Change Thinking

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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It’s Time to Take a Stand

Categories: Sovereignty

Earlier in this series, I described the difference between change practitioners who demonstrate proper flexibility when responding to normal sponsor “push back” (asking if we can modify our recommendations to be faster, easier, less expensive), and those who say whatever sponsors want to hear in order to stay in their good graces. It’s ok for clients to ask for things to be more to their liking…the problem comes when saying yes to these requests means we say no to our own integrity.

Unfortunately, there are times when we are not asked to be pliable and creative about how to practice our craft. Instead, we are told to abandon important aspects of our work that are in the best interest of the client. A vital part of what we need to do to succeed isn’t be allowed and yet we will still held accountable for achieving the intended outcomes.

Clients typically don’t know where the boundary is between acceptable adjustments and counterproductive alteration (see post 1), so we have to remain alert and call out the distinctions for them. When such situations arise, we must be ready to defend the honor of both our chosen implementation methodology and our sovereignty as practitioners.

Why is it so hard?

The problem is, many change facilitators are unprepared to stand up for themselves and the implementation approach they rely on. A practitioner may assume he or she has no choice but to comply with inappropriate client request; however, there are two circumstances when this is not the case. A seasoned professional should always take a stand when:

  • The appeals/demands run counter to his or her judgment about what is best for the client, or
  • The requests are contrary to what the practitioner stands for, personally or professionally.

The reason some change agents hesitate—or outright refuse—under these circumstances to staunchly protect their own integrity or that of their methodology, is likely linked to early exposure to parental gatekeeping. Because we maintain our need for love and acceptance as adults, securing these two experiences continues as a strong motivator throughout life. The pull is so powerful that those who feel victimized are willing to cash in who they are in order to gain a client’s affirmation.

Change professionals face this kind of pressure all the time, but they are particularly vulnerable when key sponsors fail to approve a critical piece of the formula for implementation success. Here are three common examples:

  • The sponsors won’t give enough of their time/attention.
  • They can’t bring themselves to apply meaningful consequences to those undermining the initiative.
  • They never get around to making the necessary tough political decisions about deprioritizing other projects competing for resources.

In these circumstances, the client may not make explicit statements, but the basic message to the practitioner is, “No, you won’t be getting what you say is essential for realization success; however, we still expect you to make everything work out as expected.”

Now comes the tricky part—how to respond? The practitioner’s internal (and more than likely unconscious) dialogue goes something like this:

  • There is no question that, without the key success ingredients, the initiative will fail at its stated objectives.
  • The fallout from the resulting failure will be significant for the organization (productivity/quality implications, customer dissatisfaction, leadership credibility, etc.) and for the leader.
  • Beyond the organizational consequences for the project faltering, moving ahead when I’m sure it’s going to nose-dive is professionally appalling. Operating this way is not what I signed up for.
  • The idea of facilitating things down the wrong path will be personally abhorrent to me. I can’t stand the thought of knowingly moving forward with a process that won’t succeed and watching people waste their time and energy, not to mention head toward a cliff they don’t anticipate.
  • Even if I can’t convince the sponsor to alter the course, I should at least be honest with her about my prognosis so it doesn’t catch her completely off guard when things start falling apart.
  • On the other hand, she is a powerful leader and she just told me what I must do. Even though what she is asking for is not in the organization’s or her best interest, she is adamant about the position she has taken. Additionally, it is obvious she has made up her mind and doesn’t want to hear any rebuttal from me.
  • The repercussions are significant for me if I don’t do what she has asked…I will not only displease her, I could face punishment or even be terminated (translated into gatekeeper dynamics—I will lose my affirmation).
  • When things turn south, everything will be up for grabs, but I’m thinking the organization and the leader will have a better chance of surviving that scenario than I do.”

After all this interior dialogue within the practitioners head, the verbal response back to the leader is, “OK, I’ll make it work.”

Where is our strength of conviction?

The practitioner above gave away an expensive piece of personal and professional integrity in exchange for a short-term affirmation fix. What’s missing is the courage to stand behind what he believes to be true. He doesn’t lack faith in his methodology; he lacks faith in himself.

I stated at the beginning of this series that, as change facilitators, we have two primary assets to work with—the approach we use (frameworks, concepts, techniques, etc.) and our sovereignty. There are plenty of good methodologies, and it doesn’t really matter which one you select as long as you pick one or build one you believe in and become skilled at it. Assuming we have solid tools to rely on and are proficient in their use, the crucial issue regarding the value we provide clients becomes the degree to which we operate with the proper autonomy. In the last post, I defined this sovereignty as the self-determination and persistence to prevail against circumstances/demands that could otherwise lead us to act contrary to what is essential to our core…to who we truly are.

As a professional community, we are embarrassingly lean when it comes to practitioners who are willing to back their methodologies with a strong sense of sovereignty (as I’ve described it in this series). Worse yet, we even come up short when it is time to draw a line in the sand to maintain the integrity of who we are and what we stand for. Do we have some in our ranks who come forward in their work with this kind of autonomy, and tenacity? Absolutely. Do we have enough practitioners like this to make sovereignty a defining characteristic of our profession? We’re not even close. 

