Give Authority

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When people are involved in something that is organized, they sometimes need permission to act on certain things. Nobody wants a loose canon, right?

Other times people are held back by the idea that they need permission to act on things that do not actually require permission. Maybe it’s an excuse for being afraid. Maybe they are just indecisive. Whatever the reason, we periodically need to give a stamp of approval.

Here’s something to think about the next time you are in a leadership role where someone needs permission. Are you giving them responsibility, or authority?

If I say that I am giving you the responsibility to do something, it sounds like I am giving you a job to do, and I expect you to do it. Responsibility is positional. It moves from the bottom to the top. Responsibility can sound like a burden.

If I say that I am giving you the authority to do something, it sounds like I am validating your power. You are in charge of doing something due to your abilities, and your competence. Authority is a pat on the back.

Give people authority.

Seeing ROI Through a Community Lens

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“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”

― Ani DiFranco

Often, when people have conversations about proposed changes in their community, there are two questions that are either explicit, or are just under the surface. These questions speak to return on investment (ROI). People want to know: what’s in it for me; and what is it going to cost?

It’s reasonable to think that someone would want to know what kind of return they might expect on their commitment of time, energy, or money. That expected ROI does not, however, always reflect some sort of purely selfish interest on the part of the person whose support you are seeking. Rational people see their self-interest tied to the common good.

Social change, community building, and placemaking are about improving everyone’s quality of life, and identifying their common self-interest. This is why it is imperative to express your case for support in terms of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ metaphor, as well as pointing out specific individual benefits.

Most individuals don’t have the ability to create the scale necessary for many of the quality of life measures that they seek. They don’t have the resources to create a park, or a cultural event. They can’t singlehandedly avoid public health issues. They can’t ensure that people will be trained, and make living wages performing the services that they need to care for themselves and their loved ones. Vibrant, healthy communities embrace the idea of the public good.

I have spent a considerable chunk of my career in higher education. For a long time, public investment in higher education was seen by elected officials as a public good. Colleges and universities are economic engines, and incubators of innovation. For some reason, however, public investment in higher education has seen a steady decline over the past couple of decades. One contributing factor to this dwindling support is the fact that college recruitment strategies have focused so heavily on the individual career and income gains that can be realized by obtaining a college degree. Lawmakers took notice and essentially said, ‘if the gains are private, maybe the investment should be private.’

Take some time to look at the issues you are concerned with through a community lens. Even if the issue seems to focus on the challenges individuals or small groups, how does the resolution of those challenges benefit the community as a whole?

The Role of Storytelling in Leading for Change

(image: public domain)

You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.

— Margaret Atwood

Storytelling is important. People have always told stories. The art of storytelling predates written language. It still very much plays a significant role in how we understand the world in which we live. Storytelling is therefore, a very important aspect of bringing about change in the world.

Stories shine light on realities we might otherwise miss. They can also motivate people to act. Sometimes we see ourselves in stories. If our experiences are like those of a character, we may learn the same lesson that they have learned. We can come to the realization that our values and our concerns are shared more widely than we may have believed. Stories can articulate a vision of what we can achieve individually and collectively. They can be both inspirational, and aspirational.

Stories, however, aren’t just about seeing ourselves. Vicariously walking in someone else’s shoes is one of the most appealing aspects of stories. Stories help us feel empathy toward others. They allow us to experience the joy, or the sorrow that others have felt. Stories provoke and educate. They can provide cautionary tales that remind us of what happens when we fail to act in a caring and humane manner.

A Few Tips and Resources

You rarely have enough time to show someone that perfect documentary film.  There isn’t time for metaphor-laden, complex narratives. Your opportunity to touch someone’s heart and mind with a story is more likely to occur in a period of under five minutes. Your story should feature relatable, authentic, characters with clear, demonstrated values.

This may sound obvious, but it is important for a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should start with a compelling statement, and establish the humanity of the subject. The middle develops a clearly defined conflict that explores values, and chooses actions. The ending resolves the conflict in a way that illustrates a position or teaches a lesson. The story should end with a memorable line.

