopkins’s circumstances are somehow ‘different’ or ‘special’, well actually – THEY ARE.

It was Rob Hopkins, not Joe or Jill Bloggs, who got off his backside, founded the Transition movement and took on the demands of leadership.

It is Rob Hopkins who has the currency of attention he can spend in service of a greater good – and even if he does fly occasionally in order to do that, I doubt we will see him clocking up the frequent flyer points.

As one supportive comment on Hopkins’s piece noted (a view I heartily agree with):

I don’t think “too bad the world fried, but at least I didn’t fly so it wasn’t my fault” is the sort of thing that anybody’s grandchildren would very much want to hear. On the other hand, “look at the wonderful local economies and ecosystems we managed to build, so when we pulled the plug on the global fossil-fuel binge, most people were still OK” is the sort of thing that they would probably respect.

Let’s get it in perspective — for every greeny who agonises over whether to fly or not, there are a thousand people who don’t give it a second thought.

I agree that we need to hold each other to account, and that if you set yourself up as a ‘voice’ on a particular issue, you need to make an effort to live according to the values you espouse.

But I do not agree with holding anyone to a rigid standard that the rest of society is not being held to, because they have dared to speak out. It is ‘disgreenimation’!

Upset about paper consumption? Take on the purveyors of junk mail, not the author of a book on ecological consciousness. Annoyed about people asking for money? Put your energy into getting some accountability out of Wall Street, not a group working to change the structures of business and economics. Ticked off about flying? Take on a celebrity famous for being famous, not the guy who might fly once a year whose work has already sparked so many energy descent movements around the world.

Like most people in industrialised societies, activists too are living in the context of a plethora of existing systems that conspire to work against desired social and environmental objectives.

So let’s leave out the Green Puritanism. It’s the blame game in disguise, it’s corrosive within the movement and it’s repulsive to those who aren’t already engaged.

No less than the head of communications for Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic CampaignJames Turner, made the same call in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, ‘The Climate Change Guilt Trip’.

Most of us are just doing the best we can, even if we can’t do it all right now.

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How An Offers & Needs Market Helps Build Sustainable Practice

pink and yellow post it note with 'OFFER' and 'NEED' written on them

The irony of the modern market is that it can get a spare part from across the world, but a neighbour still might not know that the mechanic with the skills to fix the car is right next door – Donnie Maclurcan

So often, people working on sustainability in different organisations or communities are facing the same challenges. Sometimes, we’ve got people to turn to for support or advice – sometimes, or on some issues, we haven’t.

What if we could know how to connect with that support?

Running an ‘Offers and Needs’ Market is a way of discovering what kinds of support you might be able to provide to others, and what kinds you might need. And even though it doesn’t sound green (or perhaps because it doesn’t sound green!) it can also help build a culture of sustainability.

What is an Offers & Needs Market?

This is a simple participatory process which can quickly unearth hidden or latent resources, ideas, connections and match them with those who could benefit from them.

I took this idea, mentioned to me by my Post Growth Institute colleague, Donnie Maclurcan, and adapted it for a session I ran at work, which attracted participants from a variety of sectors, including business and industry, local and State government, nonprofits and tertiary education.

This process, like asset-mapping, is a way to ‘bootstrap’ communities by focusing on what passions, skills, resources, connections etc the group already has among itself. Reflecting back to people what they can already do is a positive way to short-circuit the ‘we-don’t-have-any-resources’ narrative and the all too common starting position of ‘what is the problem?’ and then (if you can even get out of talking about problems and who is to blame for them) going on to diagnose what needs ‘fixing’.

By the end of the session, we had already discovered a local business had a regular incoming supply of pallets that were not needed, and a number of people were after pallets to create furniture, or to help build the University of Adelaide HUB’s Edible Garden. Match!

How Can I Run an Offers & Needs Market?

'Offers' sign in green with participants' Offers written on green post it notes stuck underneath

'Needs' sign in yellow with participants' Needs written on yellow post it notes stuck underneath

This can be very, very simple and doesn’t require a lot of preparation. Here’s how I ran it:

1. Give participants two different coloured lots of Post-It notes – make it clear which colour is for Offers, and which is for Needs. You can easily make up simple signs that you can place on tables or put up for reference.

