Resistance is fertile

Roots - sHow to turn anxiety into opportunity…

When I first started consulting to third sector organisations, my work was mainly what you might expect from my business background: helping charities develop strategies and grow their earned income.

And back then, I suppose, I approached both as an intellectual exercise – as complicated analytical problems that could be resolved entirely rationally.

But in the ten years since, I have learned time and again that the analytical bit is simplicity itself compared with the people bit.

The first big “people bit” is the top-level expectations. This completely dictates the entire scope of strategic possibility: how radical or conservative, how short or long term, how focused or diverse all of the thinking will be.

Someone external like me can help stretch the ambitions of executives and trustees, and take them through processes to expand their horizons, but there are limits, and ultimately the scale of an organisation’s ambition, and the boldness of its strategic choices, will be bounded right from the start by the personal expectations, biases, and beliefs, of those few key decision-makers.

The second, often even bigger people bit, is what the rest of the organisation can cope with. This is not so much about capacity and capabilities, those are easily fixed with a bit of time and money, more often it’s about the three cultural behemoths: identity, rigidity, and fear.

Unless all three of these are recognised, addressed and overcome, it doesn’t matter how rational or compelling the strategy is, it will never be delivered. Rather, it will steadily become watered down, bogged down, and eventually put down.

None of these constraints are unique to the third sector, but they are, in my experience, far more apparent here than elsewhere, for the simple reason that most people who work for charities are far more emotionally invested in their organisation, its activities, and its cause, than they are anywhere else. And it’s those emotional factors that generate all the resistance, at every step of the way.

So, how do you overcome them? How do you persuade people, not to change what they think, but to change how they feel?

Before you can influence anyone about anything, you first need to understand them. And this is where the early signs of resistance can offer you the single most valuable opportunity of your entire strategy process.

Listening and sounding out, creating an environment where people feel able to express reservations, but also turning your radar up to eleven on body language and micro-expressions so that even if they’re not spoken, you can pick up anxieties and misgivings.

Some of these anxieties will be legitimate and will help you improve your own thinking. Others will be misunderstandings or misapprehensions that spark fear by association, and these will help you modify your language and phraseology, refine your narrative and examples to get ideas across in a more relatable and accessible way.

And others will be pure self-interest. Which is equally useful to know.

There is all manner of techniques that can then be used to help people adjust their thoughts and feelings. From simple reframing questions, like “what would need to be true?”; to more experiential exercises, like De Bono’s six thinking hats, immersive scenarios, or storytelling or role play.

An entire arsenal of these things exists, but they only work if you grasp that golden opportunity of the first signs of resistance; to start unpicking and unravelling its roots, and to get right down underneath it into the fertile soil of beliefs and assumptions from which it arose.

One response to “Resistance is fertile

  1. Pingback: Changing identities | Profit on Purpose·

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