We need understanding, compassion, and responsibility.

During this series, I’ve gone into detail regarding my view of why so many in our profession are reluctant to stand up for themselves and their chosen methodology. The combination of early childhood exposure to gatekeeping dynamics, reinforced by virtually every authority figure encountered after that has put a powerful lid on the development of self-determination for many of us.

Whether or not this explanation sheds any light on the issue for you, there is one thing for sure: It is utterly terrifying for most people to assert their sovereignty for the first time. It doesn’t matter if the person is a teenager, someone in the last stages of life, or somewhere in between. It requires nothing less than bold heroism to break free of the lifelong conditioning we’ve all been exposed to. Our indoctrination to “doing what we are told” was solid and now permeates our every aspect of our lives, which is why it is so incredibly difficult to make the initial declaration that nothing will deter us from coming forward with our best selves.

Given the difficulty of going against the grain to secure one’s sovereignty, it’s appropriate to show some compassion for those who are on the brink but haven’t yet crossed over to claim it. It isn’t an easy thing to do and we should be sensitive to how frightening the experience can be, however, cross over we must.

Here is my point: Understanding and compassion are fitting responses to the challenge of practicing our craft with sovereignty, but nothing should diminish our responsibility to operate this way…regardless of how arduous it is. Yes, it’s daunting…do it anyway. Yes, you risk much practicing the craft this way…do it anyway. Yes, you don’t know sometimes if you’re up to it…do it anyway.

Tools first, then sovereignty.

Expertise in a sound implementation approach is table stakes…you’re not even a factor in the game if this hasn’t been accomplished. If you are attempting to function as a professional change agent without being highly skilled in an implementation methodology, you are one of two things:

  • On the novice end of our profession’s maturity curve (there’s nothing wrong with this as long as you are truthful about your inexperience with your clients)
  • Misrepresenting yourself as a qualified professional in this field (I can only hope you wake up to the disservice you are doing to others and to yourself as soon as possible)

If you are functioning as a professional change agent with a methodology you believe in and are proficient in, but you fail to engage your sovereignty to defend it, you are one of two things:

  • On the verge of coming to terms with the necessity of integrating autonomy and self-determination into your practice
  • Lacking the courage and discipline necessary to reach the level of impact our profession is capable of (if this is the case, you are why some leaders lack confidence in our ability to be the strategic partners they need)

The real issue is this—Are you fully leveraging your methodology and your skill in using it by standing up to client pressure when you are asked to cut bone marrow, not fat, from its application? You can’t operate at the mastery level of this profession without sovereignty being a key element in your character, because that’s what it takes to safeguard both what you do and who you are.    

If it were easy, it would be easy.

I’ve tried to make the case in this series that it is no cakewalk to break free from the hold gatekeepers can have on our lives, and yet, that’s precisely what we are called to do if we are to live up to our professional responsibilities. This isn’t about “doing all you can” or “giving it your best shot.” If we are going to allege that we are seasoned, highly skilled change practitioners with a commitment to mastering our craft[1], it is imperative that we bring forward the sovereignty required to function as we should.  

We can take our guidance from no less than Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “To believe in something and not to live it is dishonest.” From his inspiration, I draw the following options for us to consider:

  • Either fully embrace sovereignty and make it an integral part of our lives, OR
  • Stop the pretense that what we profess to believe is actually part of what defines who we are, and live in the hollow misery of knowing we are frauds, always fearful we will be found out.

You can make a living being a change agent while adhering to the second option, but to practice our craft in pursuit of mastery, only the first one will suffice. OK, so it’s not easy…get over it. Either do what the mastery path requires or get off and make room for those who will.

Professional sovereignty can’t be granted—it must be claimed.

Sovereignty isn’t bestowed by anyone else; it must be claimed by the individual. It is not requested, it is asserted.

Professional sovereignty emerges within a person only when being who you are becomes more important than pleasing others. You can’t win the sovereignty lotto, nor can a senior executive place a sword on your shoulder and declare you sovereign. You can’t attend training to get certified in it and there isn’t an app on your smart phone. There is only one way it materializes…you earn it.

There are several aspects to earning your place in the ranks of sovereign change practitioners: 

  • Claim your priorities

    • Sponsorship for important changeis too critical to be supported by anyone less than the best resource available—this means a practitioner who is prepared to appropriately stand his or her ground when determining the best course forward. Acknowledge and respect the position and power of the sponsors you serve, but don’t let that compromise your priorities:
      1. Apply your craft as you believe it should be practiced.
      2. Respectfully but firmly maintain the integrity of your professional sovereignty.
      3. Do everything you can to ensure the success of the sponsor and his or her initiative.

      The order of these is important. Above all else, protect the essence of what you do and who you are. To best serve your clients, you must first ensure you are the strongest practitioner you can be…and that calls for addressing the first two priorities so that you are prepared to deliver on the third one.

  • Claim your brand
    • The center of gravity for your reputation is the disciplined practice of your craft and your professional sovereignty. These are the heart of what you are providing clients…this is where your real value comes from.
    • In the course of describing, selling, and conducting your work, you will rely on various products, services, and deliverables as enablers, but they are “what-you-do” conduits for leveraging your main asset, which is “who you are.”
    • The brand recognition and client loyalty you want to foster is based on what you really do and who you really are, not what others want you to do or who they want you to be.
  • Claim your constituency

    Be selective about who you take on as clients.

