A recent post attracted some interesting feedback. In response to Take the positive potential approach a reader asked for follow up posts, which I am happy to provide, but in 3 parts.
This is the first part in which I will endeavour to offer “some concrete strategies or actionable steps for implementing these principles in practical settings” and on “how individuals in an organisation can address power dynamics which could significantly influence the pace and effectiveness of inclusion initiatives.”
Positive potential and personal power
The moment we see things in terms of deficits which must be corrected, rather than potentials to be nurtured, we throw away our personal power. Correction requires the assent of the correctee, who must also agree that they are in need of correction.
Any manager will tell you that the hardest conversation to have is about performance standards. This is even more difficult if (a) the other person does not see there is a problem, (b) you do not have any recognised authority in relation to that person, and (c) the other person is at the same level or senior.
Identifying a problem that can be resolved chiefly by another person thinking, feeling, or behaving differently may have some rational foundation to it, but you have just handed the power to change to that other person. Yet you are the one who has identified a need for change. Your success chances are as close to zero as they can get.
The thing about seeing the positive potential for change is that you don’t have to ask permission to nurture change. We welcome nurturing behaviour reflexively. But, let’s be clear, you can’t perform nurturing behaviour while harbouring deficit sentiments. We have all experienced overt nurturing behaviour that comes across as coercive with a hint of moral blackmail.
The most important question you must ask yourself is whether your desire for greater inclusion is fuelled by grievance and frustration or driven by compassion and concern.
Being the change you want to see
Older books on management and leadership pay no attention to key ideas like emotional intelligence, psychological safety, or the importance of empathy. These days there is a wealth of contemporary research-based thinking on leadership.
If you want to be a change agent, you must be an effective and skilled leader. Leadership isn’t about positions in an organisational structure or hierarchy, it’s about influencing behaviour through your actions.
Probably the biggest impediment to the rate of uptake of desired change is that the champions of that change are sincere but not skilled. They rely on the moral power of their position. This is often reflected in the assertion of rights. But how is such a right realised? Other people must change their behaviour to permit the right to be lived. But how do they do that?
Understanding the practice of effective leadership is essential. This puts the onus on the change agent to nurture others – psychologically and morally – through modelling the desired behaviour.
There are many excellent books on leadership. Here are my two favourites:
Fearless Leadership: How to Overcome Behavioral Blindspots and Transform Your Organization by Loretta Malandro and Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown
Another key text is The Fearless Organisation by Amy C. Edmondson. The full tile adds: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. This is a critical idea. You don’t get positive learning and growth without psychological safety. And you won’t get psychological safety if you take a deficit approach.
I have found it interesting that my favourite authors in this field are women. They bring the nurturing element in ways that male authors don’t so well. This is tough work as well, as the titles convey with ‘fearless’ and ‘dare’. Its about the courage to look at yourself as a leader/change agent and bring your own standards up where they must be for success.
Understanding that workplace cultures evolve
When I left full-time work, I had the leisure to research and reflect. I put a lot of energy into grappling with the problem of change resistance and a seeming aversion to accountability. These had been perplexing me for the whole time I had been DEN Chair. Change resistance had been described in quite a few books but no explanation as to why was offered. I had to delve into organisational and evolutionary psychology to get a few clues.
Organisations must be change averse, as must individuals. We must have a bias toward stability. As a result, we adapt more slowly than is ideal when change is necessary for survival. There’s a reason that change management is a thing requiring considerable skill. And when it comes to individuals thinking of the field of psychotherapy. Change isn’t easy, even when we want it.
Organisations operate in a complex environment with political, economic, cultural, technological, and now climatic forces demanding responses constantly. Organisations are run by people having a go a running the show as best they can – and not always doing a great job. Organisations are staffed by people doing the best they can to handle work demands and personal demands as best they can – and not always doing a great job either.
This is the reality upon which a change agent wants to impose different ways of thinking, feeling an acting. Neuroscience tells us that changes to our behaviour require considerable cognitive effort. How does the change agent work with that?
There have been powerful currents of evolving values that have changed workplace cultures over the past 60 odd years. The significant themes of inclusion and diversity are efforts to influence how those values are expressed in the workplace cultures.
How effective have those efforts at influence been? The positive changes made indicate some degree of success has been achieved, but evidence of ongoing resistance to responding to the evolving values means more work must be done.
While the impetus for positive change persists what also must evolve is the way change advocates and agents do their bit. This is what seems to be missing when we envision formulas for success. We can contribute to the trend toward better human-centred values by adding our nurturing good intent to the steady but slow stream of change, and we can add skilled interventions to strategically address roadblocks we encounter.
How can individual change advocates in an organisation “address power dynamics which could significantly influence the pace and effectiveness of inclusion initiatives”?
The short answer is that they can become more skilled at what they do. Well-intentioned but unskilled efforts will harvest the ‘low hanging fruit’. But what works the first time won’t next time when all the low hanging fruit are gone. The next phase of stimulating positive change requires more skill.
This isn’t surprising. Virtually every job working with people has become more complex, demanding higher levels of skill. What is surprising is that it has taken so long to understand that this complex and challenging role of change advocate/agent is worthy of being seen as a professional level function.
Personal power to drive positive change is derived from two key factors:
- Understanding the nature of the challenge, and
- Developing the skills needed to be an effective change advocate/agent for greater inclusion.
On a personal level, it was the opportunity to step away from deep engagement with the problem of change resistance and a chance for almost fulltime research for 18 months that helped me look at my own practice with fresh eyes. A feature of my time as DEN Chair was a commitment to professionalism and to a relentlessly positive approach. I hadn’t formulated that as a theory at the time.