Wicked Problems, Wicked Delight

and change is nature's delight - Marcus Aurelius quote on forest background

I am of the generation of the wicked problem. At twenty-seven, most of my life has been lived amid global complexity, connectivity and uncertainty. I’ve watched the world become rapidly more connected, and I’ve cut my academic teeth on issues such as climate change, global poverty and viral pandemics. Like many, I’ve felt the need to be more than a passive observer, and to work towards a world of human and ecological wellbeing.

In 2007, I was working as an environmental officer at an Australian university. I’d been in this role for years, and was disillusioned about my ability to effect the kind of change that I believed in and that my job required. My task was to encourage social change and thus establish new patterns of resource consumption – a job more complex than the boss liked to believe. I was frustrated by the inaction of such a highly educated population and needed a new approach, something to energise both me and the campus community.

Around this time I attended the Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) conference and there, among papers on the implementation of energy monitors, recycling infrastructure and duel-flush toilets, I attended a presentation on delight that fundamentally changed the way in which I relate to complex problems. Delight. We change by delight. I could feel my ears prick up and my mind begin to whirr.

The woman who gave this presentation disappeared, much like a genie, and my efforts to trace her have been fruitless. I hope my paraphrasing does her words justice. She said: I used to be an activist. An angry activist. I used to yell at people, bang my fist at meetings and use any chance I had to make a point. I would abuse meat-eaters at barbeques and social events, taking any opportunity to rant on about something. Suddenly people stopped inviting me to parities. And I like parties! So I began making cake. Gorgeous, in-season, local, organic, beautiful, ethical cake. And people started inviting me to parties again. To quote St Thomas Aquinas, ‘we change by delight.’

Aesthetically pleasing, ethically sound and absolutely delicious: people were more willing to engage with a person peddling pleasure than with an approach based on anger and guilt. It struck me that although I believed in the devastating consequences of environmental inaction, I didn’t need to be sombre in my approach. And I didn’t need to change the world by laying weight on other shoulders.

A couple of years after attending the ACTS conference, I returned and spoke with some of the environment officers from other universities. Talk turned to previous conferences, and I discovered I had not been the only one significantly moved by the idea of delight as an approach to change. While we may never know whether the presenter has continued to bring about significant change through delight, the significance of her impact on us makes her idea worthy of further exploration.

I believed so strongly in the potential of delight as a tool for change that I began a PhD on the topic, and headed straight to the books for some sort of accepted definition. My favourite was an amalgamation of various definitions and came from Joel Davitz in his book The Language of Emotions(1969): a combination of joy and surprise.

Combining joy and surprise in practice can be found on The Fun Theory website, the introductory blurb claiming that the site is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’

A favourite example is an attempt to get more people to take the stairs, rather than the nearby escalator. The stairs are converted to a working keyboard and people’s reactions videotaped. The footage shows people gravitating towards the stairs and tentatively stepping on the keys. Realising they make a noise, serious, suited business people started jumping up and down the stairs, slowly making their way to the top. The experiment saw a two-thirds decrease in people using the escalators, and facial expressions showed that the experience was joyful, surprising and also a bit different. Much like the guerrilla gardening movement, the piano stairs are about subverting a norm in order to bring about change.

Yet it would be perhaps naive to think that joyous surprise is the simple answer to complexity. I’ve come to realise the importance, indeed the unavoidable nature, of the difficult, the sad and the scary, all of which are fundamental components of wicked problems. Delight on its own is far too simple a concept for such complexity and paradox. As John Law states in the opening sentence of After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge, 2004), ‘if this [indicating a complex and messy picture] is an awful mess…Then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?’ I believe delight has the potential to create a far richer approach to wicked problems than merely a naive belief in joyful surprise.

