My sister recently reminded me of a conversation we had years ago. Apparently I was quite certain that the best way to create positive change in the world is to become a part of organizations and institutions and be a catalyst for change from within. Infiltrate the system to bust it apart from the inside, so to speak.
I’ve changed my mind. Well, not entirely — I still think change can, and should, come from inside organizations and institutions. But having spent seven years trying to do just that, I now have a more complex view.
Each has its pros and cons. Some of the pros of working from within:
- You get to know the culture first hand, and therefore the most effective, appropriate strategies and tactics for change.
- You get to know the people well, and build long-term relationships. This not only eases change efforts and mitigates inevitable conflict and resistance, it is personally enriching.
- If you are in a mangement role, you have some measure of power to actually implement change.
- You may enjoy the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor over time, and experience the benefits of the change directly.
Some of the cons:
- You may not be taken as seriously as you should, or would like — people with subject matter expertise that are hired into an organization instantly lose some degree of credibility (ironically).
- You may be viewed by outsiders or other groups to whom you are loyal, as a sell-out, or suspect. You may be forced to choose between loyalties if they are perceived as contradictory.
- There will likely be limitations on your ability to be completely frank or honest or act freely — and if you do, you may be forced to leave the organization or institution.
- If telling the truth means going against the grain,you may be engulfed or silenced by organizational politics or leadership.
- You may lose your original perspective and commitment to “the cause” due to the osmosis effect of the organization’s culture.
- You have more to lose (e.g. professional reputation, career advancement opportunities, and sometimes the job itself).
Working to create organizational, institutional or systemic change from the outside also has pros and cons. I am thinking of “outsiders” as both professional external consultants, and also members of community/grassroots agencies or movements. Some of the pros:
- Your stance, speech, and actions can maintain some level of “purity” — you don’t have to constantly compromise, self-monitor or negotiate multiple loyalties. Therefore, your loyalty is less often questioned and your connection to “the cause” stays stronger and clearer.
- You may have the ability to motivate changes through direct action (like protests or some form of civil disobedience or other disruption) or political activity that would be unfeasible or unwise for internal people.
- If you are an external subject matter expert or consultant, you will be taken more seriously than an internal person saying the same thing.
- You can push limits and ask difficult, thoughtful questions more safely — for all parties.
- You may have less to lose — at least directly, concretely, and immediately.
Some of the cons:
- You have virtually no power to change the actual decisions, policies, or behaviors of the organization or institution
- You run the risk of being perceived as a threat to the organization or institution, and not only not heard or taken seriously, but targeted in efforts to neutralize, discredit or destroy you and your group
You might notice that the content and length of the various lists reflect my recent switch from internal to external change catalyst. You may also find fault or exceptions with some of the above points, or argue that they are relative, and you may be right. To clarify, l believe change can, and should, come from both within and without. But I have learned that there are some key elements that need to be in place in order for internal change efforts to succeed.
- Sufficient support. This sounds like a cliche, but this is where any internal change efforts succeed or fail, and it’s where they usually start. Regardless of the reasons for the support, two things are needed: (1) a sufficiently-sized group of allies and internal supporters (who are willing and able to voice their support), and (2) buy-in and motivation from key individuals with authority and decision-making power. Little can be done without both, and you may start with just one or the other. But down the road, if you have allies but no leadership buy-in, the changes won’t get traction and may even cause or exacerbate conflict, tension, or political jockeying. If you have buy-in but no allies, the change catalyst runs the risk of quick burnout. S/he also runs the risk of becoming an isolated token of a change effort that accomplishes little to nothing, or of vulnerability to being held accountable for the success of the entire initiative. Either situation is supremely frustrating for the individual, and may harm her credibility, reputation, and self-esteem. It’s easier to swat one fly than a swarm.
- Sufficient resources. This may sound like a no-brainer, but not only are resources like time, money and expertise necessary for change, an allocation of resources by the organization reflects an actual commitment in action — words and good intentions are not enough. This support should be in both monetary and human resources. It needs to be adequate and meaningful, not superficial or temporary. Of course there may be no resources at all when you start out on your change journey, but they must eventually be forthcoming. You need more than hope that they might come — a plan, potential sources, and/or the promise from an influential leader with integrity are important. Without adequate resources, the change will not go far or last long, and internal change catalyst run the risk of tokenism and burnout.
- A culture amenable to change through effective leadership. Change is rarely easy and in large organizations and institutions it is typically slow, messy, and complicated. However, in an organization driven by fear, or characterized by conflicting or unclear values, low accountability, poor leadership, injustice, poor communication, or chronic crisis mode, it is close to impossible. Aside from real commitment, creating successful change requires managers (and employees) with sufficient courage, integrity, leadership skills, creativity and effective communication skills. It requires a commitment to fairness, consistent accountability, and long-term strategic planning. It also requires a basic tolerance for ambiguity, risk, and conflict. In short, leaders must lead — not manage — and model the desired change.
