The Game is Not Over: Bouncing Back from a Defeat

“Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armor of the will, and the fort of reason.”

– Francis Bacon

Losing an election, a local council vote, a legal challenge, or failing to remove a barrier to the change you want to see can be discouraging, and emotionally draining.  Rarely, however, does your opposition’s victory eliminate every opportunity for you and your allies to move your cause forward. To use a tennis metaphor, your loss may have been a point, or a game, or even a set, but it wasn’t necessarily the match. Here are a few things to consider once you’ve dusted yourself off and are ready to jump back into the thick of things.

Feeling Bad – Once a setback has occurred, don’t spend more than a few minutes feeling sorry for yourselves (OK, it may take a day or two). It is important to honestly evaluate your missteps and tactical errors. Don’t beat yourselves up for your mistakes. Learn from them.

Accepting Criticism – People may criticize leadership groups or individuals. That’s normal. Admit your own mistakes. Own your failures. Follow that up by reasserting your dedication to your cause and inviting a committed group of people to start planning your next action. You’ll do so with the confidence that you won’t make the same mistakes twice.

Reaffirming Goals – Remind yourselves why your goals are still important. Reaffirm your shared values with all of your allies. Don’t dismiss those who are not yet ready to jump immediately into direct action. Give them space, and let them know that they are valued, and they’ll be back when your cause’s energy builds again.

Cultivating More Leaders – Finally, remember that a leader’s job is not to find followers, but rather it is to create more leaders. Have one-to-one meetings with people who joined you along the way, who may not have been with you during earlier strategy planning. You’ll find more leaders, and more ways to articulate your messages, and make your case for change.

The fight is not over.

Small Victories

allies
Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

— Howard Zinn

The persuit of social change is not always about big wins. When you are in it for the long haul . . .

Sometimes you will change just one person’s mind.

Sometimes you will point out complexities where people saw only black and white.

Sometimes you will sow seeds of uncertainty.

Sometimes you will point out ambiguities.

Sometimes you will remind people to examine their own competing values.

Sometimes you will meet one new, likeminded ally.

Small victories create the underpinnings for the platforms upon which change is built. Leaders of change need to identify these victories, and articulate their value to your allies. Recognizing the small wins serves to remind us that leadership is a distributed activity that takes place at an interpersonal level. Every person engaged in every small action is demonstrating leadership for change.

Five Reasons to Lead Change

“Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can.”
– Martha Graham

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There are hundreds of reasons to take an active role in creating a better world. Here are just five of them.

You find yourself complaining a lot.
You find yourself starting too many sentences with phrases such as, “Why doesn’t somebody” or, “When are they going to.” You are that somebody.

Children depend on you.
Everyone can think of an issue where children are adversely affected through no fault of their own. The world needs to be safe for future generations.

You’re smart.
You know more about the issues that you’re passionate about than most people do. You’ve already got a head start on creating a solution.

Nobody should have to live in fear.
Whether it’s fear of the unknown, fear of failing, or fear of what other people think, fear limits our choices, our options, and our opportunities. You have more courage than you know.

You need to eat, drink, and breathe in order to live.
Despite differences in political ideology, everyone has some fundamental common ground when it comes to life’s necessities. Consider starting with issues that touch these commonalities, and find some unlikely allies.

Like I said, there are hundreds more reasons. Those reasons are connected directly to your most closely held values. You care. How can you not act?

 

Give Authority

Do it! note

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?

What does it mean to be strategic?

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“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

A social change strategy is more than just a plan of action designed to achieve a goal. It cannot be easily diagramed, because successful movements have distributed, as opposed to centralized leadership. Strategy is more than planned activities written in the boxes of a logic model.

This does not imply that you are in a constant state of improvisation. To be strategic is to understand that a wide variety of actions done with an informed perspective, or worldview, can contribute to collective success.

Those actions cannot necessarily be orchestrated by or coordinated from some center of operations. Localized opportunities present themselves, and people take advantage of them. Plans emerge with constantly evolving circumstances.

In this regard, strategy is more of a position, than it is a plan. A commitment to your position provides a lens through which you will know if your actions complement those across a movement.

“You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.”

– Leon Trotsky

Revealing the Invisible

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“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– Ralph Ellison

When it comes to people being invisible, there are a couple of types of invisibility to consider. Both kinds represent significant challenges in the process of trying to effect social change.

First, there are people, or groups of people that are deliberately unrecognized.  They often have few financial resources, are generally of poorer health, have less social capital, and are often considered by much more privileged people, as being less important.

The second group of “invisible” people, or groups of people are deliberately hidden. These are people of wealth and influence, whose activities allow them to rig social and political systems under the radar of most people.

The deliberately unrecognized, the unheard, and the unseen, are often at the heart of changes we are trying to create. It is important to amplify their voices, and to shed light on their realities. Awareness, education, and advocacy are key strategic goals. For example, if your city doesn’t have homeless people on street corners, and in parks, officials may deny that homelessness is something they need to be concerned about. Only by hearing the stories of people who are couch hopping, sleeping under bridges, or in cars, can you reveal the true extent of your community’s lack of affordable housing.

