From the Inside Out: A Story-bite about Neutralizing Adversaries

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863When 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 bring in enough revenue to cover your costs.” Even though I worked in a non-profit academic institution, early on I learned to think like a entrepreneur. But as much as Phil supported my ideas, I experienced the opposite from Cliff, the adult fitness program manager, who was also a P.E. professor at the latter stage of his career. He resented my ideas and resisted the changes they brought about. At the time, I didn’t understand why and took it all way too personally. Later, when it came time to assemble my thesis committee, which would provide oversight to a weight control program I was creating, Phil proposed that I put Cliff on my committee. I said, “Why would I appoint Cliff to my thesis committee? He hates me.” With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Phil responded, “Well, you’re a lot better off having him spit from the inside out than the outside in.”

I have never forgotten this advice and used it throughout my career when leading change and building consensus across organizations. While it seems counter-intuitive and risky to invite the entrenched resisters into a change initiative, I’ve watched miracles come out of this approach. First of all, hearing opposing points of view during the formative stage allows you to strengthen your ideas before you hit prime time. Second, by showing that you respect your detractors enough to invite them into the inner circle, you might win their respect in return. Third, 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 for them to hear the voices of support from people other than you!  Finally, once your detractors have some vested interest in the success of your project, they may set their ill-will aside and work hard for the project to succeed. Not always, but sometimes I even witnessed this approach turn adversaries into some of my strongest advocates.

Putting this experience into a leadership context, my story about Cliff is an example of stakeholder management. Phil knew intuitively that, because of his position, Cliff could block or even derail my success and that getting him 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 was a big lesson for a 23 year old, and I’ve been forever grateful for the wisdom it taught me. And his one-liner is a great example of using metaphor – an element of storytelling – in a leadership moment!

President Lincoln said it even better, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

 

4 thoughts on “From the Inside Out: A Story-bite about Neutralizing Adversaries

  1. Love it! It’s kind of a glass-half-full version of Vito Corleone’s “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”. And inviting them inside is “an offer they can’t refuse” too!

  2. Jean,
    I learned this early on as well through a corporate wellness contract my company had with a major financial institution. I was asked by the president of the corporation to work with each of the headquarter officers to develop personal wellness/fitness plans. I informed the president that the involuntary approach, in my experience, rarely worked. He responded, “these guys don’t have a choice; it’s my decision; many of them are out of shape and lack stamina for the tasks at hand.”
    1st day, with confirmed appointment, I walked into the senior VP’s office. 6’2″ over 300 pounds and a furrowed brow. He took one look at me, 5’2″ and 108 pounds, and said dismissively, “I’m from Chicago; we’re big in Chicago; you’re not happening.” He talked; I listened to his goals vs just mine. When we agreed that morning to form a team and “be upfront”, he became, in the ensuing year, the most successful in turning his physical/mental stressors in the right direction and “witnessing” to the other officers. Who would have thought!
    Donna Israel

    • Donna, That is is an amazing story! I can totally picture the scene and ensuing dynamics. I love how you linked my story to a lifestyle change experience. The principles are universal and broadly applicable . . . by bringing the “nay-sayers” into the fold, you build bridges rather than battle lines.

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