    • During the business development process, remember, your objective is NOT to close on each sales opportunity…it is to be as explicit as you can be about what you have to offer so you and a prospect can make an informed decision about working together. Be specific about the following:
      • What you specialize in and what you don’t do
      • How you go about your work
      • What will be required of the client for a successful outcome
      • How long the process will take, and the kind of investment required
      • The parts of your process people often find the most difficult
      • Who you are and what it is like working with you (present your full self)
    • Have a well-articulated qualifying criteria and be disciplined about turning down prospects who don’t pass your filter. Don’t waste resources and defuse your brand by working with people who do any of these things:
      • Want you to do something other than practicing your craft
      • Won’t invest the time, money, or people necessary for you to be successful
      • Show little predisposition for the mindsets and behaviors you will be encouraging them to use
      • Don’t value who you are
  • Claim your integrity
    • Stand your ground when under pressure to reduce your standards below what prudent flexibility calls for.
      • Remain clear about where the line is to protect the authenticity of who you are and the craft you are there to practice.
      • Remember your prime directives:
      • You are not engaged to make clients comfortable; you are there to help them succeed despite the discomfort they may experience
      • You’re not there to ensure they make all the right decisions; you are there to help them make informed decisions.
    • Stay centered on your ultimate priorities:
        1. Practice your craft to the best of your ability
        2. Fully express who you really are
        3. Ensure the client’s desired outcomes are realized

      Upholding these priorities, in this order, is what is in everyone’s best interest (yours and the client’s)


Professional change facilitators work with two primary assets—our approach, and our sovereignty as we deliver our work. We must choose and become skilled at a reliable methodology, but we must also have the courage and discipline to stand up to clients when they pressure us to back down on what we believe to be best for the situation.

We learn at an early age to seek love and acceptance. Some of us had parents who nurtured who we are, but many of us had parents who demanded that we be who they wanted us to be. When this happens, it sets up the possibility of a lifetime of “caving” to authority figures in order to gain their affirmation. To provide the value our profession promises clients, we must learn to recognize our autonomy and stand on the strength of our convictions.

Sovereignty can’t be granted and it certainly isn’t easy to come by—we must earn it. Doing so is an imperative, however, if we are to live personally and professionally in integrity and deliver on the realization results we are asked to foster.

Go to the beginning of the series.


[1] Anyone interested in being a professional change agent is welcome to read this blog but all my comments are calibrated explicitly for this audience.


Posted on: December 04, 2012 01:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How Do Controlling People Establish Their Hold?

Categories: Sovereignty

I’m continuing with my series on sovereignty[1], and its importance for change practitioners.

In my last post, I described two styles of parenting: nurturing and gatekeeping. Nurturers recognize and accept their children; gatekeepers control and manipulate their offspring. Let’s look closer at what we learned as children about how to get the affirmation we wanted from our parents and how those same dynamics play out in our adult lives. With this as context, it is understandable how easy it is for change practitioners to fall into similar patterns when interacting with sponsors who ask (and sometimes demand) that we inappropriately cut corners when applying our methodologies.

The Early Years

The affirmation we sought as young children was no casual matter. Securing it or losing it was a defining element to our character development and general sense of happiness. Of course, we had no conscious awareness of these implications at the time, but even at a very young age, we learned that the expectations our parents had of us was something worth paying attention to.

Most parents display both nurturing and gatekeeping characteristics, although they typically lean more toward one than the other. What we’ll explore now is how gatekeeping shapes a child’s predisposition for living a sovereign life as an adult.

Regardless of the frequency, and whether they do so intentionally, parents who operate from the gatekeeper’s end of the continuum use their child’s need for affirmation to mold who they become[2].