2. Starting with Offers (the positive, what people have to give), participants write down any kinds of support they think they can offer (what they’ve learned, what wisdom, insight, practical support or help they could offer to others), along with their preferred contact details. Give people as long as you sense they need, but somewhere between 5-10 minutes is a good rule of thumb.

For example: I can offer an ear of support; I can offer advice on how to talk to senior management; I have a surplus of eggs.

3. Switch to Needs – what are they working on, seeking, what kind of support do they require right now that someone else in this group might be able to help with? Give people 5-10 minutes to write down their Needs.

For example: I need help with how to engage with staff; I need ideas for sharing information; I need someone who knows about web development.

Participants can choose to make as many offers or needs as they like (or none, but encourage them to make at least one).

4. Ensure participants are aware that the making of an offer or expressing of a need means that it comes with implicit permission to contact, or be contacted about it. If there is something people don’t want to be contacted about, don’t write it down.

5. Before participants stick their Offers and Needs up on the wall, go around the room and invite people to introduce themselves and ‘pitch’ one of their offers or needs aloud to the group in 1-2 sentences. Reassure participants that if they would rather opt out of this right now, they can simply say ‘pass’. There should be no discussion or clarification during this process, as it will slow things down.

4. Ask participants to come forward and post their Offers and Needs on the wall, where they can be left there for the duration of the event for others to view.

5. Explain to participants that the notes will be collated into a spreadsheet, and shared with the group (could be emailed, or you might use Google Docs or Dropbox – you’ll need to sign up for a free Google or DropBox account if you don’t already have one).

Tips for Running an Offers & Needs Market

  • Instead of using Post-It notes, the market can be run differently by giving participants an ‘Offers’ and ‘Needs’ sheet and getting everyone to read out all of their offers and needs – then it is up to each participant to note who they might like to speak to or connect with after. A bit like ‘Offers and Needs’ Bingo!
  • If your situation and budget allows, creating a social atmosphere with some coffee or nibbles helps people to start talking and introduce themselves – it then it becomes more like a party than a ‘work’shop.
  • With a group of 40-50, allow about 15 minutes to both think of, and write down, ‘offers’ and ‘needs’. Then allow another 15-20 minutes for each person to tell the others their name, organisation (if applicable) and to pitch one of their offers or needs aloud so that the whole group hears. This needs to be a speedy process, so the pitch should be 20 seconds, or one sentence eg. ‘my name is Sharon, I blog at Cruxcatalyst, and I can offer articles that help support the communication efforts of change agents.’
  • If the group is bigger, or if you wish to get people to verbally announce all of their offers and needs, allow more time. People can and will breach the 15-20 second limit, so factor this in too!
  • I’ve been trying to work out a more efficient way to collate the information than typing up dozens of Post-It Notes and entering them into an Excel spreadsheet (believe me, if you have a big group of 100-200, you will want to think about this, or find someone to delegate this task to!), but without losing the physical, visual impact of writing down contributions and then placing them for others to view during the session. The latter is also low-tech and hands-on – actually writing things down gives words more power than if they stay in your head.
  • If anyone has any great ideas about the Post-It Notes (or any other suggestions or experiences with this process), please let me know! Otherwise watch this space – when I figure something out, I’ll write an addendum to this piece.

How an Offers and Needs Market Supports Sustainability

This kind of approach helps support sustainable practice in your organisation or community for several reasons:

  • it reduces consumption of resources by making the most of existing assets – if people can access what they need, they don’t need to buy it
  • it reduces waste – if someone else’s ‘waste’ can become another’s ‘resource’ (as per the pallets), it means less materials going to waste
  • it can deliver cost savings both a reduction in consumption and waste
  • it builds and enhances connections and relationships which are essential for any change process – knowing who is doing what, who has access to what, and who knows who are vital for getting things done

An Offers and Needs Market helps people save money, meet their needs, be helpful to others as well as contributing to sustainability goals of reuse and consuming less.

But perhaps most importantly, it could be an effective way to reach beyond ‘Pioneer’ frames to those who are not engaged with ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ by tapping into what people need in their lives right now.

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Leadership on the Line: Responses to Leadership Challenges

leadership on the line book cover

This is the second of a two-part post on this book.

Following on from the first part of this review of Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, this week we examine the authors’ suggested responses and approaches for leaders facing challenges.

Get On The Balcony

The authors use the metaphor of ‘going up on the balcony’, as if to overlook a ballroom floor full of dancers, which enables a different perspective than being among the dancers.

