When I was in graduate school, I worked as the Nutrition Coordinator for an Adult Fitness/Cardiac Rehab program associated with the university I attended. It was a fairly new position in the organization without a lot of structure and process in place.
Bright-eyed, naïve, and optimistic, I brought forward a lot of new ideas to enhance and expand the nutrition services. Phil, the director, who was also my major professor, would grin and say, “Jean, you can do anything you want, as long as you generate more revenue than expenses.” Even though I worked in a non-profit, academic institution, I learned to think like an entrepreneur.
But as much as Phil supported my ideas, I experienced the opposite from Cliff, the adult fitness program manager. He resented my ideas and resisted the changes new programming entailed. At the time, I didn’t understand why and took his resistance too personally. Phil ran interference and many of my ideas came to fruition. A few years later, when I was setting up a committee that would provide oversight for a weight-control program I was creating, Phil proposed that I put Cliff on the committee. I said, “Why would I appoint Cliff to my committee? He hates me.” With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Phil responded, “Well, you’ll better off with him spitting from the inside out, rather than spitting from the outside in.”
Anyone who’s been involved in innovation knows that half the battle is coming up with a winning concept – the other half is selling it into the organization. In my naïve enthusiasm, I neglected to consider the impact of new programming on current operations. And I failed to solicit support from a key leader who could enable or derail my initiative. I was lucky to have high-level support, but I would have been wiser to develop support up the line. So what did I learn from Phil?
Phil knew that Cliff had the positional power to derail or block the program’s success. Further, he realized that getting Cliff onto my team was the best way to win his support – or at least neutralize his resistance. Even though Phil had positional power over Cliff, he knew the outcome for the organization would be much stronger if I could figure out a way to engage Cliff in the changes I was leading.
This story shaped one of my leadership values: neutralize detractors by bringing them into the process. I have used it throughout my career when leading change and building consensus across organizations. While it seems counter-intuitive and risky to invite resisters into a change initiative, I’ve experienced some beneficial outcomes with this approach. Why?
- Critical Input Strengthens Ideas – Hearing opposing points of view during the formative stage of a new product or program allows you to strengthen the concept before you hit “prime time.”
- Balance the Opposition – When in a team or committee setting, the detractor’s voice will be balanced with other perspectives and become less threatening – and it’s better when other people advocate for your ideas.
- Earn Respect – Showing that you respect your detractors enough to invite them into the inner circle, you might win their respect in return.
- You Might Gain a New Supporter – When detractors have some vested interest in the success of a project, they may set their ill-will aside and work hard for it to succeed. Not always, but sometimes I’ve witnessed this approach turn adversaries into some of my strongest advocates.
Abe Lincoln, whose birthday we honor this month, expressed this value even better, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.