Einstein is often famously quoted as saying, ‘we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.’ As I see it, the only hope of taming the slippery and mischievous beast that is a wicked problem is to beat it at its own game. Wickedness and delight are, in themselves, slippery, surprising, unruly, harsh, edgy, mischievous and playful. By using these characteristics as strengths for strategically challenging existing problem-solving habits, and normal behaviour, I believe we might have a chance at understanding and better coping with wicked problems. Wicked delight captures this as an unexpected experience in which old perspectives and norms are suddenly viewed in a new and different light.

Arthur Koestler, famous for his anti-totalitarian novel Dark Noon, also wrote The Act of Creation (1964), setting out what he sees as the three main elements of the creative process. One is the importance of humour in creating new technologies, and also in facilitating new ways of seeing the world. Koestler describes humour as the result of two different planes of understanding clashing. Humour is essentially the experience of paradox exposed: two rational truths are presented in a context in which they both maintain their truth and in which truth cannot actually be possible.

Let’s say I have an uncle, a much-loved uncle, who has long been an authoritative, well-dressed and rather intimidating figure in my life. I am also used to seeing my nieces and nephews in neck-to-knee swimsuits, designed to protect delicate young skin from the sun. Both of those things are normal to me and I accept them. Imagine my surprise, then, at seeing my serious uncle take to the beach in a tight-fitting wrist-to-ankle sunsuit and froglike goggles – the joy and surprise at seeing this normally serious person become, in my eyes, a figure of fun. The humour in this is the combination of two normal things in a way never before experienced by me. This clash of expectation is what generates the humour in the situation, and is thecreation of a new way of seeing – to me, the creation of a small new truth. My old perspective on the possibilities of my uncle is challenged. What else might he be capable of?

To my uncle this would be no laughing matter and there would be an element of wickedness in my laughter. Koestler acknowledges that in all humour there is an element of nastiness and that a laugh is always, in at least some small way, at the expense of another. Yet the truth held within this laughter is potentially of great value. Thus learning about humour helps in the exploration of wicked delight as a valuable tool for addressing wicked problems.

David Engwicht, an artist and social innovator, draws on elements of wicked delight – intrigue and uncertainty – in his work on traffic. In Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic (Envirobook, 2005), he argues for the removal of road markings, lines and signs, an approach at odds with traditional traffic-engineering solutions. Engwicht works on the assumption that speed signs, road bumps and other on-road instructions and intrusions leave the motorist feeling secure and certain about the conditions he or she will encounter. By removing these clues, the driver is required to learn to expect the unexpected and to slow down. And to further encourage an appreciation and awareness that something surprising may happen, Engwicht asks people to gather in the streets: on their doorsteps, in the front garden, on the footpath. Participants find themselves engaged in unusual activities such as eating breakfast in the front yard, putting up decorations or creating a temporary living room in a car space.

Motorists begin to slow down in order to try and understand what is going on, as well as to ensure they are able to react to the unexpected, which suddenly seems much more likely. Walking becomes an interesting and social way to travel, and cycling safety improves. Engwicht finds ways of encouraging the unusual and the different.

A shift towards safer and more sustainable transport is one step towards addressing the many small parts that make up wicked problems. Such innovative and counter-intuitive solutions need to be applied in all contexts, as well as at the higher conceptual level. By approaching the need for change through the lens of wicked delight, thinkers may be able to do away with some of the mental lines and signs that shape our thinking and help us avoid the confronting and the unexpected.

One of the most insidious elements of wicked problems is the way in which factors that contribute to them are often imbedded into the everyday. Elizabeth Shove, an English sociologist, uses the history of washing practices to highlight how consumption of resources is determined by social norms. Once, bathing was considered a risky business, something likely to increase your chances of catching illnesses through the skin. Given this, water and energy consumption was considerably less than it is today – and in a lecture on this subject Shove asked who in the audience had not bathed that day. In a full lecture theatre only one or two people sheepishly put up their hands. While only bathing every second day is not going to kill us, it can be social suicide to admit you have not washed in the past twenty-four hours.