  • Gatekeeping parents know how important love and acceptance are for young children and how effectively they can leverage them to influence a child’s behavior, so they tend to place a high tax on granting affirmation. (“Do as I asked you to or today won’t be a fun day.”) One of the most expensive invoices we pay as young people is compensation to parents in return for their love and acceptance. Some of us are still making these installments.
  • Children of gatekeeping parents pay for affirmation with a special currency that I’ll refer to as “Do as you are told” (DAYAT) dollars.
    • As long as the child demonstrates compliance by supplying the proper amount of DAYAT dollars (not playing in the street, eating all the vegetables, being a sweet little girl or a strong boy, etc.), parents will grant the desired affirmation.
    • The moment an invoice isn’t settled on the spot, however, the coveted affirmation is denied. (Corporal punishment may or may not be added as a surcharge, based on how grievous the infraction and the parents’ child-rearing philosophy.)
  • Parental granting or withholding of affirmation in response to a child’s compliance or defiance is an incredibly powerful teaching mechanism and many of us learned our lessons well.
    • At various times, gatekeeping parents focus on particular behaviors they want to either reinforce (“That’s how a big brother should treat his little sister”) or eliminate (“Stop crying and tell me what happened”). The real agenda, however, (which they may or may not be aware of) is far grander than merely addressing the situation at hand. Instead of helping the child reveal who he or she truly is, these parents are molding the child into the image they want.
    • Some children don’t just behave as expected, they actually become (or try to become) who they are “supposed” to be.
  • Gatekeeping parents aren’t satisfied with their kids just behaving in certain ways under varying circumstances. They want them to think and feel—to be—a particular way.
    • It is one thing to receive a short burst of parental praise after paying sufficient DAYAT dollars for some infraction. It is a different matter to tap into the mother lode of affirmation…the love and acceptance showered on children when they demonstrate evidence of becoming who they are expected to be.
    • Children of gatekeepers first reluctantly comply with their parents’ wishes, but, over time, they realize that things are much better if they willingly adhere to their preferences. If they want to score really big points, they can anticipate what is required and provide it without being asked. Though most youth aren’t consciously aware of what is happening, at a certain level, they sense that mom and dad want more than appropriate conduct; they want a particular persona to emerge.
  • Gatekeeping parents form an image of the ideal child they aspire to raise, which is typically based on an echo of their own upbringing.
    • It might be a replication echo. (“Be what my parents wanted me to be.”) or it could be the opposite. (“I’ll never do to you what my parents did to me.”). Either way, most mothers and fathers carry into the relationship with their children “image baggage” from their own childhood.
    • Once formed, this image becomes the standard by which they measure their children.
      • When observed behaviors are consistent with the desired image, the parents administer rewards. When there are inconsistencies, they dole out punishment.
      • Although they sometimes use proxies (spankings, TV, or electronic game restriction, etc.), the real currency they control is access to love and acceptance.
    • For gatekeeping parents to feel successful, they must be paired with kids who want their love and acceptance badly enough to subjugate themselves to get them.
      • Usually, young people can’t stand up to adults who are determined to be in charge; gatekeeping is the norm in these kinds of relationships.
      • It is rare, but some children are born with enough innate independence that they only occasionally agree to DAYAT payments to their parents.
      • What is most common is for gatekeeping to work on young children but be less effective by the teenage years.

The Adult Years

The early imprinting that took place with parental gatekeepers created such a strong association that most people carry it into their adult relationships. Because so many of our neuron pathways were formed in childhood, the pursuit of love and acceptance is engrained in how we operate. Most adults still try to secure these two primary experiences—love and acceptance—as often as possible.

We may or may not still look to our parents as a source. In all likelihood, we have found others whose affirmations fulfill the same need. Spouses, close friends, siblings, teachers, mentors…and, yes, clients can all fill the role. The key is whether we are trying to get love and acceptance from nurturers or gatekeepers.

Gatekeeping left such a strong mark on some of us that anyone who comes even remotely close to looking and sounding like an authority figure can trigger the conditioned response to comply. If we are not careful, we can repeat the same pattern of securing affirmation from virtually anyone requiring payment in DAYAT dollars. We fall into this trap anytime we assume we have to relate to people with power and influence greater than ours[3] on their terms, not ours. Just like with gatekeeping parents, we play out the dynamics of subjugating who we really are in order to look and sound like who we need to be to receive affirmation from these people.

This dynamic gets played out in many forums, but one of the most common places people treat authority figures as gatekeepers is the workplace. Here, it is common for adults to be more than willing to mold themselves into “acceptable” packages to secure the same love and acceptance they sought as children. The currency used to pay for the affirmation is the same (DAYAT dollars) but it comes in the form of things such as organizational advancement and higher compensation instead of the hugs, kisses, and lollypops they received earlier in their lives.

  • When in the presence of authority figures at work, we assume we have to comply even when the directives run counter to who we are.
  • We not only sell ourselves out at the drop of a hat, but doing so is automatic; we seldom register a comment or request from those in authority as anything but a command. (“I didn’t feel right about what I did, but he wanted it done, so what was I going to say?”) 
  • Most work environments contain people who either want to be gatekeepers or are highly susceptible to their influence.
    • Those who want gatekeeper status (consciously or not) see others as dependent on them and attempt to leverage their need for approval in order to gain their compliance.
    • The paradox is that whether these people move from wannabes to full-blown gatekeepers is not up to them—their status is actually determined by those over whom they hold power. Remember, gatekeepers can only hold others hostage to the extent the “hostages” give them permission.
    • People sanction a gatekeeper when they give up their independence and assign the gatekeeper “control rights” over something they want so badly that they are willing to negate some part of who they are to get it.
    • Often, those most vulnerable to a gatekeeper’s influence are the ones who never resolved their need for parental affirmation. More than likely, they didn’t receive enough love and acceptance when they were young, and haven’t found other ways to fill the gap on a sustained basis.
    • Adults on the receiving end of gatekeeper manipulations are typically unaware of what is happening. They don’t realize they are allowing themselves to be victimized into feeling trapped with no options. (“What can I do? He is my boss.”)
    • The antidote to victimization is personal sovereignty—the self-determination and persistence to prevail when faced with circumstances/demands that could otherwise lead us to act contrary to what is essential to our core…to who we truly are.

My goal with this post was to offer an explanation of how gatekeeping can become such an established stronghold in our lives. In the next and final post in this series, I’ll explore how all this effects our work as change professionals, and the role sovereignty plays in our success with clients.