It is important to understand that the “invisible” are not simply needy, or victims. Giving voice to the invisible serves to uncover potential strategic approaches and assets. They are the people who often know the best solutions to overcoming the challenges that they face. Any social change effort should seek to leverage people at the margins; not as sad examples, but as full partners in planning the future.

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

– Woodrow Wilson

Revealing the invisible may not only expose unfairness and inequality, but it can also uncover something on the other end of the privilege spectrum – the so-called, power behind the throne that is working in opposition to your goals. This influence is usually purchased with large amounts of money.

These influencers are usually very careful to not actually break any laws, despite the fact that their actions may be ethically abhorrent. You may never come close to matching their financial clout, but exposing their role can, however, be beneficial. This is because the money trail points to real self-interests, as opposed to those being touted in your opposition’s misleading rhetoric. In some cases, it may be possible to boycott the source of the influencer’s income, or at least send some bad publicity their way.

Ultimately, it will probably be more effective to spend more time on revealing the realities of the deliberately unrecognized, than on exposing the deliberately hidden. That is where there is more untapped power; and it is the kind of power that money can’t buy.

Leadership and the Dunning–Kruger Effect

“Useful men, who do useful things, don’t mind being treated as useless. But the useless always judge themselves as being important and hide all their incompetence behind authority.” – Paulo Coelho

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In 1999, a couple of psychologists from Cornell University, named Kruger and Dunning, published some research findings* which essentially said that there is a tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability, and a tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability. This incorrect self-assessment of competence became known as the Dunning–Kruger Effect. When organizing to effect change, this tendency creates unique challenges.

Over-Estimators

If someone has assumed a leadership role, the failure to recognize their own lack of skill, as well as the extent of that inadequacy, is a potential recipe for disaster. This is doubly problematic as the researchers also found that over-estimators also fail to accurately gauge skill in others.

I have written previously about emotional intelligence, and how people can develop their capacity for it. Similarly, I believe that people can train themselves to more realistically assess their abilities in a variety of skills. The fact that under-performance is accompanied by tangible evidence in the end, means that there is incentive for people to seek honest, realistic self-assessment.

Under-Estimators

The real tragedy lies with the under-estimators. Undervaluing your own abilities isn’t just sad and unfortunate on a personal level. It has an impact on group morale, commitment, productivity, and ultimately, success.

One strategy to overcome this challenge would be to use appreciative inquiry, or one-to-one conversations, to map the assets of individuals. People sometimes forget about skills and talents that they have, and require others help to uncover those assets.

If you have examples of how an individual’s over-, or under-estimating their own abilities has played out in you work, please share them in the comments below.


*Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Tacit Knowledge and Change Agentry

“We know more than we can tell.”
– Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension

image: public domain via pixabay
image: public domain via pixabay

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to convey to another person either verbally, or in writing. It can also be critically important in the process of affecting social change.

Common examples of tacit knowledge include things such as emotional intelligence, or how to speak a language that you’ve learned through immersion over a lifetime, or humor (we all laugh at things that we can’t explain why we find them funny). There are some people who argue (I am not one of them) that leadership itself is a skill that primarily leverages tacit knowledge, gained only from experience.

This intelligence that people often refer to as intuition, is more than a mere hunch. It is the result of subconsciously connecting many bits and pieces of knowledge that we’ve collected over a lifetime. Think about a chess player who makes a rapid succession of moves. Despite the pace of the game, the moves are as calculated as they are situational.

Tacit knowledge is not always correct. It is just as likely as explicit knowledge, to get caught in the trap characterized by that Mark Twain quote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The deep roots of superstition, racism, and all sorts of other human failings lie in the faulty assumptions of tacit knowledge.

Take the so-called “golden rule,” for example: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It doesn’t take training to practice. Its inward orientation suggests that it is based on self-constructed, tacit knowledge. Its biblical origins might even suggest to some that it is some sort of universal truth. The problem is that this “truth” has an inherent bias.  The more generous, and effective strategy for human interaction seems to lie in what is known as the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others, as others would have done unto themselves.” In other words, treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

Despite its imperfections, tacit knowledge can be crucial to organizing and motivating people to advocate for change. It is expressed in the wisdom of elders. It is the source of the confidence that people place in a community’s opinion leaders, people who have gained the trust of many people, and whose opinion on an issue serves as a sort of seal of approval for like-minded residents.

The transfer of tacit knowledge is so situational, that there is no easy method to measure, or make use of it. This reality is why distributed networks of grassroots activists are more effective than centralized, networks that look like corporate organizational charts.

Capacity inventories and appreciative inquiry interviews, like those that we use in asset-based community development, can go a long way toward uncovering forgotten or hidden assets. It is often, however, easier to discover skills and talents, than it is to discover what people know. Tacit knowledge often reveals itself over the course of the development of personal relationships. Recognizing when uncommon knowledge is being shared is an important skill.

The power of “why don’t we?”

I wrote a previous post, “When You’re Ready to Move from Talk to Action.” It focused on troubleshooting the implementation of strategies, campaigns, or projects. There is, of course, a point in time prior to the carrying out of plans, when a conscious decision is made to move from theory to the actual work of creating change.