The sense of being judged by others, of being constrained in our actions by our need to conform, is one of the greatest barriers to change. Teenagers are taught not to give into peer pressure, yet most of us spend our lives doing just that. A recent study investigated the factors that influence whether or not a hotel guest will reuse their towels. A number of different signs were tested near the towels: one that pleaded with people to reuse the towels for environmental reasons, one that simply said ‘please reuse towels’ and another that said ‘most people in this hotel reuse their towels’. It was the last that had the greatest positive effect on towel reuse. (Of course, when asked, none of the guests put their actions down to the behaviour of others.)

These examples highlight the power of social norms in influencing patterns of consumption and the importance of getting us to reflect on our actions. This is not always comfortable or easy. The street artist Banksy embodies elements of wicked delight in his work, and is world renowned for his confronting and cheeky tactics. His signature art involves rats depicted spilling toxic waste, climbing into forbidden areas or parachuting into unusual places. To some Banksy is an inspiring artist and social change activist, while to others he is a nuisance and a vandal. A masked rioter hurling a bunch of flowers, two policemen locked in passionate embrace, the elderly playing bowls with bombs, beautiful landscapes on the ‘segregation wall’ between the Palestinian Territories and Israel: is this wicked? Is it delightful? Does it make you stop and think? Banksy’s art constitutes a belief in the impossible, craftily exemplified in a quote on the back of one of his books: ‘”There’s no way you’re going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover” – Metropolitan Police Spokesperson.’

What’s more, many of the greatest social revolutions have been a result of breaking rules. The women’s liberation movement put forward a new story for the way in which the world could work – a story in which women were credited with equal intelligence and capability. This was a fundamental challenge to the way in which the majority of people viewed the world at the time. Similarly, additions to scientific understandings of the world have often been the result of accidents, of new ways of framing situations and a challenging of fundamentally embedded ways of knowing the world. What would have happened if the drip from Alexander Fleming’s nose hadn’t accidentally fallen into his petri dish, laying the groundwork for his discovery of penicillin? What if Archimedes had failed to glance at the dirty smudges on the bath’s edge that caused him to realise the water was rising as he lowered himself in?

In confronting wicked problems, notions of normal need to be challenged on a number of fronts. Research shows that simply telling someone about a ‘better’ behaviour is not likely to bring about a change in action. So, how about wicked delight as a tool for rule-breaking, and rule-breaking as a necessary requirement of solving problems. What about viewing rule-breaking as an exercise in practical imagination? Could wicked delight inspire us to think in different ways, across many disciplines, about change?

Inspired by one woman and her talk of luxurious and ethical cakes, I was able to view a tired, and tiring, issue in a new light. I came back from the ACTS conference and decided to fundamentally change the way in which I approached my work. I took pleasure in defying my boss and throwing my work plan out the window – taking a seemingly less serious approach to the issue at hand. Rather than banging my head against a brick wall I was going to work on something delightful, something celebratory and something that would actually bring about change.

As a sustainability officer, it was my job to nudge people out of their existing patterns of behaviour and encourage them to act more sustainably. This is only possible if people are able to envisage and create new ways of being. Celebrate Sustainability Day was the first result of my affair with delight. It was a day to recognise just how far my university had come; to celebrate the research on sustainable technologies, the student groups, the corporate sustainability achievements; and to encourage further engagement from staff and students. On the day approximately thirty stalls were set up, displaying information about sustainability activities on campus. People could test-ride electric buggies, listen to local music, eat local produce, participate in a clothes swap and enjoy fruit smoothies from an erratically functioning pedal-powered blender. Stalls focused on protesting were asked not to attend – it was a day of possibility.

Students began volunteering on the spot, keen to be a part of the event for even just an hour between classes. It was an energising activity for many of them. The day was a huge success and our office gathered a further ten committed and enthusiastic volunteers. To those in power it had perhaps seemed a frivolous use of finance, yet the new perspective – sustainability as fun, lively and exciting – enabled the university community to engage with the idea.

