Change….What Are You Going to Do?

The only constant in life is change.

I once found that statement to be an interesting and clever conclusion about the experience of life. The irony is apparent, even for those who find irony daunting.

My mother was fond of saying, “Nobody likes change. Not even a baby with dirty diapers.” That saying captures the sense of humor of my Scots McBrayer heritage. One hears these words, pauses to smile slightly at the clever insight, but then furrows the brow considering the deeper truth. That was my mother, my grandmother, and I presume, my great grandfather, John Columbus McBrayer.

There is often nothing funny about change, so irony seems to be a prudent approach to the beast.

I remember shepherding a major change in my high school, as we were forced to monitor the bathrooms as the smokers were bullying the underclassmen. Mr. McBrayer, the principal, no direct relation, was wise enough to let me carry the water of making the student council’s decision known to the student body. I recall making that announcement at the occasion of the infamous gathering known as a high school assembly, and getting into a shouting match with those who felt it was assaulting their freedom to bully, an adolescent “Don’t Tread On Me”. Luckily, some of the larger football players had my back, and quelled the uprising.

In college, my group of officers in the fraternity decided to do away with monetary fines for missing work parties. We thought it would be better to inspire people to show up voluntarily to keep the house clean rather than rule by punitive order. I was thrilled that my group of leaders were willing to try something new, and not surprised when the more structure-loving members felt like it was the first step on the “slippery slope”(their words) to freedom, resulting in anarchy. But even the more loose folks wondered at the wisdom of the change. I learned a lot about leadership being the leader of a fraternity my junior year, but obviously, not enough. I kept doing it.

The paradigmatic moment in thinking about change took place for me with the major change we underwent at the Cathedral in Atlanta. The Dean, David Collins, had been in leadership for decades. The Cathedral parish had been “traditional” for years, although the influx of the Charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church, in which Collins was a major leader, created literally two different “congregations” under one roof. Collins large personality had been able to successfully sit on top of this pressure cooker for years, satisfying and modifying both factions adequately to maintain the church. But Collins retirement posed a huge dilemma for change in the future.

How could we find a new Dean that could continue this cooperative collaboration or stalemate?

Bishop Child, having formerly had my position of Canon Pastor of the Cathedral parish, approached the dilemma practically. He would appoint the “search committee” with an equal number of traditional and charismatic members. Makes sense, right?

The committee met, chaired by the President of Oglethorpe College, Manning Pattillo, who tried to conduct business as if it were an academic search. It was not.

They brought me on as a congregational consultant to conduct a congregational analysis of the parish, using the work of my teacher, James Hopewell. I conducted interviews, and ran a written survey of the leaders of the parish to discern their belief patterns. Hopewell was known and admired widely for his congregational belief survey that identified four types of beliefs: canonic, empiric, gnostic, and charismatic. If you are interested in digging into his theory and our consultative intervention methods, check out Congregations, by James Hopewell.

My study merely gave objective measurement to what most people intuitively knew. The Cathedral was composed of two congregations, one centered around a canonic center, focusing on following tradition,and one centered on a charismatic orientation, tending to the the present actions of the Spirit. I was so proud of my research, carrying my results to Hopewell himself, who was in the hospital at the time. He laughed at the results, recognizing the mess we had on our hands.

When I presented my findings to the search committee, they listened attentively, nodding their heads politely as Episcopalians tend to do. Dr. Pattillo thanked me for my work, in his halting, careful cadence of speech, with a modicum of enthusiasm, typical for the session.

The committee quickly “deep sixed” my report, burying it so no potential candidate would be hipped to the awaiting dysfunction for a new leader. Who in their right mind would want to come voluntarily into such a situation?

The committee continued in denial as to their deep differences, assuring one another as to their “unity” in Christ, that is, until the first vote on candidates. The predictable split emerged, and the committee members seemed surprised by the conflict. Meeting after meeting continued with no consensus. Finally in frustration, they went with a “lowest common denominator” candidate, a great guy and good priest, but a person who could not bring the two factions together. The result was a Cathedral parish that was split almost in two as a good number of the charismatic group found other communities to call home.

Could this have been avoided? Probably not. The split was built into the congregation’s constituency, by the accident of history and the personality of Dean Collins.

Could this major change have been worked through with more skillful means? There is no doubt in my mind.

As a result of the conflict between these two factions, prompted by the selection of the LCD (lowest common denominator) Dean, I signed on for some post doctoral studies with Daryl Conner, a change guru that had studied organizational development. Conner took the ground-breaking work of Kurt Lewin and offered a theoretical construct of “unfreezing” the status quo and moving intentionally into the dangerous land of change.

One of the most important insights Daryl shared with me was quite simple, but profound: Expect resistance.

When one is announcing change that could be seen as costly to certain constituencies, it is reasonable to anticipate some push back. But the surprise to me is that even when the change is perceived as overwhelmingly positive, one should expect resistance. This is because there is a disruption in what is considered “normal”, and people natively don’t like it. People prefer comfort. At least, most people.

So, Daryl drilled into my brain a reminder to “anticipate resistance”.

Better yet, expect it.

It has been a huge gift, this “great expectation” which prompts one to plan for change. Imagine that!

First, be careful as to how one communicates an upcoming change. So many tragic outcomes of change began with bad communication strategy, or actually, no communication at all. Bad communication betrays an assumption of command-control: you will do it because I SAY SO! Good luck with that.

Sometimes, it is born of an unconscious effort to avoid the anticipated pain of such a change. Just don’t mention it, and maybe they will not notice it. They will. The lesson here is to carefully (note the root “care”) plan your communication strategy when entering the choppy waters of change.

Second, follow the communication through the organization. After planning how the “message” is going to be cascaded down through the organization, check in to monitor if it, in fact, is making it to the people who need to hear it. Redundancy is not a bad thing when communicating in an organization, as opposed to what my English teacher taught me about writing.

Thirdly, anticipate resistance by setting up moments for that resistance to bubble up. This is counter-intuitive for most leaders as one is trained to spin things positively, avoid the negative. This was the most profound, yet difficult, insight for me to operationalize in practice. Encouraging the public expression of negative thoughts about my brilliant ideas seems stupid. But as Conner taught me, better to deal with negativity and resistance in the open than to allow it to go underground where it can poison the culture. A rather earthy image reminded me of this brilliant insight for leadership: Don’t encourage people pissing in your pool! Got it.

The three tips will not insure that your change will progress successfully, but the anticipation of resistance and careful planning make the chances of the accomplishment of the change objectives a better bet. Having led successful change, and doing post-mortems on my failed efforts, these three insights are worth paying attention to. Blessings.

One thought on “Change….What Are You Going to Do?

  1. David, this one got me to thinking of the ‘change moments’ in my own life and I was surprised to see how many there were, starting with changing The Honor Code at Roanoke College (in 1960) to give the Honor Court more ‘sentencing’ options, all the way to that huge culture change we were talking about last night. Like you, turns out ‘change’ has been a theme throughout my life. . .
    Thank you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s