Monday, October 31, 2016

Three Tips for Grappling with Insiders who are Resistant to Change

At every talk I give about The Art of Relevance, no matter the audience, there's one question I always hear. Librarians and museum directors, park managers and theater producers all want to know: how do you deal with insiders who resist change?

These insiders may be fellow staff members. Trustees. Longtime volunteers or donors. Insiders are people who feel ownership of the institution.

It's natural for insiders to want to protect the institutional status quo. They love the organization. They helped build it. They fight to preserve it.

Sometimes, insiders fear that inviting in new people for new reasons might break something. They fear that efforts for greater inclusion or relevance may destroy the institution they love. Sometimes insiders' fears of inclusive practice stem from privilege and entitlement. Other times, insiders' fears are not about inclusion but about institutional change. Many insiders want more people, and more diverse people, involved in their institutions. But that doesn't mean they are eager to assume the pain and uncertainty that comes with change.

Here are three techniques I've learned to tackle insider resistance. The first two invite insiders into the change, and the third gracefully invites them to opt out.

1. Appeal to their generosity. 

If insiders treasure the fact that the institution is "for us," invite them to share it "with them." The director of a historic house once told me about a trustee who was nervous about opening their institution to new people. As the trustee said, "this is my special place. I'm afraid it won't feel magical anymore." The director gently responded: "it's so great that you feel that this place is special. Don't you want to share that magic with others?"

Insiders may not feel generous in the face of change. They may fear for their own experience, wondering: Will I still have a job? Will I still enjoy volunteering here? Will it still be for me?

But everyone wants to be generous. Invite insiders to tap into the pride they have in the institution, their love for it, and invite them to share that love with others. Invite them to imagine that what is for us can also be for them.

2. Appeal to their bravery. 

Change is scary, and we don't always acknowledge that. Leaders of change proselytize about how great the change is and how exciting and fun the journey will be. But it's not all fun. To insiders, the path is uncertain, the leader of the pack is unreasonably cheery, and no one wants to talk about the dangers along the way. The fear is real. Uncertain insiders feel it--and they may also feel judged for experiencing or expressing it.

Instead of distancing insiders as fearful resistors, celebrate their bravery. Change is courageous work. Thank them for being brave in the face of an uncertain future. Thank them for casting their lot with you and the change.

Insiders may not feel brave in the face of change. But it's an attribute we all want to exhibit, especially when things get tough. If you can invite insiders to see themselves as courageous, they may embody it, helping tackle the change instead of feeling run over by it.

3. Bless and release. 

If you can't make it work together, you have to let each other go. In my second year as a change-making executive director, I struggled with a major donor who constantly called me to complain about how I was screwing up the joint. I would explain what we were doing to invite new people into the museum, she would explain why this wasn't what a museum should do, and we would both hang up frustrated. I couldn't make her happy, nor her me, no matter what we tried. I didn't know what to do.

Then Cookie Ruiz, CEO of Ballet Austin, taught me the phrase "bless and release." As Cookie pointed out, any major donor should feel great about an organization she supports. And I should feel supported by those who fund my organization. If we respected each other (which we did), we should stop fighting. We should be willing to bless and release our troubled relationship.

If an insider is truly unhappy, if they feel that they can't do their best work nor make their best contributions at the institution, release yourself and them from the pain. Tell them, "I have heard your concerns about this change. I respect you, and we disagree. We are moving forward with this change. I understand that doesn't work for you. We appreciate all your contributions here past and present. I truly hope that you find a place where you can feel valued as a contributor."

Life is too short to spend all your time negotiating unhappiness. Thank them for their contributions, bless their feelings of dissatisfaction, and then release them--and yourself--from your toxic relationship. You'll all feel a lot lighter, and you'll have more energy to put into making a difference. Like Socrates said, "the secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."

What other tips do you have for working with insiders who are resistant to change?

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