Go to the beginning of the series.

[1] We normally think of the word “sovereignty” as applying to states or nations, but the concept can just as easily be applied to people and, in particular, to professional change agents. Whether we are discussing nations or an individual, the basic ingredient for sovereignty is independence—the capacity to operate primarily under one’s own authority.

[2] This depiction of parental gatekeeping is not meant as an indictment of the moms and dads who function this way. My purpose here is to neither criticize nor defend parents who operate in this mode. First, those that do are simply playing out how they were parented. Second, there are many situations where gatekeeping leverage over kids is not only effective but appropriate, meaning that certain aspects of gatekeeping are not inherently bad or wrong. Third, my focus in this series is not parenting—it is how gatekeeping can establish an early pattern of compliance that, if not attended to as an adult, can contribute to a professional change agent’s inability to be definitive with authority figures when needed.

 [3] I’m using the phrase “people with power and influence greater than ours” in a particular way here. In this context, it is meant to designate not only people who are obviously in a position to exercise meaningful consequences (bosses, law enforcement, licensing agencies, etc.), but also people who are more subtle in how they go about gaining leverage with us (spouses, grandkids, peer groups, role models, professional associations, community leaders, etc.). These are all people with the potential to barter what they want in exchange for DAYAT dollars. Their demands might be inconspicuous (if not concealed), but their influence is quite profound.

Posted on: November 27, 2012 04:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Importance of Affirmation

Categories: Sovereignty

I am in the middle of a series about personal and professional sovereignty[1]. For most people, personal sovereignty requires rewiring some neural circuitry that has been in place since they were toddlers. This is not easily done and helps explain why so many people, including change practitioners, devote much of their lives to accommodating the wishes of others rather than being true to who they really are.

Most of what we rely on to survive and prosper had to be learned. The desire to receive affirmation from significant others, however, was hardwired from birth. From our first breath, we sought the approval of those around us who could provide what we couldn’t for ourselves. Biologically, we stood a much better chance of being fed and protected if we were loved and accepted than if we were despised and rejected. It doesn’t take a newborn long to figure out that there are advantages to endearing himself or herself to those in a position to supply the basics of life.

At the expense of oversimplifying a very complex set of interactions, babies learn quickly that it is in their best interests to keep themselves surrounded by adults who pour lots of affection on them. The two components of this sought-after affirmation are:

  • Love—a warm personal attachment or deep caring
  • Acceptance—being approved of by others whom we value

Affirmation is felt if either love or acceptance is conveyed, but infants feel best when they receive both from their parents. The coveted combo tends to happen often during the first few months. It doesn’t seem to matter what the baby does—most parents think each little gesture is cute and they can’t contain all the delight and attachment they feel for the child.

As a baby begins to develop, however, it becomes clear that affirmation is sometimes contingent on certain conditions rather than always being available. Its two components can be separated—receiving one does not necessarily mean parents will also provide the other. The words don’t have to be spoken for a child to experience being loved despite who he is, or praised for what he did but not loved for who he is. Some children face the harshest of realities when neither love nor acceptance is provided.

When affirmation is optional and love and acceptance can be separated, the child generally becomes “conditioned,” meaning he or she learns that each must be earned by behaving in particular ways. This can be a rude awakening. If affirmation has been provided in unconditional abundance up to this point, the child has never had to consider what it would be like without it. When love and acceptance are unbundled and become conditional, being denied access to them triggers the first experience of withdrawal symptoms.

At such a tender young age, children can fall prey to their first addiction—like all junkies, they feel the pain that deep habits inflict when the source of the dependency is no longer obtainable and the cravings kick in. In fact, as all addicts do, they can become driven as much by the avoidance of affirmation withdrawal as by trying to replicate the affirmation high.

Because of all this, sons and daughters become extremely skilled at securing whatever they need to dodge withdrawal and get the next high. Mothers and fathers have their own unique criteria for granting affirmation to their kids…some use minimally intrusive mechanisms; others use highly unpleasant approaches to dole out their love and acceptance. Regardless of the parental predispositions, most children figure out very early how to earn their parents’ love and acceptance.   

In the process of navigating through the obstacle course of parental affirmation criteria, children learn that moms and dads come in two basic formats—nurturers and gatekeepers.

Parents help shape sovereignty predisposition by being either nurturers or gatekeepers

With nurturing parents, both love and acceptance are usually provided unconditionally throughout childhood and into the adult years. Affirmation flows easily to their offspring with few restrictions. It comes naturally when the parents recognize and appreciate who their children are. Even as a young child, and certainly as an adult, being recognized for who we really are is one of the most powerful experiences there is. In addition, it’s a wonderful thing to be genuinely appreciated and held in deep regard for the value you create simply by being who you are. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the love and acceptance offered by parents who act as gatekeepers is conditional on the child living up to the image the parents have constructed for him or her. Over time, they present their offspring with a series of invoices designed to make them stay in line with who they “should” be.

Although I’m describing these two types of parents in binary terms for ease of distinction, the reality is that most parents fall somewhere between the two poles (reflecting some aspects of the characteristics from both extremes). In addition, parents reside at a particular spot on this continuum in a moment in time. Under varying circumstances, they may have wide swings in how they dispense their love and acceptance.

