The Importance of Character and Presence

From the Change Thinking Blog
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Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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“Character—a reserved force which acts directly by presence, and without means.”   
                                                                                                                   —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence actually liberates others.”    —Marianne Williamson

Two aspects of our work contribute to our success as change professionals:

  • What We Do—the concepts, frameworks, processes, and techniques used when engaged with clients
  • Who We Are—our true nature…the substance of what we have to offer as human beings

If you are part of the intended audience for this blog, you have already addressed the “what we do” part—you’ve selected a sound implementation approach and become skilled in its application. Without question, proficiency in a dependable methodology is a critical portion of the benefit we offer clients. However, there is a stream of influence much more powerful than any of the terms we use, or procedures we deploy.

Underneath what we do is who we are, and it is here where our optimum impact resides. Of all the things we draw on to create leverage for our clients, our true nature is our greatest asset. Only when we can stay centered on this and see it as core to the value we provide, will we be able to live up to our full potential and help others do the same.

The purpose of this series is to explore this who we are side of being a facilitator of organizational change. In this and the next four posts, I’ll present my views on character and presence—the foundational elements of who we are. As always, I invite you to share your perspectives on this matter.

The Role of Character in Our Work

Many of the change practitioners I’ve had contact with over the years had only a vague notion that there was more to influencing clients than what they know and what they do. Most would probably concede that their basic nature has some bearing on their client effectiveness, but they would be hard-pressed to articulate what that effect is.

As a change practitioner, one aspect of who you really are—your true nature—is the “character” you bring into client relationships. Character is grounded in the depths of personal experience…it is etched in our souls from living life. The debate rages as to what parts come from genetic, environmental, experiential, or spiritual influences, but one thing is certain—our character is always in play, regardless of the conditions we face.

H2O can take the form of water, vapor, or ice crystals. It can flow in a river, fall as rain, or run from our pores when we sweat without ever changing its basic makeup. Our character also endures through whatever circumstances we encounter. Before we were organizational change facilitators, and long after we cease to serve in this role, we were and will be who we are.

Our character is like a true nature “set point.” Physiologically, our bodies have certain ranges for which they are calibrated and, generally speaking, we stay within those limits. For example, one explanation for the weight gain most people experience after dieting is that the body is programmed to maintain something close to a person’s set point of the bulk he or she carries. When people drop below their body's natural set point, their metabolism slows in order to conserve energy. Conversely, when they gain too much weight, their bodies rebel by increasing their metabolisms, which increases the body's temperature to consume the excess calories. It is possible for set points to be recalibrated, but a major shift is required for this to happen.

Our character operates in a similar manner; maintaining its inherent essence is generally its default position, regardless of external conditions. We can be oblivious to it or mindfully aware of it; we can disown it or celebrate it; we can sink under its negative implications or soar on its advantages; we can wish we were someone else or leverage what we have. The one option we don’t have is to be other than who we are.

As I’m using the term, our character is comprised of the aggregate features securely planted in our personal landscape. Some attributes are blatant, others subtle. Some edges are rough, others smooth. Some qualities cycle in and out of a prominent role in our lives, while others remain a permanent dominant force. Regardless of what happens at any particular point in time, our basic character is always our companion.

With all the similarities among people who fall into the same demographic categories (e.g., female, over 40, married, mother of two children, professional, medium income, home owner, two cars, churchgoer, Republican, jogger, shops at Target, type-A hard-charging personality), character stands out as one of the most reliable differentiators. Our true nature is so distinctive that, even with all the other commonalities we might share with others, we can still legitimately claim our individuality because of our unmistakable character.

Character is pivotal to the impact change facilitators have with clients. It is who we are, not what is in our bag of intervention tricks, which ultimately determines whether we generate meaningful benefits for clients. The following perspectives help explain why character is central to our role:

  • The term, character, is impartial and can be applied to either commendable or undesirable distinctions. A change agent’s character is comprised of many components. Some promote favorable implementation outcomes; others may not.

    • Positive components might include things such as devotion to serving others, authenticity, commitment to honesty, and passion for the work itself. Many practitioners have a spiritual or philosophical dimension to their character.
    • There can also be a negative side to a person’s character that reflects such things as self-centeredness, manipulation, insecurity, lack of compassion, etc.

    Whether it advances or detracts from clients realizing their change aspirations, character is the greatest determinant of the value clients will receive from our work.

  • A positively oriented character brings life to our capabilities.
    • It operates as a filter that is applied to what we know and how we act before anything reaches clients. By screening everything through our character, we infuse our unique state of being into the work.
    • It is far more than the change-related knowledge and competencies we’ve acquired—it influences client decisions, guides their actions, and ultimately facilitates their success.
    • It functions as a catalytic agent. Without it, the alchemy between what we do and who we are can’t be activated.
  • The knowledge and skills we use in our work are neutral. They possess no inherent positive or negative implications. We can employ the same techniques to connect with, or distance ourselves from, a client. The same concepts can generate clarity and insight or add to existing confusion. The spin our character puts on these otherwise agnostic tools of the trade bends their impact toward either advantageous or adverse outcomes.

    Without the influence of our character, the nomenclature and processes associated with what we do can come across as sterile, left-brained, technical fragments of the implementation process. Only when character and methodology interact synergistically can our heads and hearts merge to release the potential that is there.

  • Character distinguishes our work more than anything else, including the methodologies to which we pledge allegiance. Others can use the same concepts and techniques, but no one else can duplicate the outcomes we produce when our character interlaces with those words and actions. Character differentiates our work much more than the tools we sometimes so jealously protect. This means that, as change practitioners, the secret sauce in our profession isn’t in our heads, it’s in our hearts.

In the next post, I’ll continue the conversation by describing the role of presence as we engage our work.

Posted on: December 11, 2012 03:33 PM | Permalink

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