While it is important to ‘become the witness’ – the observer of yourself and your role in a situation, as well as observing others – it’s also important to then get back on the floor again to take action and be a participant.

The authors suggest techniques for avoiding blind spots and traps (ie. missing perspectives), including finding out where people are at by being curious about their views, and starting where they are, not where you are.

Think Politically

Work out who are your allies (people who are with you); who are your opponents (people who are against you, or appear to be against you – but do you understand why?) and those who are uncommitted (may be wary, or may be waiting to be convinced).

Do some market segmentation on the field of players to help you understand their motivations and connections – draw up a matrix and list who you think are your allies, potential supporters, resisters etc are, then think about the following questions in relation to each:

  • Who They Are – what work are they doing/where are they at, how does it connect to the situation at hand?
  • Perception – how do you want this group to see and respond to this issue?
  • Alignments, Clashes – where might this group see the issue aligning with theirs – or not?
  • Engagement Story – what’s in it for this group, what’s the benefit?

Partnerships can be important, as it is easier for your opposition to push you aside if you are on your own, and partnerships can strengthen the credibility of an initiative by bringing in a diversity of viewpoints. However, the flip side is that partners might push their ideas, requiring you to compromise your own, thereby slowing you down and diluting your leadership.

The authors make a critical point in noting:

Partners who are members of the faction for whom the change is most difficult can make a huge difference…Know their existing alliances and loyalties so that you realise how far you are asking them to stretch if they are to collaborate with you.

Don’t discount the value of partners whose perspectives differ from yours – if you can find some common ground and collaborate effectively, these partners can be more powerful in effecting a shift than those already allied.

Further along the spectrum of difference, the book advises working as closely with opponents as with supporters:

Opponents have the most to lose by your success, your allies the least; for opponents to change will cost them in terms of disloyalty to their own constituency; for allies it may cost nothing…

Pay close attention to those who will be most affected by the change you are proposing – your opponents are the ones most in need of your compassion.

Orchestrate the Conflict

Bugs Bunny as Leopold, the conductor

Conflict is typically seen as something to be avoided, or a source of disturbance or danger. Yet it is through conflict – with those who think differently or hold different values – that we can learn and even be transformed through having our own experiences and assumptions challenged.

Leadership requires working with difference and conflict in a way that can simultaneously harness the energy this generates, and diminish its destructive potential.

Changing the status quo generates tension and produces heat by surfacing hidden conflicts and challenging organisational culture. It’s a deep and natural human impulse to seek order and calm, and organizations and communities can only tolerate so much distress before recoiling.

The authors speak of ‘controlling the temperature’ and ‘setting the pace’ as being about knowing how much, and how quickly, an organisation or community can tolerate change.

The ‘heat’ needs to be high enough to get people to pay attention, or there is no distress and incentive for change. It’s also essential to turn the heat down when necessary, when tension becomes counterproductive or to allow people to focus on the task in front of them.

Even people who like a proposed change will need time to prepare and adjust. By spacing out the change over a longer period, it helps people to adapt. The authors note that ‘…change involves loss, and people can sustain only so much loss at any one time.’

Acknowledging people’s fears, breaking the change down into parts (eg. timeframes, roles, so that the change is framed like a more familiar technical problem), temporarily bearing more of the responsibility, using humour and fun can all help people cope with the scale and speed of change.

Celebrating shared successes, and regular reminders about the positive vision being worked towards can help make the pain of change feel worthwhile as well as diminishing the pressure for keeping the status quo. People who are focused on ‘what could be’ are less likely to be caught up in what will be ‘let go’ as a result of the change.

Orchestrate the conflict, don’t become it.

Give The Work Back

How many of you have found yourselves in the situation where, by virtue of your job title or reputation, you have become the ‘sustainability’ or ‘environment’ person in your organisation?

In many cases, such people see themselves and/or are seen by others as carrying the majority (or total amount) of the responsibility for effecting change. This conveniently absolves others in the organisation from taking on their share of the responsibility.

You gain credibility and authority in your career by demonstrating your capacity to take other people’s problems off their shoulders and give them back solutions…all of this is a virtue, until you find yourself facing adaptive pressures for which you cannot deliver solutions…the situation calls for mobilizing the work of others rather than knowing the way yourself…When you fulfil people’s expectations, they will call you admirable and courageous, and this is flattering. But challenging their expectations of you requires even more courage.