There is plenty to be said about parents on the nurturing end of the continuum and how they contribute to the development of a person’s predisposition for claiming his or her sovereignty. I won’t be delving into their positive impact here, however, because the focus of this series is about the difficulty many change practitioners have in overcoming the influence of gatekeeping parents. For this reason, in the next post, I’ll take a closer look at how most of us learned to appease gatekeepers early in our lives, and why this conditioned response makes it challenging for some change agents to stand their ground when clients display controlling behavior. 

Go to the beginning of the series.

[1]  We normally think of the word “sovereignty” as applying to states or nations, but the concept can just as easily be applied to people and, in particular, to professional change agents. Whether we are discussing nations or an individual, the basic ingredient for sovereignty is independence—the capacity to operate primarily under one’s own authority.


Posted on: November 20, 2012 12:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

There’s One Thing We Need More Than Sound Methods

Categories: Sovereignty

As seasoned change practitioners, the main hindrance to becoming more proficient at our craft doesn’t lie in deepening our technical expertise. Instead, it comes from being better prepared to stand firm against client pressure to disregard the principles and guidance provided by whatever implementation approach we rely on. I refer to this kind of self-reliance and tenacity as sovereignty.[1]

In this post, I’ll detail some of the characteristics of personal sovereignty in order to set the stage for a later installment on the role this kind of autonomy plays in our work.

To exhibit sovereignty, a person must demonstrate both the ability and willingness to make, carry out, and live by his or her decisions. It doesn’t happen if a person possesses the aptitude for this kind of independence, but lacks the motivation to absorb the consequences. It also doesn’t work if the person has the desire for self-direction, but not the competence to pull it off. These kinds of mismatches produce many outcomes, but sovereignty isn’t one of them.

Personal sovereignty is the self-determination and persistence that prevails when people face circumstances and/or demands that could otherwise lead them to behave in ways contrary to what they believe is essential to the core of their being.

This definition has several implications.

If you maintain your sovereignty, you are guided more by your own internal compasses than you are by external forces.

  • True sovereignty reflects both freedom and accountability—you are free to apply your best judgment and you are answerable for the resulting implications. In a recent series, I compared victims, who believe they are trapped in negative situations with no alternatives, to influencers, who believe they have decisions to make that can affect their future. Victims see themselves living a life other people or circumstances have constructed for them; influencers see themselves living the life their decisions and actions have helped to shape. Think of sovereignty as the foundation upon which influencers operate. It is through living a sovereign life that influencers draw the strength and courage necessary to refuse the victim role.
  • Sovereignty entails taking into account the various wishes or demands others lob in your direction, but primarily relying on your own internal navigation system to chart the course you’ll follow. It doesn’t mean you avoid asking for input from others; it means the final determinant for your decisions and actions resides within yourself.
  • When highly valued, empowered input is offered, you respect and weigh it, but don’t automatically adhere to it. Even when powerful demands are made by people who can exercise costly or painful consequences, you acknowledge and consider them but don’t necessarily treat what they say as directives that must be followed.
  • This doesn’t mean you always get what you want. Sovereignty isn’t gained by living an insular life that ignores the realities of interdependence. Nor is it lost if you sometimes capitulate to outside pressure and do something that runs against your preferences and interest. People who live a sovereign life know they always have a choice in how they respond to situations, they own the results from their decisions and actions, and they refuse to blame others for their circumstances.
  • This doesn’t mean that exercising your sovereignty grants a license for selfish, unilateral behavior. The rebellious teenager gets caught up in the dynamics of rejecting one or more forms of authority (family, social, legal, religious, etc.) but usually does so without exercising much responsibility. Acts of independence without the corresponding responsibility to go with it is evidence of immaturity, not sovereignty.

Sovereignty is about coming forward with your whole self.

  • Living life in ways that are inconsistent with who you are leads to all kinds of physical, emotional, and spiritual problems, so to be both effective at what you do and at ease with yourself, it is vital to have congruence between your inner baseline and how you function on a day-to-day basis.
  • Doing things you don’t want to do is an inevitable part of life that no one escapes, so, by itself, it isn’t a sign someone is failing to preserve his or her autonomy. Frequently engaging in the antithesis of your essence, however, is a sure sign that sovereignty has either not yet been experienced or has not been properly protected.
  • This means you have to know what is at the core of your being before you can determine whether what other people want from you is consistent with or misaligned with the essence of who you are.
  • The existence of a person’s essence isn’t dependent on your awareness…the core of who you really are resides in you whether or not you have awakened to it. Relying on your core as a compass for key decisions, however, does require a conscious attentiveness to your center. Declaring sovereignty without first diving deep into your own interior is to not understand the fundamentals of what you are alleging to be true. 

You can’t live a sovereign life while being imprisoned by submissiveness.

