- If you’re passionate about effecting change at work, you can lead the charge even if you don’t have decision-making authority.
- Focus on the merits of your idea instead of worrying whether people will take you seriously.
- Find executives to champion your cause and peers who “get it” be your cheerleaders on the ground.
This one goes out to everybody who has ever wanted to effect a change in their workplace but lacked the authority to just up and “make it happen.” The user experience specialist who wants more emphasis on accessibility in software design. The customer support agent with a radical new workflow designed to improve customer satisfaction scores. The junior accountant who’s been noodling on a novel approach to quarter-end expense reconciliation.
When we’re hungry for change, we tend to look to people in positions of authority. But as the saying goes, leadership is personal – not positional. If you’re passionate about making things better at work, you might be the leader you’ve been waiting for.
Just to be crystal clear…
Manager n. – A person with institutional authority over people and processes at work. Their role includes administrative duties like hiring and performance management.
Leader n. – A person with a vision and the ability to manifest it by rallying others around them and working together. They might also be a manager, but not necessarily.
One of Atlassian’s company values is “Be the change you seek.” So our culture makes it easy for people to lead new initiatives, even if they aren’t in positions of authority. But what about organizations with a more traditional structure? How does an individual contributor work around the hierarchy (or perhaps, work with it) to manifest change?
Author and former monk Jay Shetty has a few ideas. He hosts “On Purpose,” a podcast focused on helping people live more meaningful lives, both personally and professionally. I caught up with him recently to talk about turning your passion for change into the power to make it happen.
It’s not a popularity contest
You might think being a changemaker is all about winning friends and influencing people, as the saying goes. But according to Mr. Shetty, you shouldn’t fixate on your social capital when trying to shift the way your organization operates. For one thing, making it about you breeds insecurity and anxiety. Questioning whether people trust you takes you down a mental path that quickly leads to impostor syndrome, overthinking, and procrastination. “We get lost thinking about whether people will take us seriously,” he says. “I think we’re asking the wrong question.”
Instead of fixating on whether you have enough influence, focus on the strength of your idea. Have you tested it from multiple angles? Sparred on it with peers you trust? Nailed a compelling way to communicate it? “You distance the idea from being a reflection of you, and put the idea on a pedestal,” Mr. Shetty explains. “And you start to recognize that if you can present the idea effectively, it’s easier for people to rally around it.”
Besides: a good idea is a good idea. It really shouldn’t matter who it comes from. (And if it does matter in your organization, the organization might not be a great fit for a go-getter like you.)
The three Ps of leading change
So, if driving change isn’t about positional authority, and it’s not about personal influence, then what is it about? “Presentation and positioning are a huge part of the puzzle,” Mr. Shetty says. “And ultimately, organizational purpose, too.”
If you can position your idea in a way that makes it clear you’re contributing to your organization’s larger purpose, people will see how it will make them more successful. To illustrate, let’s go back to the example of the UX designer who is on a mission to make their company’s product more accessible to people with colorblindness or other disabilities.
From a bottom-line perspective, a software organization’s purpose is to amass as many users as possible. So the designer can position their idea by arguing that there are X people worldwide living with conditions that make it difficult to use software the same way the rest of us do. Surely, the company wouldn’t want to miss out on that many potential customers!
Let’s say the org also has a higher-level purpose along the lines of “make <task> easier for <group of people>.” The designer can point out that if people with disabilities can’t use this software, then the software isn’t making that task easier for them at all. Without accessibility, the team’s mission will be incomplete.
Then, when you present it, Mr. Shetty recommends an extra dose of patience and empathy. “We expect someone to hear an idea for three minutes, then automatically have three years’ worth of enthusiasm for it. But it doesn’t work that way,” he cautions.
Remember that you’ve been thinking about this for a while – maybe even years. You have to bring people along on your journey if you want their support. Explain your thought process, your goals, and what you’ve learned so far before revealing the solution you’re proposing.
The UX designer in our example should explain why they got interested in accessibility, perhaps by sharing a personal story. They should also talk about the opportunity to serve a broader base of customers and the accessibility issues they’ve identified in the product. Once people are invested in the problem, they’ll be eager to be part of the solution.
Make sure your signal cuts through the noise
If you’ve been shouting your idea from the rooftops at work (not literally, one hopes; that sounds dangerous) and it’s not gaining any traction, don’t take it personally. Your colleagues are so busy with their own concerns that it’s hard to make space for yours. Assuming you’re positioning and presenting your idea well, rallying the right people to your cause is just part of the professional challenge of being a changemaker.
In Mr. Shetty’s mind, the “right people” come in two flavors: champions and cheerleaders.
These are the people who can fund your project, remove blockers for you, and socialize your idea with management. Think “executive sponsor.”
To find your champions, reach out to senior people in your organization, and be specific about what kind of help you’d like from them. (Can they make decisions that you’re not authorized to make? Give you a budget to work with?)
“We often go to the person directly above us, but they may not have the ability or freedom to champion your idea,” Mr. Shetty says. “When I look back at the leaders who championed my career, it was the people who were already the movers and shakers.” You might need to speak to several people before finding someone who gets it. And if nobody gets it, that’s a sign your presentation is off, or there’s no alignment with the organization’s purpose.
These are the peers who share your passion. Along with giving you moral support, they might also be the people who will roll up their sleeves and lend a hand when you move from idea mode into execution mode.
Be prepared to work at identifying your cheerleaders. Sure, your office pals will stand with you. But you’ll want a broader base of support to show that your idea has merit even in the eyes of people you don’t have close relationships with.
“Look for the people in your organization who already do things differently,” Mr. Shetty suggests. “Maybe they take more risks. Maybe they take liberties with the dress code. Maybe their PowerPoint decks look radically different from everyone else’s.” Your fellow changemakers are the ones most likely to become your allies.
Your self-identity may need a makeover
If you’re a committed individual contributor, “leader” or “changemaker” might not be part of your self-identity yet. But it should be. Mr. Shetty recommends observing leaders you admire and trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about them that inspires you. “We get so lost in the title when it’s really about the skills,” he says.
What journeys has this person been on? What skills did they develop, and how did they go about it? Focusing on emulating those qualities will enhance your leadership skills (and confidence!) regardless of what your job title is.
Changemakers can be anyone from the CEO to the intern who started last week. All you need is an idea and the ability to work with others to “be the change you seek.”
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