Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

You. Yes, You!

Full vitae complaints

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The other day I was in a meeting where there was complaining. I mean a lot of complaining. According to the people around the table, all of our administrators are evil, the majority of our staff are incompetent, and our faculty are just too beaten down to make meaningful appeals for assistance. According to those doing the bulk of the talking, we are sinking fast and there is nothing to be done about it. Hearing all of that was troubling, depressing, and — fortunately — out-of-the-ordinary at my university.

As I left the gathering, I asked myself: What led this particular disgruntled crowd to feel so dispirited and helpless? I think there were two dynamics at play.

The first is that the complainers truly have no idea about the levers of organizational change. They assumed that if their department administrator uttered the phrase, “That's impossible,” she was speaking the truth. Those of us who have been around a while know that phrases like “That's impossible” or “That's prohibited by policy” generally mean, “What you're asking for feels like too much work, so let me convince you that it can't be done.” The proper response to such remarks is not, “Oh, OK. Well, I thought I'd ask.” The proper response is: “Why?” And keep asking it over and over again.

The second dynamic at play is that the group of complainers didn't appreciate the personal power they possess — both individually and collectively — to make change possible. They assumed they had to be anointed as leaders or given special authority before they could start behaving like people with the power to make things happen. Bad assumption.

I am always surprised to find people who would rather settle for discomfort than challenge the status quo, especially when challenging it is a relatively risk-free option. The path to a better future usually seems quite straightforward to me:

  • Identify an issue.
  • Confirm that I am not the only one who thinks there is a problem.
  • Determine options.
  • Figure out who has the power to fix things.
  • Convince those with “fixing power” that making things better is in their own self-interest.

Voila — five steps to a solution!

In a recent interview, Harry M. Kraemer, a clinical professor of strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, urged people to stop waiting to be given permission to act. He offered sound advice, including five specific suggestions:

  • Lead from where you are. Kraemer is right. You don't need to have followers to take a stand. Stop waiting. Get moving.
  • Start offering solutions. Have thoughts about how to make things better? Don't wait for someone to ask you what you think. Be bold and declare what you think should be done.
  • Do your research. The more you know about your organization, the better positioned you will be to make change happen. Pay attention.
  • Build your network. Strive to get to know people throughout your organization. They can help you understand organizational dynamics and they may have the power to solve your problems.
  • Encourage future leaders. Kraemer notes that when you encourage colleagues to express their leadership potential, you are making both them and the organization stronger. You are also building allies who may be able to help you in the future.

So are you frustrated about what's not working in your organization?

Name the problem. Build a coalition. Demand something better. Define what “better” looks like. When you are told change is impossible, ask “why?” — over and over again — until you wear the asker down.

You can do this.

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