5 reasons why your organization will fail to create positive change. And what you can do about it.

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I’ve been thinking about what it really takes to build leadership capacity inside organizations, and what is really required to have brave, honest conversations about the things that matter most.

Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to live their values. Everyone wants their organization to be successful, and to feel part of something bigger, doing good work in the world. We all want that, but few of us challenge the status quo, call out the gap between what we say we value and what we really do, and almost no one wants to rock the boat.

It’s like those signs in the London tube system: “Mind The Gap.” The gap comes in many forms:

  • The gap between what we say we believe and value and what we really do.
  • The gap between who we want to be and how we act every day.
  • The gap between the vision we hold and the reality we work in.
  • The gap between how we spend our time and how we say we want to spend our time.
  • The gap between solving the problem and being owners of our lives and work, and waiting for someone else to fix things and lead us.

Here are some examples of what I’ve come across lately in my work.

“Leaders don’t do arts and crafts.” This was said by a woman in a workshop I facilitated to help her organization become more collaborative and innovative in the face of conflict, tension and diverging perspectives on tough issues. She was more worried about being uncomfortable trying something new and different in the session than she was about making progress on the bigger goals of innovation, collaboration and positive change.

“Our values include building trust and practicing empathy, but our organization is in survival mode. The tension and conflict on our leadership team gets worse every day. But we don’t have time to do any team building or leadership development because we have a fiscal deficit and some big new revenue targets to achieve.” The team is in conflict, leadership is lacking and performance is suffering. What might it be like if the team took time out to be better leaders and stronger together so that they could reach their performance goals instead of doing the same thing harder and longer thinking they will get a better result?

“One of our values is ‘Get shit done.’ This translates into the expectation that staff put everything in their lives on hold in order to put the company first.” Getting things done matters when you run a business. Productivity, efficiency and performance are core to growth. However, in the long-term its people who get things done, and people need to be whole, rejuvenated, and valued to perform over the long haul. And leadership is about far more than just doing things.

“All I do is work. I’m so stressed out all the time I just want to escape.” This was said by a woman who also regularly says she loves her job. Or maybe she just loves the idea of her job? Life is short and feeling that way every day means her contribution to the organizaiton, and to the people in her life is limited and less than vibrant.

“We need leadership support for this culture change to be real. They need to understand what they are asking us to do, and have our backs before we can get started.” Sometimes the change starts with you. Sometimes leadership asks you to do things because they do support the change and have your backs. Sometimes you need to look deeper into what is causing the resistance to change. Sometimes you need to lead before you know things are certain and safe.

“Relationships are what I value most.” Except when you don’t. Except when your actions speak louder than your words and what you really practice is lack of communication, respect, response or care. What you do speaks louder than what you say, and if what you are doing is operating from a place of your needs before others every time, it will be evident that is what you value over other people.

Sound familiar? Sound like a day in your organization? I could go on and on. The things people say in sessions roll around in my head day after day, and they’ve come together to create 5 reasons why organizations won’t create positive change — and what you can do about it.

1. Your leadership team wasn’t born knowing how to be leaders.

For the most part, leaders aren't born, they are made through their experiences, choices and commitment to showing up. Technical expertise doesn’t mean leaders have the skills and knowledge in core leadership attributes like empathy, humility, courage, respect, listening, compassion and commitment. If you start to put more emphasis on supporting leaders to lead by developing competencies that inspire and empwer others you will enable them to solve tough problems and achieve meaningful change. Until then, leaders will go towards what they know when things get tough — and technical skills won’t be what helps the team or the organization move forward. Take the time and effort to build capacity for brave, compassionate leadership and your organization will be stronger in the long run. Ideally, don’t wait until you are in crisis mode to do this, but instead make it part of how you operate every day.

2. Others don’t feel empowered to be part of the solution.

My life’s work is in engagement. Public, community, and organizational engagement — the space where people come together to solve problems. Collaboration, innovation, empowering — these are more than words. When you create the spaces for inclusive, honest, transparent dialogue on real issues you build a culture where people feel responsible, powerful and possible. They are inspired to actually ‘get shit done’ because they are trusted to bring their best, every day, every situation. That means loosening up hierarchies, layers of approval and working from the belief that your staff will make choices based on what is best for everyone, and then creating space for them to do just that. It’s tough to change these norms, and sometimes it takes baby steps to test it out but the results speak for themselves.

3. Your staff don’t know how to have brave, honest conversations about the issues that matter most.

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The path to solving the problems we face in our worlds are through brave, honest conversations. That means talking about uncomfortable topics, embracing emotion, seeking to understand even when we disagree, speaking truth to power and authentically leading in the most challenging of situations.

These are skills that must be learned, practiced and be part of daily culture to be made real. Learning to give feedback from a place of unconditional positive regard so people are built up rather than torn down, developing norms where people can be vulnerable and therefore build a trusting, supportive culture and affirming courage and compassion as cultural values — these are daily practices. People need skill building and practice to make this real — saying that vulnerability or empathy are your corporate values doesn’t make them so. Living them every day in your interactions with each other makes them real.

4. Your culture emphasizes the importance of doing, being busy and reacting to the next crisis more than they honour the values written on your mission statement.

More than ever, busyness shows up as a cultural value. It’s become part of organizational and individual identity, as if somehow the busier we are the more valuable and worthy we are. When we fill every moment with ‘doing’ we lose sight of WHY we are doing things, and we sacrifice relationships, leadership and community at the altar of busyness. I know people are busy — and I also know that you can be busy and bring your best self, be your most courageous, compassionate self and lead from an authentic place where you are present, listening and respectful. Ego calls out for us to put our own needs first and focus on ‘doing’ at the expense of relationships. Leadership calls for us to put the needs of others are the forefront and create the space to inspire, support and empower. When we are busy reacting, we lose sight of the bigger picture. Do you want to spend your energy on the immediate things or on the really important things? Start by asking questions like “Why are we doing this work? What are we trying to achieve here?” and hold that at the forefront of choice-making. Ask yourself what you can say “no” to so you can say “yes” to the things that really matter. Hold team meetings where you start with prioritizing tasks that connect to values, strategic plans and mission rather than allocating and distributing to do lists and action plans. Choose differently, and your culture will shift to one of values instead of one of busyness.

5. People are probably afraid to try and fail, test new things, be open and act human.

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One of the biggest long term tests of whether an organization will succeed or fail is how innovative it is. Innovation comes from a combination of creativity, empowerment and freedom. It needs to be fostered through word and action, in an environemnt of supportive learning free of blame, shame and judgment. That requires a practice of ‘just say yes’ and ‘try, test and learn’ as an operating culture. It means leaders who value performance by measuring how many new ideas were tested out and learned from, and how much creativity was generated by a team. It requires a shift in mindset from measuring action and tasks to measuring positive change, ideas and possibility focused on bigger long-term goals.

Positive change is possible.

It starts with you.

It starts with your leadership, and your words and actions aligned to build a culture that inspires, empowers and enables brave, honest conversations.