When is it appropriate for a leader to give up on trying to influence change over a particular process or individual? Is it ever acceptable? For those instances where the leader has direct jurisdiction over the process or person, an executive directive can be given and change can be forced (for what that is worth). However, more times than not, a leader has to influence change in areas that he or she does not command. Einstein said the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Both personally and professionally I have had conversations where a person was complaining about how someone else acted. I have been the one complaining at times as well. The conversations almost always go like this, “My wife (or substitute that for co-worker) continues to mishandle the budget after I have repeatedly explained to her the steps for doing this correctly. I have gone over this a million times and nothing ever changes.” In those conversations there is a lot of frustration and blame.
What I came to realize was that the insanity was not with the person I felt was making the mistakes, rather it was with me, the one who kept going back and repeating myself over and over again expecting different results. Have you ever had a conversation with a friend where they complained about how their kids never listened and how they would lecture them over and over again, yet still the outcome never changed? I think we all do that as parents and as adults.
But at some point we have to try a different approach. This leads me back to my opening question: when is it appropriate for a leader to give up on trying to influence change over a particular process or individual? When does the leader move from change agent to Einstein’s definition of insanity?
There 3 sure signs that I have moved from a leader trying to impact change, into the realm of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The signs for me are:
- I bring the same topic up, to the same people, in the same meeting, every week.
- I look for ways to bring up the topic that I want to change, even when it is not relevant to the conversation at hand.
- I begin to commiserate with others rather than brainstorming ideas.
So what is a leader to do in this case? Is it acceptable to abandon the need for change? If I do that, do I also give up the right to complain about it? Of course I do. If I choose to “let it go,” then I must be willing to let it all go. I contest that as a leader, if something is fundamentally broken there is never a time to give up. I have to look for ways to approach the situation from different angles.
The first thing I need to do is STOP, stop the 3 behaviors I noted above. Obviously, this action alone will not bring about change. I need to look for a new venue to discuss the need for change, and perhaps I need to find some allies who will broach the subject for me or with me — not to defer the responsibility, but to help me (and those I want to influence) see things from a different lens. Perhaps I am right in thinking that the change needs to occur, but perhaps I am off on how that change has to look. Allies are important. Secondly, being willing to admit my first position on the solution could be flawed. Opening myself up to what others think lets me begin to build those allies and gets me closer to a solution and farther from insanity.
So is it appropriate for a leader to give up? I say no. We should never abandon our core values out of weariness or failure. It is up to us to continue to fight for what we believe is right and to look for ways to nudge the ship back on course. Commitment to excellence is not an option and neither is giving up on influencing change.