While the event itself may not have fundamentally altered social practices, it was a chink in the armour of disengagement – not to mention a way of maintaining my own enthusiasm. This came from changing the rules of the game and rethinking my work plan, reframing the traditional approach to social change. The value of delight as a tool for coping with wicked problems lies not in its ability to provide an ultimate solution to the complexity of the problems, but in its value as a lens for focusing on change. There are no simple answers to wicked problems; rather, we need to begin to feel comfortable exploring new approaches, trying the unusual and creating opportunities for the unexpected to happen.

As a person who cares deeply about social and ecological sustainability and justice I’ve struggled to work out my contribution to the morass of complex arguments, emotional responses, political blocks – a slowly thinning knife edge on which the fate of the world sits. I’ve wanted to hide in despair, join the sea slugs on the ocean floor, run off to join the circus. Yet by being honest, by acknowledging the slippery nature of wicked problems and embracing their social and ecological complexity, I can throw myself head-first into the ring of a different kind of circus. The challenge of managing, or perhaps more realistically coping with, wicked problems may be the greatest challenge of human existence. It is an exciting and terrifying time to be alive – a time well worthy of our delightfully wicked attention.

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This essay was first published in Griffith REVIEW 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas as Wicked Problems, Wicked Delight 

millie rooney headshot

Millie Rooney is a human being hoping to make a difference. She is a qualitative social scientist currently employed as a Research Fellow and lecturer at the University of Tasmania.

In 2014 Millie completed her PhD ‘All give and no take? Social norms, suburban life, and the possibility for sharing in Australia’. She is a passionate about combining her nerdy interest in social norms and the unspoken protocols that shape everyday behaviour, with practical on the ground change. This has led to her ask unsuspecting neighbours for cups of sugar, run free community pancake events in the park, help little old ladies cross the road and to challenge herself to sometimes be a leaner and give others the opportunity to be generous.


The Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation

book cover of How To Get People To Do Stuff

This guest post is by behavioural psychologist and author Susan Weinschenk (aka ‘The Brain Lady’). The original version of this article was published on The Brain Lady Blog, and has been republished here with the author’s permission. 

Are you good with people? Do you know how to get them to do stuff? Are you using tips and techniques you picked up from others or experimented with?

If so, I bet that sometimes your strategies work and other times they don’t.

There are seven basic drivers of human motivation. And if you understand what motivates people you’ll be better able to figure out how to get people to do stuff.

That’s the premise of my book ‘How To Get People To Do Stuff’. Here’s a summary of the seven drivers of motivation:

The Need to Belong

Have you ever felt left out? Not part of a group you wanted to be part of? It probably made you feel sad, depressed or angry, or all of the above.

We are ultimately social animals, and our desire to connect with others is a strong, innate drive. We’re not meant to live alone, and we’ll work hard to be socially accepted. We need to feel that we have a place in the world where we belong.

You can use the need to belong, and the longing for connectedness, to get people to do stuff.

For example:

  • If you use nouns when making a request, rather than verbs – for example: ‘Be a donor’ versus ‘Donate now’ –  it results in more people taking action. That’s because nouns invoke group identity.
  • People are more likely to comply with a request if they trust you.
  • The best way to get others to trust you is to first show that you trust them.


It might surprise you to learn how much of everything we do in a typical day we do out of habit without even thinking about it. We don’t even remember how those habits got formed.

We hear so much about how it takes months to create a new habit. How could that be, when we seem to have created hundreds of them easily without even realizing it?

It turns out that it’s actually very easy to create a new habit or even change an existing one, if you understand the science behind habit formation. You can use the science of habits to help other people create or change habits, so you can get them to do stuff. Here’s a little bit of information about the science of habits:

  • The easiest way to create a new habit is to anchor it to an existing habit.
  • If you use anchoring you can get people to create a new habit in less than a week.
  • An important part of getting someone to create a new habit is to break things into really small steps.

