As a leader or manager of a troubled organization, you will in variably be told that you should take nothing personally. That the reactions of those you are attempting to lead really aren’t about you. You will be told to keep smiling, stay the course, and let the attacks fall off your supernaturally thickened skin like so much rain water off a tin-roof.
That is such a wonderful concept it is likely etched in stone at the Leadership monument that must exist somewhere on the grounds of FDR’s home or in the basement of the business school at Harvard.
But the first point of failure of the books and the seminars and the conferences and speakers is that they rarely if ever explain to you how to get there. They do not bother to share the map required to find that place inside where you can be safe from the taunts and the ridicule and the venom unleashed when you call upon your workforce to do a little better or try something just a bit different than what they are used to.
What many also fail to tell you is that the attacks on you will be personal because the reactions on the part of the workforce are personal! Entrenched and atrophied organizations are made up of entrenched and atrophied people. They are not necessarily bad people. In fact, many will be personally convinced of the righteousness of their actions and their mindsets and will believe that their actions and reactions are therefore fully justified.
However, that does not imply that they will find it in themselves to react in a rational manner when confronted with change. This is because of several critical factors. On the macro scale, many of our public organizations do not boast legions of workers skilled at analytical thinking taking into account multiple variables. On a micro scale—they are just damn scared of anything you are going to try to do that takes them too far from their comfort zone. As these entrenched organizations often have strong collective identities, histories, and traditions, it is no wonder that the reactivity to changes in that organization occurs in the land of the personal. You may, in their mind, be quite literally attacking their way of life. Although it may seem dramatic, these reactions can rise to the level of a nation facing a disaster or terrorist attack—or a community raging against the “outsiders” who have come to change their way of life. You must understand, if you are taking on the role of a change agent, that the response of some to organizational change can be that basic—that fundamental—and with that level of passion and fear.
Therefore—it should come as no surprise that they will lash out in unanticipated ways to those who are the faces of that change. Never mind if the change is necessary, or beneficial—it is a threat. And you are a threat. And you will be treated as such. The level of reaction will vary based on the organization and people involved—however, we do a very poor job of training our new leaders and managers on how to manage that element of the relationship between them and their organization.
It is my firm belief that this single element explains why so few public organizations obtain incredibly high levels of success and why change is so hard to enact. Most leaders or managers will start their plan, try to put things into effect and, when faced by the counter-assault, back down into their darkened office, shaken to their core by the return fire, and never come out again. Their plans start collecting dust on the shelves—and the organizational remains mired forevermore in whatever state it was six months before, when the dreamer had visions of so much more. And, having tasted “victory”—the resisters to change become even more convinced that if you just yell loud enough—just react with enough negativity—well nothing will ever change. Only then, things will have to get so bad before they become receptive to change that the organization may well beyond saving. The difference is trying to save the smoker from cancer before their first serious health problem—or after their third bout of cancer—when the choices are clear, we owe it to ourselves and to those we serve to enact necessary change before things are so bad that to doubt the need for change is shockingly ignorant for even the most defiant.
What “they” should tell you—but what they don’t—is the need to keep going. That to make sure things don’t get to the lowest point, you must find some inner strength of your own. You must be willing to adjust tactics, and to maintain a constant level of enthusiasm for where you want to take the organization and why. Remember, all of the reactivity is almost never based on a realistic assessment of the quality of your ideas. Looking at it on paper from a distance, some of the most ardent dead enders would see the benefits from the changes you are trying to implement. But this is not about data or results—it’s about reactions. Human. Visceral. And almost never a rational examination of the future of the organization.
If you can understand the cause of that fear. The human nature of dealing with change—especially in organizations that see little change and/or have had bad experiences with it—then you can plan your response plan when everything seems to blow up around you.
The critical elements of that approach are for you to have a solid and simple plan of what it is you want to do. Be able to explain your key points in brief, simple sentences, with a few bullet points. For example: In 2015 we will make sure every worker has been trained on the new computer system. Why? Because it takes too much time away from that one departments job to do all of the data entry—when it would be much more efficient for everyone to do it. They will yell—they will scream—even if the department wants the change—even if everyone can see it makes more sense. They will accuse you of trying to eliminate jobs—they will say everything worked fine the way it was—what’s the point of changing? If you do not have a few key answers to respond with, you will be dead in the water: Examples: This will help us justify as many positions as we have in all departments—it will lessen the heavy workload of some—it will get you better response time for the reports you need, etc. Always focus on the simple points of benefit—of the need and restate it as often as you need to. Until you are well passed tired of hearing. But never get tired of saying it.
Whatever it is that you respond with—just make sure you do not respond from the level of those that will attack you. You can shape your message—you can adjust your tactics. But the moment you fall to the level of being the screaming raging lunatic—the other side has won the argument. Just as in a battle, you position can often be your greatest strength but If you give up the position, you will lose the battle.
Second, don’t stop doing what you need to be doing just because people aren’t reacting the way you wanted them do. Can you imagine a Civil War General telling his troops to lay down their weapons and go home because the other side didn’t do something the right way? No, of course not. And such is the way with leadership and management in these types of organizations. You have the goal in sight—you have the vision of where you want to lead the organization. Get it done. It will not be easy—it will not follow the lovely map you printed out from the internet—but the only way to guarantee you will never succeed is if you stop trying. If that initial counter assault renders you so upset you cannot move forward—if you take their reaction so personally that you question your purpose for being in your role in the first place—then you will not find any lasting success.
Maybe that is what they mean when they say don’t take it personally. Even though many in your organization WILL take it personally—organizational change and transformation cannot become how you define yourself. You must have the inner strength to ride through the insults, the taunts, the questioning of your motives and methods—to see yourself through to the other side. Having a strong sense of faith helps, having a good group of professional mentors to reach out to for advice does as well. But above all, you must be able to suspend your reactions on those crazy bad days when you realize just how crazy things can get when you want to change the color of the paper towels in the bathrooms.
When you have mastered this understanding—when you know what is likely coming—then you can truly be ready to bring transformative leadership to these types of organizations. Ironically, it is these types of organizations that are most in need of what you have to offer—if you can learn that it really isn’t personal. And if you can learn to stay on message, avoid being reactive yourself, and stay committed to helping your organization be a better place—for those who work there and those whom the organization serves.