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How to Mobilize Organizational Change: From the Complex to the Very Simple

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How can you lead organizational change and make a difference at any level? Northeastern’s Chris Unger describes the difference you can make.

How to foster and support, if not catalyze, organizational change, development, and improvement is very complicated.

Most think they cannot do anything because they are not in charge.  “I have no power,” they say. “If I were the president, principal, CEO, department chair, unit leader, or dean, then perhaps I could do something.”

That, or people believe it is simply impossible to make anything happen where they work. There’s too much ingrained behavior, a fear to try anything new, or the status quo rules the roost.

You can always make a difference, however—and without a complete overhaul of the systems, structures, or practices of an organization. You never know when simply striking up a conversation and engaging others in thinking about a problem can lead to something good.

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Talk with Others and Gather Allies

In our Doctor of Education (EdD) program, we talk a lot about the power of conversation, building relationships, and engaging others in a collective effort to “make a difference” in one’s own organization.

We often ask students to seek out others in their communities to discuss the challenges they see making a significant impact on the well-being of their organization and its employees. It’s funny how often students identify a significant “problem” that is often not discussed or shared for fear of what might happen if they were to surface the issue.

What we ask our students to do is find a way to broach the topic with others in a friendly, safe, and proactive manner—asking for their perspective on the issue. More often than not, our students begin to discover others worry about the same problem, and hearing their peers’ stories helps them think about the problem in new ways. Interestingly, sometimes many of those conversations develop into the mutual consideration of ways the issue could be attended to, using approaches not thought of before.

Raising Questions and Invite Others to Think About Them

The truth is, your perspective on the problem can be quite limited. When we see only one side and perceive the issue through our own lens of interpretation—and when we quickly make assumptions about the problem and others’ contribution to it—we can easily, and mistakenly, arrive at a fixed stance of what we think is reality but could be quite wrong.

Depending on the problem and the degree we feel safe in questioning it, we may not ask for others’ perspective. More often, we may just complain to others in “our circle.” But the problem with complaining to others just within our circle is that it most likely will not result in any change—just a reinforcement of frustration within you and those you like complaining to and with.

It is hard to know the whole story unless you ask others for their perspectives of the problem. And it is hard to find possible solutions without engaging others in a way that gives them a space to contribute to the solution.

This does, certainly, take a degree of courage, and might entertain a certain level of risk. Broaching a problem or issue with someone else you have not yet built a certain level of trust with can make you feel vulnerable to criticism; the fear is that you will be labeled as an “instigator of trouble.”

But, depending on how you broach the topic and engage others, the potential gain could be great. Others in your organization may have been asking the same questions, have the same concerns, or be wondering what could be done about the problem as well. Moreover, they may have a perspective based on their experience and thinking that can help you view the problem differently. Better yet, you might find mutual concern about the issue and begin to surmise how you, with others, could take collective action to address it.

Moving from Complaining to Collective Problem-Solving

Take your complaint or frustration and ask how you could engage with others in your community that might result in a shared concern that you, as a community, could work to resolve together. Why live only within your own head and continue feel powerless trying to resolve it alone.

When we can proactively engage others, the possibility of change is far greater, and the potential for finding a solution is even greater than that. It is it an art form to invite others to share their perspectives and engage in mutual problem-solving, for sure, but is it an art form worth pursuing. That, in the end, is most likely how we can each make a real difference in our organizations: To raise the questions, engage others, and seek a collective solution.

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