There are lots of people out there who know much more about storytelling than I do. Below are some good resources to help you craft stories that will touch people, and move them to act on behalf of creating the change that you’re working toward. Now go out and tell your story.

You Are Not a Mind Reader

“Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

What types of assumptions cloud our judgement? When we are laser-focused on obtaining an outcome, what sort of thinking might cause us to make a strategic misstep?

There are dozens of varieties of cognitive biases that can distort our logic. One of the most common is to have a tendency to think we know what other people are thinking, or what their mental state is. These forms of bias can result from false reasoning, arrogance, ideology, or simply an inability to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

I work in education, where it is not uncommon to witness a bias known as the “curse of knowledge.” You may have had the experience of sitting in a college classroom where the professor falsely assumes that the students have the appropriate background knowledge to understand material that is clearly way over everyone’s head.

Everyone does not know what you know. Even if they have the same information, they may be interpreting it differently than you. Intellectual snobbishness isn’t a great strategy for learning; nor is it a great strategy to gain allies and supporters. Convey facts and evidence in ways that resonate with peoples’ experiences. New information doesn’t become knowledge until we can connect it to something we already know, so try to identify common experience to use as context.

No matter how much time we spend interacting with other people, we are always to a great degree focused on the center of our own personal universe. It isn’t necessarily egocentric. We just notice and think about the things that we ourselves see, without ever really knowing how much others notice and think about those same things. A phenomenon known as the “spotlight effect” suggests that someone may have a tendency to mistakenly think that they are as much at the center of someone else’s world as they are at the center of their own. A good rule for leaders is: get over yourself. Being a change agent is not about you. It is about the individual lives of everyone affected by a misguided current state of affairs.

When engaged in a struggle for social change, the ‘us versus them’ frameworks that we create for ourselves are rooted in the belief that our ideas are better than our opponents’ ideas. If we come to the dangerous conclusion that this is simply because we are smarter than our opponents, then we may also jump to the similarly dangerous conclusion that our knowledge of them is greater than their knowledge of us. What people know, and what they believe are two different things.

There is another problem that comes with believing that we know people better than we actually do. There is something that people who study these things refer to as, “extrinsic incentives bias.” This extends our lack of knowing others to the realm of knowing what motivates them.

Understanding people’s motivations is crucial for creating social change. Extrinsic incentives bias is assuming that people put more value on extrinsic incentives like money, than they do on intrinsic incentives like safety, or happiness. People’s motivations are not always easy to understand, or make assumptions about (See my post “Quality of Life Versus Standard of Living”).

Not surprisingly, the most accurate way to find out what people are thinking, is to ask them. Check your assumptions, regardless of how sure you believe that they are correct. Time spent listening to the people you want to support your cause is always time well spent.

You don’t try to fight the man by becoming the man

“The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.”

– Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Organizing to create change doesn’t require creating your own little officialdom. It is too easy to lose your sense of purpose when you’re concentrating a great deal of energy on organizational charts and chains of command.

Big picture, strategy meetings don’t require pure democracy. Having every allied person vote on every little question that emerges, creates a hole that you may never climb out of. The average person committed to your cause is not a professional meeting-goer. When they do meet, they have an expectation that the next step is going to be actions that move you closer to your goal, not just closer to the next meeting.

If you are so rigidly organized that your main concern becomes creating a single group with an identical message, and speaking in one voice, then you’ll lose the creativity and the unique approaches that come from diversity. Your one voice can not tell the stories that will resonate with all people. Embrace the value of others’ experiences and wisdom.

People feel less free to discover and use their own power if they always feel like they need permission. One of the most powerful things you can do is to help people understand that they don’t need permission to do the right thing.

You don’t try to fight ‘the man’ by becoming ‘the man.’ Give up ideas of authority, and you’ll actually find more power.

Some Thoughts on Arguing

Kent Brockman: Mr. Simpson, how do you respond to the charge that petty vandalism such as graffiti is down 80%, while heavy sack beatings are up a shocking 900%?

Homer: Oh people can come up with statistics to prove anything Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.