For a long time, I carried with me an ethos of service – to ‘fix’ other people’s questions, demands, needs. It is difficult for ‘people pleasers’ like myself to understand that service can also mean helping people to develop their own capacities, which they will not do if they have someone to troubleshoot for them. There is an art to knowing how to help, but not help too much.

In addition, if you take on the issue, you can become identified with it and then the way to get rid of the issue is to get rid of you! Taking on the problems of others means taking on the risk.

You stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people’s frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility.

Anyone who has ever gritted their teeth when yet another committee has been formed, or more research called for, or another meeting arranged in lieu of decisive action will recognise the symptoms of ‘work avoidance’, which arise from not wanting to confront difficult or painful change:

…denial, scapegoating, reorganising, passing the buck (setting up another committee), finding an external enemy, blaming authority, character assassination. These mechanisms reduce the level of distress in an organization or community by deflecting attention from the tough issues and shifting responsibility away from the people who need to change.

Leaders must take the work off of their own shoulders, and place the work where it belongs.

One way of giving the work back is to make observations – statements that reflect back to people their behaviour or describe current conditions (effectively, shifting the group ‘onto the balcony’).

You can follow an observation with a question – such as ‘what’s really going on here’, or ‘what is the real issue that is preventing a resolution?’

Be aware: if you incorporate your understanding of events into the question, it becomes a loaded question which may be seen as you attempting to manipulate the group into assuming your interpretation is true, and starting the discussion from this point.

You can follow an observation with an interpretation – not a question, but offering your interpretation of events.

Be aware: people generally do not like their statements or actions interpreted by others. Offer the interpretation, then listen for the way the group responds.

Hold Steady

By its very nature, adaptive change work generates ‘heat’ and resistance, creating danger for leaders. Perhaps the hardest kind of heat is when it is coming from friends and allies, who may want things calmed down rather than stirred up, as ‘heat’ is expected from your opposition.

Learning how to stomach hostility and anger is a difficult but essential ability for the change agent:

The people you challenge will test your steadiness and judge your worthiness by your response to their anger…receiving people’s anger without becoming personally defensive generates trust. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi…Mohammed, Jesus, Moses – all gained extraordinary credibility and moral authority by receiving anger with grace. Receiving anger is a sacred task, because it tests us in our most sensitive places. It demands that we remain true to a purpose beyond ourselves, and stand by people compassionately, even when they unleash demons. Taking the heat with grace communicates respect for the pains of change.

Silence and stillness are both ways of keeping your cool when things are turbulent. Learn to identify, and know how to handle, different ego states.

Often, leaders will be thinking and acting ahead of the group they are leading. But be careful not to get too far ahead, and try to push an issue before it has ‘ripened’ or you may find that both you and the issue are sidelined.

Wait until the issue is ripe – when there is a widespread urgency to deal with it – or ripen it yourself.

Factors that determine whether an issue becomes ripe include:

  • what other concerns are people engaged with?
  • how deeply are people affected by the problem?
  • how much do people need to learn?
  • what are the senior authority figures saying about the issue?

There is a relationship between the level of knowledge and attention about an issue, and it’s level of ‘ripeness’. The authors point out that a crisis can change the level of both very quickly (eg. tragedies generate the urgency to tackle issues), and that sometimes creating a crisis is the only way to shift the focus to the issue so that it can ripen.

Authority figures are important, because they can command and direct people’s attention – however, be mindful of the position your authority figures are in when engaging with them:

Those who have authority put it at risk by seeking to raise unripe issues. They may not move out the front to take a stand; they may need to help other people to ripen an issue to leave their hands free to orchestrate the conflict…For people exercising leadership without or beyond their authority, ripening an issue becomes more difficult, requiring more dramatic and therefore riskier steps.

In terms of directing attention, a useful observation by the authors is that people may see routine mechanisms for getting attention as being about routine (and therefore ignorable) problems.

How can you change your engagement strategies to maximise attention, and ‘interrupt’ the business-as-usual frequency? If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always had – so what can you do differently? The recent example of how the University of Adelaide took what could have been a routine process of deciding on loan funding and turned it into an event is one way.

There is so much of value in Leadership on the Line that two blog posts cannot do it justice. A useful snapshot summary of the book can be found in this slideshare presentation, however I would strongly recommend getting hold of a copy of the book and taking on board the wisdom captured within it.

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