Stepping on Toes While Pursuing Change? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work for the tax collector’s office at my local county tax agency. The bulk of my efforts go to facilitating change into that environment. I am a career-driven person and I am finding it very difficult to influence others.

My job is under the umbrella of a state agency and I recently have been voted to be on a leadership board for my county. This organization has been plagued with old traditions and scandals of misuse of power. I’m optimistic and believe that I can change the environment—but at times it exhausts me.

When the HR department selected me for a grievance board committee recently, my boss asked me “Why don’t you let someone else win for a change?” I don’t know how to interpret that. What should I do differently?

Trying to Make Change

Dear Trying to Make Change,

The good news here is that it sounds like you are having quite a bit of success—but it also sounds like you are stepping on some toes to achieve it. Although a little toe stepping is probably inevitable, there might be some ways to soften your approach and make more friends than enemies.

Forgive me for generalizing, but in my experience people who have worked in local government a long time don’t love change. Government work tends to attract folks who seek predictability and stability. Even if they start out with the best of intentions—and of course, many do—if a system is in place that protects their job and benefits them in specific ways, they are loath to give that up.

You have stepped into the role of change agent, which will immediately cause others to suspect you if not outright hate you. You must realize that the role of change agent requires some advanced skills. If your boss is experiencing you as wanting to win at all costs, causing others to lose, somehow it appears that you are engineering things as win/lose.

To ease your path, you are going to have to develop more diplomacy. You’ll need to have conversations that will help people see the changes as a win/win. It is relentless, hard, and, yes, exhausting work. You sound like a logical person, so it is probably difficult for you to see why someone wouldn’t automatically understand why a change might be needed. Because it is so obvious to you, there is a good chance you may not be sharing all of the detail that might help others see things the way you do.

It wouldn’t hurt for you to be aware of Blanchard’s change model. At its core, it breaks down the kinds of concerns people have when change is needed and imminent, and it helps leaders understand the approach they need to use with each individual affected by change. In this recent blog post are ideas for some steps you might consider.

You also might be interested in Angeles Arrien’s work on change agents. In her book The Four-Fold Way; Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary, Arrien researched leaders and change agents in indigenous cultures. She found that, despite radical differences in culture and customs, they all did four things in common.

  1. Show up and choose to be present
  2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning
  3. Tell the truth without blame or judgment
  4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome

This alone is worth the price of the book. However, Arrien also provides some excellent ideas on how to develop oneself if one identifies with any of the roles in the title. I would say you probably at the very least are a warrior and a visionary. These are extremely difficult roles to play in the world, and you will need to create a long-term personal development program to sustain your efforts.

In the meantime, work on developing and deepening your relationships, gathering input from stakeholders, listening, overcommunicating, and being kind. I am sure you are right about the old traditions and the bad behavior, but no one likes to feel judged. The past is the past. You represent the new. Let the new be characterized by drawing on what is best in people and what people are doing right.

And, I am sorry to say it, you’ll need to develop a thick skin because no matter how hard you try, some people are still going to hate you. It just goes with the job.

Fight on, change warrior!

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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