My primary interest is how to better understand leadership around social change. I do recognize, however, that a considerable amount of the writing on topics in both leadership, and change comes out of the worlds of organizational development and organizational leadership. Some of it is universally useful.

I recently came across an image (below) in a blog post by Simon Terry, a consultant in the field of organizational development and leadership, which reminded me that regardless of the scale of change, organizational, or societal, some underlying questions remain the same. Regardless of the change you seek, the question that is going to get things done is: “why don’t we?”

Image: Simon Terry
Image: Simon Terry
The question of how to make that transformation straddles the planning, and the implementation stages. How implies a plan exists. “Why don’t we . . .” implies that there is action to take.

People who want to maintain the status quo:

  • Why don’t we . . . study this a little further?
  • Why don’t we . . . cover up the fact that this problem exists?
  • Why don’t we . . . just have a cooling off period of an indeterminate time to let complaints and questions blow over?

People who want to create change:

  • Why don’t we start working today to implement our plan for more effective, fair, and sustainable solutions?

Don’t wait for some mythical time when all risk will be mitigated. When you have a plan, work to make it happen.

Social Change and Patience

“Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.”
– Guy Kawasaki

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“What do we want?” (Insert your desired change here.) When do we want it? NOW. The universal call and response of protest is not an ode to patience.

The saying, “patience is a virtue” comes from a poem written in the 1300s, by William Langland, titled, Piers Plowman. Life was pretty horrible for a lot of people in the 1300s. I’m sure that the small, privileged, affluent class in countries throughout the world were keen on perpetuating myths that reinforced their own position when they said, “patience is a virtue,” or its twin sibling, “good things come to those who wait.”

I admit that there are times during a heated struggle, when taking a little time out for strategic reflection is necessary. There are also times when cooling down is the expedient thing to do. These should, however, be seen as equivalent to resting in the corner for a minute, between rounds of a boxing match. Patience must go hand-in-hand with perseverance.

Perseverance is the key to affecting change. Think about who is being served by patience. Who is patronizing you by suggesting that you should tolerate injustice and suffering? Perseverance implies commitment and determination.

“Why aren’t you doing anything?”

“Oh, I’m just being patient.”

Declarations in favor of patience might simply be serving as excuses for fear, or laziness. Where is the virtue in that? Fear may be rational and justified, but it doesn’t have to be an excuse for a lack of commitment, hiding behind a veil of patience. Change is not possible without risk, and risk-free virtue is of little value.

The courage to act before things get unbearable

“Hate is not the opposite of love; apathy is.”
– Rollo May

I have been thinking about motivation. Specifically, I have been thinking about what motivates people to ultimately act with others to create social change. It is a big question, and admittedly, this post contains more questions than answers.

It shouldn’t have to take tragic events to provide a breaking point, or a tipping point. It seems as though even when we have a long-held vision for something different, we will very often be satisfied to simply whine and moan about the state of things, and do nothing about it. Why?

I am not interested in using this space to review the volumes of literature out there on human motivation. This isn’t an academic exercise.

The worst excuse

Speaking of academic exercises, if you’re looking for yet another excuse to put off acting, just look to those who claim a need to wait for exhaustive research in ortime for changeder to ‘have all the facts.’ Sometimes having all the facts is impossible. Sometimes, the facts change daily. I have written before about needs assessment as a barrier to change.

Courage

The key to this question of motivation to real commitment seems to center around courage. At the personal level, activists from oppressed groups can be faced with a wide variety of very real physical threats, or risks to their livelihoods. Would-be activists from a privileged group can face retaliation for threatening the power structure upon which their privilege is built. The consequences of courage are relative on an individual basis, but are nonetheless real.

The personal resolve, followed by the collective determination to push beyond fear is common to all movements. The coordinated efforts of the courageous is where leadership and organizing are important. You can’t mitigate all the risk. Change is fundamentally a risky endeavor. Effective leaders can, however, anticipate the support systems that may need to be set in motion to soften the blow of real hardships sustained by change agents.

It seems as though courage frequently manifests itself when an issue becomes personal. How can you get someone whose life has not been personally touched by an issue to find the courage to be a public champion for change? Does someone you know have to get shot in order for you to actively seek to end violence? Does your own water have to become undrinkable before you insist that access to clean drinking water be considered a human right?

Political will

Of course, once you’ve organized at the grassroots level, political will is a whole different beast. The shared values of a majority of people usually doesn’t stand a chance against the competing interests of the folks who finance political campaigns. The politician’s notion of courage becomes distorted. It isn’t simply about doing what’s right when presented with opposing options. Sadly, saying “no” to billionaires is the most courageous thing many politicians can imagine.

Lobbyists and other people of influence and affluence are not the only barrier to political will. People vote against their self-interest all the time. How will we appeal to citizens to align their values with their political voice?

C. S. Lewis said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” We need to help each other find courage every day. If we amass enough of it, then perhaps we can commit to act before the testing point has forced us into finding a solution via unnecessary tragedy.