- A good fit for the change catalyst. Being an internal change catalyst is demanding, and not a good fit for everyone. Such a person should demonstrate the leadership qualities described above. But they should also have patience — creating change in organizations takes years, not weeks or months. It can also be rocky, unpredictable and non-linear, so they should be in it for the long haul. They should be willing and able to invest in creating good relationships at multiple levels in the organization with key individuals and stakeholders, building alliances and buy-in. They should be flexible — willing and able to rethink things, change direction, or switch tactics. They should be highly professional, credible, organized, and on top of things — since they will be scrutinized. They should be assertive but tactful — willing and able to speak up and speak out when necessary, including to higher authority figures. Finally, they need to be a “critical lover” of the organization or institution. Being a “lover” affords not only credibility and a bridge to others in the organization, it provides the catalyst with much-needed commitment, inspiration, energy and motivation to get through tough times and hang in there. Being “critical” helps maintain focus on the change objective. Someone who is a “company person” or blindly loyal “lover” will not be committed to change nor inspire it, and someone who is critical but not a lover will burn out quickly, and alienate others. A critical lover comes at the reality of the organization or institution with a “both-and” orientation — that it’s important and does much good, but also does harm or falls short.
Of course life and change are rarely tidy, so the above may not always be clear, and may likely happen in a non-linear fashion. Resources may appear before support or vice versa, and the culture or leadership may evolve along with the change initiative. Words like “adequate” and “sufficient” are subjective and dependent on individual interpretations. And “fit” for the individual change catalyst may evolve — they may become less of a critical lover, or burn out. The following are some questions which may help an internal change catalyst determine …
Should I stay or should I go?
- Am I a “critical lover” of the organization?
- Is the work or culture just difficult, or is is toxic? Is it killing me or some precious aspect of me?
- Do I have the qualities and relationships that will allow me to be effective?
- Am I in it for the long haul?
- Does the need of the community — or my external loyalty groups — for me to stay inside outweigh my need to leave?
- Can I stay inside and still act with integrity? Are the compromises and sacrifices I am asked to make acceptable?
- Do I have sufficient support? Resources?
- If “no” to support or resources, do I have more than hope that they are forthcoming?
- Am I seeing, and celebrating, milestones of progress?
- Does the joy of the work outweigh the pain?
I would say a “yes” to most of these is necessary to effect true change as an internal catalyst. My answers were all “no” (except for #2 🙂 ), so I left. I realized I was on the two-year change plan instead of the ten-year plan. I was much more of a critic than a lover (I was working in healthcare and while never a huge fan of healthcare in general — preferring alternative wellness paths for myself — I became less of a fan after being inside). Ultimately I did not have sufficient support or resources, the culture was toxic and I was unable to stay in integrity. And while I had high hopes at first and there were promising signs, when it came down to it, the leadership proved to be lacking the necessary leadership skills to back up words with actions.
In his paradigm-shifting book, Love and Power: A Theory and Practice of Social Change, Adam Kahane quotes businessman and Buddhist teacher Michael Chender:
When you get very close to the heart of the system, that is when the devils will appear. By devils I means the system’s autoimmune system. If you aren’t prepared for this, then you will be overwhelmed, and your efforts to change the system will fail. (p. 68)
I failed to anticipate, plan for, and appreciate the devils — the inevitable conflicts and unconscious resistance that come when birthing change. I lacked the patience and empathy, and found myself going into what the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington (Washington Consulting Group and Social Justice Training Institute) calls the “enemy model” of thinking instead of the “energy model”, which views resistance as positive and necessary — an opportunity that provides energy for transformation, and is a sign that change is imminent. While I have the ability to do what Washington recommends — engage, explore, welcome, listen, honor, embrace, and use such resistance — I lacked sufficient support, energy, motivation, joy and love to do so.
A final word about power, which is an essential and often unspoken aspect of change. While there are many forms, at its most basic, power “is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Even though an internal change catalyst may have more organizational and institutional power to implement change than an outsider, that internal person’s power is always on loan from the organization or institution. It is granted with multiple conditions of loyalty, obedience, toeing the party line, and (often) maintaining the status quo, and it can be withdrawn quickly and easily.
To lead means to step forward, to exceed one’s authority, to try to change the status quo, to exercise power, and such action is by definition disruptive. There is no way to change the status quo without discomforting those who are comfortable with the status quo. (p. 116).
Those inside an organization or institution are often quite comfortable with the status quo — that’s why they haven’t left. They may or may not be aware of this, and may say they want change or even help out — until it becomes real. When change starts to become real, and actions or stands need to be taken, even allies can shrink back, eveni f this is not their intention or conscious desire. Change is uncertainty, ambiguity, and obsolescence of the old. These are frightening. If the shrinking allies have more organizational power than the catalyst, they have the option of stopping or reversing the change, enforcing the status quo, or punishing the catalyst. Being an internal change catyalyst means always working within this reality.
The power one has within an organization to catalyze change is different from the power without. Each locus has its pros and cons and different sources of power. And since change is often a change in power relations, the conversation about power itself is an important one.
But I will save that conversation for the next post. 🙂
What do you think? Is it easier or better to create change from within or without? What is your experience?
In lak ech!