– The Simpsons, “Homer the Vigilante”

We live in a world where civil discourse has become a rare commodity. There is little productive debate on topics of great importance, because people of influence and affluence have decided to force every issue into a framework consisting of lines drawn in the sand. This presents a tremendous challenge not only to democracy, but also to anyone advocating for social change.

I am not a scholar of the art of rhetoric. Nor do I claim to understand how argument and debate manifest themselves in cultures other than the one in which I live. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how you might, or might not want to approach arguing.

Arguing as Seed Planting

There are different definitions of “winning” an argument. An argument does not have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight. Sometimes the win simply consists of giving the other person something to think about.

Unless it is a unique situation involving instant replay enabling rules, when a coach or manager in any sport argues with a referee, they do not usually expect that a call will be immediately overturned. They are, however, planting seeds of concern or doubt in the mind of the official. If I tell you that number 12 is routinely breaking a rule, you will probably pay more attention to number 12 as the game moves forward.

Don’t Argue Values

The issues that we disagree on are laden with personal values. People have opposing views on issues because they have conflicting values. I dislike chocolate ice cream. I love vanilla ice cream. You will never convince me that chocolate ice cream is preferable to vanilla ice cream. When you argue that chocolate is better than vanilla, what is in dispute is a value. It is a preference, not a fact.

We should not fall into a trap of engaging those with whom we disagree in arguments about values. If you argue, it should be about facts. Facts still matter, and your facts should always be accompanied by evidence. In fact, next time you feel yourself being pulled into an argument, try the following approach. Don’t immediately set out trying to change the other person’s mind. Don’t tell them that they are wrong. Instead, articulate as clearly as succinctly as possible, the reasoning that supports your position. When you meet a skeptical person explain to them why you have taken your stand.

Don’t Argue – at Least Not with Everyone

There is a psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance. It suggests that people have a hard time dealing with the stress created by simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It is believed that in order to reduce the discomfort created by the conflicting ideas, people will avoid the introduction of the conflicting ideas whenever possible. There are multiple research studies that suggest that people often see attacks on their belief as attacks on their identity, thus making them dig in their heels even more, thus increasing divisiveness.

If you refer back to my piece, “Change Happens at the Center,” you will see a strategy that may be useful when you’ve identified where a person sits on the continuum of opinion of the issue in question. The idea is to avoid the line in the sand people by focusing on moving passive opposition to a neutral state; neutral people to a passively supporting state; and passively supportive people to a fully committed state.  Read that full post here.

Agree with Your Opponent

Using a type of paradoxical thinking, you might use an approach that doesn’t directly argue with a person, but rather, tells them that they are right. Then, using their assumptions, you come up with absurd examples that prove their point.  Fair warning, this technique can backfire so be sure to practice it in some friendly, inconsequential settings first.

Go Ahead and Argue

Finally, if you absolutely have to throw down the gauntlet, try to go in with some sort of strategic framework. Here is an example of some tips which you might want to use to engage with your adversary. They come from, “10 Tips On Going For An Argument Win” by Siobhan Harmer (See the full article for details).

  1. Start off pleasantly
  2. Base your arguments on facts
  3. Respect the opinions of the other side
  4. It does not hurt to admit your mistakes
  5. Exercise self-control
  6. Try to have your adversary agree with you
  7. Ignore statements that have no merit
  8. Always keep an open mind during arguments
  9. Give your adversary the time to talk
  10. Play Up Your Arguments

That’s all I’m going to say on the subject for now, so don’t argue (or do . . . it’s up to you).

One-to-One Relational Meetings

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
– William Hazlitt

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If you want to organize people to create change, few things are more important as one-to-one relational meetings. One-to-ones are at the heart of community organizing. They are also at the heart of leadership.

These conversations are not about converting the person, or running through a list of intrusive, personal questions. One-to-ones are about establishing a professional relationship with someone, and sharing stories as a way to understand their personal interests, motivations, and how your common interests and values might engage them to act in support of the change you are both interested in trying to create. This mix of personal, sometimes intimate knowledge leading to public, professional action holds unique value.

