Two Interesting Nonprofit Projects
Empowering the Change Agents--Consciousness & The 10% Solution

Do the "Change Agents" Feel Empowered to Change?

Yesterday I conducted a training session with about 65 managers of various organizations. We were looking at the impact of globalization on American workers and what their organizations could do to better prepare their job seeker clients for this new world. It's a big issue that demands systemic responses and everyone has a role to play if we're going to get to that systemic change.

I've done this kind of session a number of times and each time I do, I get a very disconcerting response from the audience. They all feel helpless to do anything. It's a big problem and they just look at it, agree that it needs to be addressed and then say there's nothing that they, personally, can do. This, despite the fact that the organizations they run are charged with exactly this task. It's frustrating and aggravating and I'm not sure what's going on.

I've been wrestling with this for a while and lately have found myself becoming more cynical about these presentations--not good.  Obviously I'm doing a great job of helping them to understand the issue--no one argues about the need to do something. But when it comes to what, specifically, they can do, it all falls apart. What really bothers me about the whole situation is that I want to have impact with what I do, not get high marks on my smiley sheets. If people don't start changing their behavior as a result of these sessions, then what's the point?

Here's what I've tried to help people make the leap from recognizing the problem to taking action to address it:

  • Helped them brainstorm potential organizational and individual actions.
  • Had them develop an action plan.
  • Had them publicly commit to doing just one thing differently.
  • Had them identify barriers to taking action and potential ways to overcome those barriers.
  • Offered follow-up resources and support.

What else is left?

I think what bothers me the most is that I'm sitting in a room with people who are supposed to be helping the disempowered and disenfranchised, yet they are just as disempowered as the people they're trying to help! They don't even really pretend that there's something they can do. They just feel defeated from the get-go.

Even though they are the "system," they don't feel part of it or that they have any control over how it operates. They seem to think that they're just cogs in a machine, helpless to change either their place in the machine or how they operate within it. How can they be change agents when they don't see themselves as able to change anything?

I read a post from Tom Haskins today that has me thinking about how psychology plays a huge role in this. He writes about how dysfunctional systems are a result of dysfunctional relationships and that if we can restore the relationship, we can fix the problem. That's part of what's at work here, I think, although I'm not clear on what relationships need fixing or on how to fix them.

Maybe what I'm dealing with here is learned helplessness.This is certainly a system that serves huge numbers of people who feel that life happens to them. Why wouldn't staff come to somehow believe this too? Although I would have hoped that staff would be changing clients' self-defeating beliefs, not absorbing them!

This all makes me feel like giving up sometimes. It makes me question why I do what I do. I tell myself that if one person walks away and does something different as a result, that's a good thing. But frankly, that isn't always enough. I want something bigger to happen. I want people to rise up and be the change, not wait for someone else to be it for them.

I really believe in giving people the tools and resources for their own empowerment. That's what I always try to do when I work with my clients. But how can I get them to pick them up?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Thanks for the mention Michelle. I've added a post to my blog that delves into the underlying relationship issues you're exploring: "Changing the change agents"

Hi Michelle,
Thanks for sharing your frustration as a change agent and provoking this discussion. Your experience strongly resonates with mine as I work with professionals within a community of practice and I often feel the frustration of not having useful tools picked up. Tom Haskins is shining a light on this topic and I appreciate his examples of making disempowerment more conscious so practitioners can understand and then attempt to alter this self perpetuating behavior. I believe that relationships are the doorway to significant change but the practice of reflecting on relationships, especially with "clients" is not something that is taught or modeled within organizations. I think I found my next topic for our community of practice meeting.
Thanks again for posting your struggle on this commonly experienced topic.

Thanks Tom and Brent for your words of support. This is obviously an issue that everyone deals with in every organization and it's a tough nut to crack. It's good to know that others are dealing with it to and to get some advice from others in the trenches. Thank you.

The comments to this entry are closed.