  • The antithesis of sovereignty is the act of withholding, deferring, yielding, backing down, or otherwise obeying when it runs against the core of who you are. When this happens, you diminish the impact of the ultimate value you have to offer in order to meet someone’s expectations of how you should behave.
  • Sovereignty means bringing into play not just the aspects of your being that others approve of but engaging all of who you are, including the knowledge, skills, insight, intuition, and preferences you might otherwise tone down or hide in order to be acceptable to others.
  • Both victimization and sovereignty are expensive ways to live life. Choosing sovereignty means the price paid for running contrary to your core is more expensive than the price paid for being who you really are. A steep invoice will be remitted either way, so the best decision is to purchase freedom rather than servitude.

Sovereignty is a sign of healthy autonomy.

  • A prerequisite to exercising the right to live your own life is to be able to differentiate who you are from who others want you to be. Some people have lived so long within the confines of others’ expectations that they have lost touch with who they are without the definitions and restrictions imposed by others. Sovereignty isn’t about gaining something new; it’s about retrieving what has been forgotten. 
  • This means sovereignty can’t be claimed until you are able to see beyond the “artificial you” and acknowledge the real you that is living below what was constructed to keep others happy.
  • Unhealthy autonomy is exhibited when people rebel for its own sake, overcompensate for a lack of self-confidence, or are motivated primarily by fear and a win-lose mindset. Constructive independence isn’t driven by pulling away from something; it is fueled by being drawn toward something else. It is manifested not by rebelling against the authority of others but by the attraction of being fully who you are.

Practitioner sovereignty is an important part of being a successful facilitator of organizational change. In the next post, I’ll describe some of the contributing factors to developing this kind of independence.

 Go to the beginning of the series.

[1] We normally think of the word “sovereignty” as applying to states or nations, but the concept can just as easily be applied to people and, in particular, to professional change agents. Whether we are discussing nations or an individual, the basic ingredient for sovereignty is independence—the capacity to operate primarily under one’s own authority.

Posted on: November 13, 2012 04:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to Find and Use Your Voice

Categories: Sovereignty

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”    —Parker J. Palmer

We normally think of the word “sovereignty” as applying to states or nations, but the concept can just as easily apply to people and, in particular, professional change agents. Whether we are discussing nations or an individual, the basic ingredient for sovereignty is independence—the capacity to operate primarily under one’s own authority. That is the subject of this blog series.

Professional change facilitators have two primary assets to work with:

  • The approach we use in our work
  • Our sovereignty as we deliver the work

Those who provide exceptional value to their clients demonstrate both deep expertise and a strong sense of autonomy. Those who produce marginal client value are usually lacking in one or both of these key ingredients. 

What tools do you use?

The particular approach you use on change projects (frameworks, concepts, techniques, etc.) constitutes the technical side of delivering value to your clients. These are the tools you use when practicing your craft. As professionals, we all place a high value on having the right tools to get the job done.

Practitioners without a designated, reliable approach (e.g., “I’m eclectic, borrowing a little from here and there as needed”), are unlikely to ever have more than a mediocre impact on their clients. If you don’t adopt an approach as your own (or aren’t particularly good at the one you use), you aren’t going to make much of a difference.

Mastery requires many cycles of repetition, which isn’t possible with an ad-hoc attitude toward diagnosing and addressing client implementation issues. You may choose an existing, intact approach; form a patchwork of borrowed components from other methodologies to create your own approach; or start from scratch and build a new one from the ground up. However you get there, mastery in this field requires that you dedicate yourself to an approach and stay with it so you can become proficient and eventually highly skilled at its application.

If you have selected a methodology you believe in and, after several years, are skilled in its application, then you are the intended audience for this blog. If not, Change Thinking in general and this series of posts in particular may not be of as much interest to you now as it might be later in your career.

As a professional community, we don’t lack for tools…we already have more concepts and techniques than we can use and be assured there are plenty more to come. What’s missing is the strength of our convictions to stand behind our approaches when clients want their changes faster, easier, and/or with less investment than is realistic. When we allow this to happen, we are failing to exercise our sovereignty.

Courage and discipline are as important as technique.

I am concerned by how quickly some practitioners who, although very skilled in their implementation approach and confident in its potential for success, cave the first time a client pushes back. Many practitioners won’t confront clients with the truth that the shortcuts they want are not in their best interests—what looks like a quicker, less-complicated route will not lead to realization success. What’s missing (assuming a solid methodology and proficiency in its application) is courage and discipline:

  • Practitioners must have the courage to be explicit when clients’ requests run counter to what their approach calls for. (“I agree it would be better to have strong sponsorship from our leaders, but that isn’t going to happen, so how do we make this change succeed anyway?”)
  • They must also have the discipline to stand resolute in the face of pressure to concede. (“If you want to remain assigned to this project, you’d better start accommodating the way we do things around here.”)

In this series, I’ll explore what I believe is largely behind the shortage of courage and discipline within our professional community. I’ll be examining why many of us lack the confidence to express the conviction we have for the approaches we use. In addition, I’ll offer ways we can take a more sovereign stance with clients as we advocate for utilizing our chosen methodologies—as they were intended to be applied.

It’s not uncommon for clients to push back.

As change facilitators, we face a challenging dilemma. On one hand, there is no doubt we are in service to the clients we support. They are the ones who decide whether we bring our knowledge and skills to bear during the implementation of their initiatives. More specifically, we are part of the execution process only to the extent they see value in what we do and how we do it.