If I ask you to tell me a piece of your life story as part of one of these conversations, my goal is not personal friendship (though that could always happen as a result of professional familiarity). The intended outcomes of one-to-ones are:

  • to form a basic relationships across a community (community of place, or community of interest);
  • to understand common self-interests as well as a person’s passions;
  • To understand not only what they believe, or want, but why they hold those beliefs and desires;
  • and to gain insight on how that person’s unique talents and insights might be leveraged to support your common goals.

Conversation logistics and strategies

Email, or ideally phone the person you want to talk to. Introduce yourself. Explain what you are doing and how their name came up as someone you would want to speak with. Ask them for 30-45 minutes of their time. Make it clear that you are not selling anything, and that you are interested in their thoughts and ideas. Do as much homework as you can to understand what you think their interests may be — like you might if you were going to a job interview.

Arrive on time. Enter having thought about the questions you want to ask, but do not arrive with a pen and paper in hand. This isn’t a survey. You can make notes after you leave. There is no script. Listen closely. Keep the conversation relaxed. Let the other person’s interests guide your inquiry. They should do more talking than you.

Ask the person about their interest in your issue of concern. Listen for indicators of how the issue is personal to them. When they express concerns that they you also share, ask them to explain their views further, then try to build on those shared values.

As you near the end of your conversation ask about their interest in committing to a specific action. Don’t be too pushy. If they can’t commit to anything immediately, find a way to keep the door open for further exploration at a later time. If they can commit to some action, ask them how you can be of assistance. Follow up later and thank them for their commitment.

If the conversation is moving in the direction that you had hoped it would, here are some examples of the type of questions you might want to ask:

  • Have you been involved in this issue? If so, how?
  • Are there things related to this issue that you wish you knew more about?
  • What in your mind is an ideal outcome on this issue.
  • In what ways do you think you could best contribute to the effort?
  • Can you recommend anyone else I should talk to?

There are numerous resources online related to engaging in one-to-one conversations. Here are a few.

Building Local Coalitions

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At the community level, some change requires only a few dedicated people to be achieved. More frequently, however, the scale or complexity of a particular issue requires locking arms with additional individuals and groups to effectively make change happen.
Building a coalition does not necessarily mean creating one huge meta organization. A coalition can be a loosely knit association of groups with a common interest in addressing an issue. The coalition can be a temporary mechanism for work on a specific problem, or it can serve as a model for people who would like to work collaboratively on related issues.

The most successful coalitions contain not only the “usual suspects,” but also seek out like minded allies who fall into the “strange bedfellows” category. Adding voices representing interests outside of your narrow sphere of influence is often critical. Avoid putting people in narrowly defined boxes (all churches, all businesses, all millennials, etc.). If for example, your opponent on a certain issue says that the policy they support is ‘good for business,’ having business people who can argue why that is not necessarily true will deliver your message to an audience that might otherwise simply ignore you, because they don’t believe that you understand their reality.

Coalitions can be effective when the issue in question has a need for urgent attention. This is how public policies often changed before the idea of bipartisan support became a mythical concept at the national political level. At the local level, however, the concept can still be quite practical.

One on the greatest benefits of coalitions is that they give many people who might otherwise be marginalized, a taste of the power that can come from collective civic engagement. Multiple people can be leaders within a coalition without being expected to lead the coalition. Coalitions are always a valuable opportunity for learning, growth, and leadership development.

With all of its potential benefits, it is also important to point out that forming a coalition is not always the best option. Beware when one organization says that it is “leading a coalition.” A coalition will only work when the collaborative leadership that comes from trusted relationships are it its core. A coalition is collaborative work, not one organization using the support of other groups only as a means to gain buy-in for its own agenda (see this post for more on collaboration).

Ultimately, potential coalition members will ask themselves, “what’s in it for us, and what is it going to cost?” They may come to the conclusion that the costs of collaboration outweigh the benefits to their group. But for those who see that the benefits outweigh the costs, the commitment can result in outcomes they could never have achieved on their own.

