Changing the change agents

An aerospace client of mine asked me to meet with their internal change agents. I asked them lots of questions and sought their troubled perspectives. The change agents told me they felt like "punching bags". They were caught in the middle between higher ups who wanted to change the culture and the rank & file who resisted getting changed by management. The change agents caught flak for not making the changes happen faster and for trying to make the changes happen at all.

Michelle Martin recently experienced a similar situation in her training session with change agents showing signs of learned helplessness:

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.

Most disempowered professionals I've coached don't consciously realize how they lost their sense of "can-do" and "can-make-a-difference". They are doing the best they can in their own minds. Once they are aware of how they are getting disempowered in their relationships, they can make the necessary changes for themselves. Meanwhile they are caught up in a spiral, going nowhere quickly and becoming more convinced that no change is possible.

One way I make disempowerment conscious is to prescribe it. People realize what they are caught up inside of when I make it clear how to keep it going intentionally. It's helpful to prescribe everything that is going wrong in their jobs, outcome measures and meetings. It's more powerful to prescribe the breakdowns in their relationships. Here's an example:

First consider the vast panorama of all your relationships. You have relationships with family members (spouse, children, parents, siblings). You're in relationships at work (higher ups, colleagues, subordinates, customers, suppliers, etc). You've developed some other relationships (friends, mentors, neighbors, community members, professionals).

Next think of how these relationships differ. Some are superficial and others are very significant. Some have little effect on you and others touch you deeply. Most can be allowed to have their ups and downs and a few devastate you when they breakdown.

Lastly, consider how the significant relationships in your life can convince you that you cannot change what happens to you or help others change their lives. Which of the following are you telling yourself based on your irrefutable experiences?

  1. I cannot get understood, get people to see my side of things, get others to grasp my concerns.
  2. I cannot close the distance between us, find some common ground, get on the same page about some crucial issues.
  3. I cannot strike a fair deal, share the sacrifices, benefit equally and avoid getting ripped off or exploited.
  4. I cannot speak my mind without getting in trouble, getting told to stop thinking that way, or getting micromanaged.
  5. I cannot escape getting blamed, labeled as a traitor, guilt-tripped or falsely accused of neglect, indifference and malicious intentions.
  6. I cannot get out of this mess, make progress toward my goals, get unstuck from this constant crisis.
  7. I cannot stop getting persecuted, kicked around, stepped on or bullied.
  8. I cannot get evaluated fairly, receive balanced appraisals, or get my strengths appreciated as well as pointing out my weaknesses.
  9. I cannot get others to follow through, honor their commitments, take me seriously.
  10. I cannot earn respect, gain credibility, get trusted or receive validation.
In order to continue getting disempowered, keep telling yourself these things. Keep your significant relationships in a broken state where this happens most of the time. Keep giving others this experience in exchange for receiving this treatment from them. Continue manufacturing convincing evidence that you cannot make a difference and you cannot make changes happen.

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