What if to change others, I had to change myself?

“My problem is that my team relies too much on me, I always feel the pressure of leading them, and though they say they understand what I tell them, and the importance of doing this, they don’t actually do it in reality unless I’m there,” my client explained. Having supported this organisation for several years, I was a bit disappointed that they still hadn’t changed after all the trainings we had done together. Undaunted, I thought of tons of great exercises to do in our upcoming workshop which would help with shared leadership, commitment, etc. However, something didn’t feel right about this. After a lot of reflection and some great coaching from a friend, I realised that those could be my exact words about my work with this very client: each training and workshop has relied fully on me leading, and though participants said they fully understood what I was talking about, few were putting the concepts and skills into practice in their working lives. Maybe, for the change in them to happen, I needed to change something in me and in how I do things.

I wonder how often this is also the case for us as managers in non-profits, as donors, or even as friends and parents. When we say “it is my team who just doesn’t take responsibility”, or “it is our grantee who just doesn’t get how to report”, or “it is headquarters who simply don’t understand what we are living in the field”, are we looking away from what it is WE need to do differently, from our responsibility in this? My colleague Sonia Herrero always reminds those she works with that: “if we created these problematic situations that we are in, then we can also create the solutions to get ourselves out of them”.

However, it is incredible how resistant we are to looking at our own responsibility in the problems and situations we face, and how easily we blame others or outside factors. Chris Argyris, the Harvard Business scholar, speaks of this resistance to looking at our role in creating the problems we face as defensive routines, explaining that such routines are aimed at “preventing (us) from experiencing embarrassment or threat. At the same time, it prevents (us) from discovering the cause of the embarrassment or threat, so (we) could do something about it.”

What if we reflected deeply on our ways of working, identified these defensive routines and began looking at what is the cause of the “embarrassment or threat” they are aiming to protect us from? Could we then address these fundamental causes?

In my trainings, I encourage participants to take responsibility for themselves and thus be Actors, as opposed to Victims (See below table) and blame the external environment or others for their situation. I believe we each have these two characteristics in us, each one becoming more pronounced at different times and in different circumstances. The Victim characteristics are us believing external circumstances are responsible for our situation, whereas the Actor characteristics are us taking response-ability, seeing our ability to respond to the circumstances we face, and feeling empowered to change this. It is amazing how often we fall into Victim mode in different situations in our lives, not daring to look at our own role in our situation. In this case, in order to Walk the Walk, I needed to be an Actor and make changes to myself, not blame others.

So, for the week before the workshop with this client, I didn’t prepare activities and plans and outcomes. I prepared myself. I reflected on what I would need to do differently to truly give them the space to take control, to own the entire workshop from beginning to end, including all the materials. I realised I would need to not be central to the workshop, not be the leader, not have everyone rely on me. I realised I didn’t need to provide them more information and training, but that they required me to leave them the space to take charge, not leading, but coaching them, supporting them in taking responsibility and in applying the concepts and skills in the context of this workshop that we had worked on previously. In the end, by me making this change in how I work, not only would the directors of this organisation absorb more of the material, but they would experience first-hand how different it feels to not be lead but coached, and what would be needed for them to do the same with their team.

The work over the first two days required me remaining very aware of how I was being in each moment for me to remove myself from the equation, to truly hand over the workshop, but the more I did, the more they picked up responsibility. They ran the last two days of the workshop totally by themselves. My only role was observing their actions and the team dynamics carefully and reflecting to them what I was seeing, enabling them to see a different perspective on their habits and to address some of their “defensive routines”.

At the end of the workshop, they described the key insights they got from this experience. Firstly, they explained that they had seen “how much we need to change in ourselves, in the space we provide our team, for our team to grow more responsible, independent and sustainable”. Secondly, was the importance of remaining aware of when they or the team was in victim mode, and bringing them back to being actors. Finally, was “finding a way for our entire team to carry through the enthusiasm, engagement and shared leadership they had demonstrated in the workshop, back to the office”.

For me the lesson was also very powerful. Sometimes, rather than being the one with all the solutions, and all the answers, all I need to do is get out of people’s way, hold the space for them, and trust fully that they have everything they need to achieve their goals. By looking inwards, and changing myself, the changes they had been hoping to achieve began happening. As the much-quoted Ghandi saying goes: “be the change you want to see in the world”. This experience leaves me with the question: what is required for us, as the social sector, to look inside more, and see what we need to change in ourselves and our way of working, to affect the change outside, and create the world we truly believe in?

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