For more details on coalition building visit the following resources:

Leading Differently Now CC Licensed

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This site started out as an exercise in writing a book online, gathering insight from readers as I added sections, chapters, or ideas. I have decided, however, that readers are better served if I make the entire site available with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC) license. Please feel free to share this content with your friends, colleagues, or co-conspirators. Then go out and change the world.

Nonviolent Direct Action

“We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Women's March 2017

Women’s March 2017

People throughout the world turn to nonviolent direct action after the official way of seeking justice (if any existed to begin with) fails to yield positive results.  We recently witnessed millions of Women’s March participants throughout the world engage in nonviolent action.  Such highly visible events serve as a good reminder that just because it is nonviolent, that doesn’t mean that it is passive.

“In using these methods people either do the unexpected or what they’re forbidden to do, for example demanding coffee at a segregated lunch counter if they’re African American. Or nonviolent action can be refusing to do what they are expected or required to do, like pay a special tax to the English king for the tea they drink.

– Daniel Hunter, “The Power of Nonviolent Direct Action”

Not all nonviolent action is confrontational. It should, however, provoke people into questioning the reality being portrayed by your opponents. Nonviolent actions can include: noncooperation, protest, persuasive influence, and certain types of intervention. The use of these strategies is intended to shift the balance of power. Nonviolent action can changes attitudes of the apathetic, and of opponents. It can lead to compromise in formerly immovable opposition. This strategy is all about reclaiming the power to create a just society.

There are hundreds of types of nonviolent actions. This is not just about large scale events. It is important to remember that a real commitment to nonviolent action means that those who participate in marches and button-wearing, also demonstrate their support those participating in higher-risk actions such as hunger strikes, and civil disobedience that is being met with a violent response. Every action contributes to achieving the ultimate goal.

More Information on Nonviolent Action

Act Up – http://www.actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Guidelines.html

Albert Einstein Institution – http://www.aeinstein.org/nonviolentaction/

Metta Center for Nonviolence – http://mettacenter.org/

Nonviolent Action Network – http://nonviolentaction.net/

Nonviolent Campaign Strategy – https://nonviolentstrategy.wordpress.com/

Training for Change – http://www.trainingforchange.org/

Valuing Diversity and Fighting Oppression

op·pres·sion

o-PRESH-un

noun

prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control

We sometimes think about social change movements as people coming together and speaking with one voice to demand action.  Consistent expressions of common values, and a shared vision, however, can and should come in many flavors. We should not let a desire for a strong, homogeneous voice to come at the cost of the knowledge and wisdom found in diverse perspectives and stories of our allies.

Having said that, it is important to recognize that historically, people with the same adversary have often seen their alliances disintegrate due to infighting over what the late writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde referred to as “hierarchies of oppression.” Spending time arguing over whose situation is more oppressive only serves to strengthen the position of the oppressor. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

Lorde’s, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions,” like Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a Woman?” decades earlier, reminds us that compartmentalizing people does not necessarily shed light on their situation. We can identify with many groups simultaneously.  Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

It does not minimize my pain to recognize the pain of another. Both of our stories are important, and it is through sharing those stories that we will realize our common values, and goals. Injustice is injustice. Discrimination is discrimination.

 “I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.” – Audre Lorde, “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions

You Always Have Power

It is New Year’s Day, and my wish for you is to have a powerful 2017.

If you are committed to social change, the most important thing you can do right now is to remember that you are not powerless. The notion that you cannot do anything about the issues that bother you the most, is false. Here are three ideas to help you get rid of a feeling of powerlessness:

Stop relinquishing your power. Don’t give away the fundamental strengths that you possess. You may not have authority, but you always have power — and you don’t need anyone’s permission to use it (Read more about this idea here).

You are not alone. Find even one or two like-minded people. Organize. Your common self-interests will reveal even more power. Map your collective assets, and connect those assets to define actions (more here). Which brings us to one final recommendation . . .

Less talk, more action. Do something today. Once you’ve organized you group of allies, don’t be seduced into thinking that whining and complaining to each other is going to solve anything. Act. Accomplish small things. Those successes will attract more partners, who will bring even more assets to the table. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, “It is not enough to be compassionate – you must act.”

You are not powerless. Happy New Year.