The Power of Stories

What kind of person are you? Are you someone who helps those in need? Do you keep up on the latest trends and fashions? Are you a family person who spends time and energy to nurture family relationships?

We all have self-personas. We tell ourselves, and other people, stories about who we are and why we do what we do. Some of our self-personas and our stories are conscious, but others are largely unconscious.

If you understand these self-personas, then you can communicate in a way that matches those self-stories and thereby get people to do stuff. For example:

  • If you can get people to take one small action that is in conflict with one of their self-personas, that one small step can eventually lead to big behavior change.
  • You can prompt someone to change their own story by having other people share their stories. If someone hears the right story you can get people to change their own self-stories in as little as 30 minutes and that one change can alter their behavior for a lifetime.
  • Writing something down (in longhand, not typing) activates certain parts of the brain and makes it more likely that people will commit to what they wrote.

Carrots and Sticks

Have you ever been to a casino? Think about this: You spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people to do stuff; you may even offer rewards or pay people to do stuff. And yet a casino gets people to pay them!

Casinos understand the science of reward and reinforcement. Here are just a few things the science of reward and reinforcement tells us about how to get people to do stuff:

  • If you want consistent behavior don’t reward people every time they do something, just some of the time.
  • People are more motivated to reach a goal the closer they get to it.
  • When you punish someone it only works for a little while. Giving rewards is more effective than punishment.


Imagine you’re driving down the road and there’s an accident ahead. You tell yourself not to slow down and look, and yet you feel the irresistible urge to do exactly that.

Being fascinated by danger is one of our basic instincts. Instincts are strong and largely unconscious. They affect our behavior. Sometimes you can get people to do stuff just by tapping into these instincts. For example:

  • People are more motivated by fear of losing than the possibility of gaining something.
  • We are basically all ‘control freaks’. The desire to control starts as young as 4 months old.
  • When people are sad or scared they will want is familiar. If they’re happy and comfortable they’ll crave something new.

The Desire for Mastery

Even stronger than giving an external reward is the desire for mastery. People are very motivated to learn and master skills and knowledge.

Certain situations encourage a desire for mastery, and others dampen the desire for mastery. You can use what we know from the research on mastery to set up conditions that will encourage and stimulate the desire for mastery, and, by doing so, get people to do stuff. For example:

  • Giving people autonomy over what they are doing will stimulate them to master a skill and will motivate them to work harder.
  • If people feel that something is difficult they will be more motivated to do it.
  • Don’t mix praise with feedback if you want to stimulate the desire for mastery. Just give objective feedback.

Tricks of the Mind

You’ve probably seen visual illusions—where your eye and brain think they’re seeing something different than they really are.

What you may not realize is that there are cognitive illusions, too. There are several biases in how we think. Our brains are wired to jump to quick conclusions.

This is useful in reacting quickly to our environment, but sometimes these fast conclusions and decisions lead to cognitive illusions. You can use these tricks of the mind to get people to do stuff. For example:

  • If you mention money then people become more independent and less willing to help others.
  • People filter out information they don’t agree with, but you can get past those filters by first agreeing with them.
  • People are more likely to do something if you can get them to phrase it as a question to themselves (‘Will I exercise each week?’) than if you get them to say a declarative statement (‘I will exercise each week.’)

If you understand what motivates people, then you can change and modify what you do, what you offer, and how and what you ask of people.

You can change your strategies and tactics to get people to do stuff.

susan headshot

Dr. Susan Weinschenk has a Ph.D. in Psychology and over 30 years of experience as a behavioural psychologist. She applies psychology and brain science research to predict, understand, and explain how people think, work, and how to persuade and motivate people to take action. She is the founder of the Weinschenk Institute, and author of several books including ‘How To Get People To Do Stuff’ and ‘100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People’.

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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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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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Leadership on the Line: The Heart of Danger, The Faces of Danger

leadership on the line book cover

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

Do you consider yourself a leader? If you’re intent on creating change, you already are!