On the other hand, much of the time, clients (especially sponsors) aren’t in a position to know what is in their best interest as far as which processes and techniques to use or when and how to apply them. There are three primary reasons for this: unfamiliarity, perspective, and personality.

  • Unfamiliarity

    Often, sponsors have no prior history with the change facilitators they are working with and are unfamiliar with the implementation process being followed. Because they don’t know what they don’t know, they are not in a good position to judge the practitioner’s performance. This can create a great deal of anxiety for the sponsor. Anytime one person relies on another to accomplish something important, but the first one lacks an understanding of whether the second one is doing his or her job suitably, stress, friction, and even outright mistrust can easily occur.

    This resulting tension between practitioner and client can be further complicated because some of the guidance being offered and actions being taken by the practitioner may be counter-intuitive for the sponsor, and counter-cultural at the organization. This can produce a double disruption to expectations: Not only is the agent helping the sponsors navigate the unfamiliar and treacherous waters of the change itself, but sometimes the viewpoints and activities the agent recommends during the implementation are also foreign.

    Sponsors have a lot at stake, yet are being counseled by someone they don’t know that well and given advice that isn’t always comforting. Regardless of the specifics, unfamiliarity can generate an environment where sponsors closely scrutinize each move the change agent makes.

  • Perspective

    Even when sponsors are familiar with and comfortable following both the practitioner and his or her approach, being in the eye of the storm can undermine their confidence. If the endeavor is more complicated than they have dealt with before or if the political gamble is great, sponsors might disregard advice they would otherwise accept. The greater the pressure, the more likely sponsors are to follow their own instincts instead of the suggestions of their change facilitator.

  • Personality

    Some sponsors aren’t open to practitioner guidance because they believe they have all the answers…usually about everything. These leaders deal with every challenge, even ones they have never seen before, as if the situation is well within their capabilities. They don’t often turn to advisors but when they do, the purpose is usually to confirm that what they have decided to do is correct. Suggestions to the contrary are not well received, and specialists who persist in offering opinions that don’t support the sponsor’s bias typically don’t last long.

Regardless of the reason, many of the leaders we support are not in a position to really know what is in their best interest and, as a result, they sometimes push back against or completely reject our advice. The fact that this happens is not the problem. Sponsors should question anything they are uncomfortable with. We are there to “guide,” not “enforce,” so sponsors should weigh what we have to say against their own perspective. The frequency of discarded advice is an important indicator for assessing our trusted advisor status and the degree to which our counsel is considered empowered input by sponsors, but there is nothing inherently dysfunctional about a sponsor declining change agent recommendations.

The situation becomes problematic when he or she not only turns down our suggestions but then tells us to pursue an alternative path that is inconsistent with our personal or professional boundaries.

Boundaries are necessary.

Should we expect that clients will always follow our advice? Absolutely not. Should we do everything possible to accommodate the client’s request when he or she asks us to modify our recommendations so they are more consistent with what is preferred? Without question.

Therefore, by no means is it a problem for a client to say no to our suggestions and/or want us to cut in half the time or effort involved in taking the next step. As much as we hope to generate value by providing insightful suggestions that are acted on, our primary function isn’t to ensure clients do as we say, it’s to help them make informed decisions.

That said, there is a line we should avoid crossing in our relationship with clients. A point can be reached where, instead of being asked to be flexible and creative about how to apply our skills, we are asked to actually ignore altogether some aspect of our craft that we consider vital to realization success. This boundary is undetectable to clients, so it is up to us to be vigilant about knowing where it is.

The partition between appropriate and inappropriate elasticity in the delivery of our work is not always easy to recognize, even for us. Sometimes, our desire to be helpful or our commitment to seeing a change succeed can cloud our thinking. Other times, it may be our unwillingness to be honest with ourselves that gets in the way. No matter what the reason, we should remain clear about the line that separates legitimate pliability on our part from unproductive pandering to sponsors’ requests. Just because we are under pressure to make the implementation process appear faster, easier, or less expensive than is actually required to be successful, this is not a reason to toss in the towel and with it, our integrity.  

The problem isn’t always that we fail to see the distinction between healthy adaptability on our part and abdication of our responsibility to make the case for what needs to be done. The line is sometimes all too apparent—it’s our lack of courage and discipline, not unawareness, that more than likely prevents us from taking a stand. There is a long list of things we can put ahead of the incorruptibility of our work—minimizing tension, ensuring we are seen as likable and easy to work with, job security, etc.

That said, the demarcation between permissible and out-of-line client requests can sometimes be difficult to define, and, without a doubt, maintaining the fidelity of the standards of our work can be risky. These challenges, however, don’t lessen our responsibility to do the right thing. It is in both the client’s and our best interests for us to be unwilling to conciliate past a certain point. Standing firm against pressure to do otherwise requires us to claim what I’m referring to in this series as our sovereignty.

In the next post, I’ll offer some background about the role sovereignty has in a person’s life, as a lead-up to a discussion of how it applies to professional change agents.

Posted on: November 13, 2012 04:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It is best to keep your mouth shut and be presumed ignorant than to open it and remove all doubt."

- Mark Twain



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