One of the most useful books I’ve read that has helped my work is Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leading by Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz of the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. It was recommended to me by a colleague who had participated in the Governor’s Leadership Foundation.

What makes this book worth a spot on the change agent’s bookshelf is best summed up in a review by President Emeritus of Harvard University, Derek C. Bok:

This is not a conventional book about how to inspire and lead a large organization. It is a much more ambitious work that describes the personal challenges and tactical problems that arise in trying to exert a constructive influence in all kinds of organizational settings.

Leaders are typically engaged in adaptive rather than technical challenges – technical challenges are where there are known solutions and processes, and where people’s routines and behaviours need to change. But adaptive challenge is where there are no ‘known’ ways to resolve complex issues, and when change in hearts and minds is needed. The authors caution leaders about being pressured into treating adaptive challenges as technical.

Leadership on the Line provides insights into why change-work and leadership creates challenging professional and personal situations in ‘The Heart of Danger’, and the varying ways in which the forces of resistance will attempt to neutralise efforts for change in ‘The Face of Danger’. It then sets out five challenges for adaptive leadership, and also approaches and techniques for self-care.

The Heart of Danger

When we are seeking to create change, we are often in the position where we must tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. When we are pushing people to question long-held values, beliefs or habits, this makes us appear dangerous to people.

How do people typically respond to danger? Fight or flight. Possibly more familiar to leaders in this day and age as resist or avoid!

People do not fight change per se – they want to avoid perceived loss. We expect our leaders to be the heroes and have ready answers, rather than raising questions that go to the heart of how we think and behave. We expect our leaders to protect us from the pains of change.

Yet as Linsky and Heifetz point out, the chances of successful change depends on people internalising the change, not being sheltered from it or having it resolved for them.

The dangers of exercising leadership derive from the nature of the problems for which leadership is necessary. Adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges people’s habits, beliefs, and values. It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures. Because adaptive change forces people to question and perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it also challenges their sense of competence. Loss, disloyalty, and feeling incompetent: That’s a lot to ask. No wonder people resist.

Effective leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way – and at a rate – that people can absorb, prodding them to take up the message rather than ignoring it, or killing the messenger.

The Face of Danger 

man in suit holding a black face mask over his face, having just taken off a similar white face mask

There are many different manifestations of danger that may present themselves to the change agent. The objective of these manifestations, which appear in a range of guises, is to neutralise those who are exercising leadership in order to preserve the status quo.

According to Linsky and Heifetz, the ‘masks’ danger can present itself in are:

  • Marginalisation

Leaders should endeavour to orchestrate conflict – that is, managing the range of different interests – rather than embodying it. The authors warn that becoming the embodiment of an issue under your authority is dangerous, as it ties not only a leader’s success, but very survival, to that issue.

  • Diversion

Been promoted unexpectedly? Had some enjoyable or important tasks handed to you? Finding yourself lost in others’ demands? Take pause and consider whether this is a tactic to divert you from addressing an uncomfortable issue.

  • Attack

An attack on the person with the message wastes the currency of leadership – attention. Linsky and Heifetz note that no one criticises when you have good news or rewards, they do so when they don’t like the message:

The spectacle of attack…creates a drama and moves people away from underlying issues…By personally responding to attackers, leaders are colluding with the attacker in distracting the public from the real target.

Hence it is critical for change agents to be aware of ego states, and know how to handle personal attacks.

  • Seduce

This mask is about losing your sense of purpose, and happens when your guard is down, when defence mechanisms are lowered by the nature of the approach. It can emerge from those opposing you, or from within your own supporter base – for example, are you finding you are keeping those close happy at the expense of a broader group?

These masks are intended to neuter the disturbance created by change leaders, maintain what is familiar, and protect people from the pain of change.

Leadership requires the ability to recognise the manifestations of danger, and also the skills to respond effectively to them.

In part two of this post next week, we’ll examine Linsky and Heifetz’s responses to leadership challenges.

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