When the Disruption Comes From Within

by Joan Garry

As a crisis management consultant, as a person who has held picket signs and bullhorns, and as someone whose leadership has been questioned by vocal disruptors, I thought you’d find some of these reminders to be of value.

I am not an expert on diversity, equity and inclusion. No one hires me to create a more racially just and equitable organization. It’s not what I do.

I am a white cisgender lesbian. I am a woman of privilege crawling with implicit biases. Like many of us, I am on a journey to learn. A journey to do better.

But often in my work, I am sought out by organizations in turmoil. It can be a financial crisis, a leadership crisis or an internal crisis that threatens the reputation of the institution.

In this work, sometimes the disruptions are internal. They come from those who hold the mission dear – staff, students, volunteers. Folks who walk the walk every day.

So this is not a post about what decisions institutions should make. In this I have no standing.

But when it comes to protesting and being the target of hate, I’ve walked in those shoes. And so I do have some standing and I thought it might be useful to share the insights I have offered those who retain me as clients.

Before we start with some reminders, here’s the big one.

You read my blog. You invest some time regularly to be a better leader. And in my own way, I am pushing you to be a better leader and you value that.

Remember: this is exactly what internal disruptors pushing for change are doing as well. Injecting a real sense of urgency into your organization and pushing you, using all the tools available, to be the best leader you can be. To do better.

I know you want the tactics to be different. I know you want to sit down and talk with the disruptors. Well the tactics are unlikely to change and you might not get that conversation.

So as a crisis management consultant, as a person who has held picket signs and bullhorns, and as someone whose leadership has been questioned by vocal disruptors, I thought you’d find some of these reminders to be of value.

I hope so.

Us vs. Them

See that phrase? “Us vs. them”?

Now unsee it.

Disruptors are you. They care deeply about the work of the organization and are passionate about the mission. So passionate that they can’t sit idly by when the organization is not fully living its values.

Each of your institutions has values – explicit or implicit in your mission or vision. Those who protest are deeply hurt and angry and they want to be heard and seen. They believe in your values and want your organization to live them.

So do you. Remember internal disruption means passion. Staff, alums, volunteers and donors who protest are fierce advocates for what your organization stands for. And you are too. This is the common bond you all share. You are in this work together.

This Is Your Work

This time of protest is not a distraction or a problem to be solved. It’s time to own the work your organization needs to do.

Your communications director in particular will be deeply unsettled by the anger and the unfiltered voices calling out stark injustice and pain. Work closely with this person, hold space for this person. Remind them not to treat disruptors as “others” and that the voice of the institution must always honor those who call on it to do better.

Say No With Clarity

Many folks are calling for actions the organization will not take, perhaps can’t or shouldn’t take.

When the list of demands arrives and you find these kinds of calls to action, as a leader you will see them as non-starters. Please don’t say “we’ll take this under consideration” when there is just no way that will happen in an organization you lead. This approach is deeply disingenuous and authenticity must be central to every conversation or communication.

Consider carefully why it won’t happen and how that aligns with the mission of your organization (hopefully it does). And don’t waffle. Be clear, align the ‘no’ to your mission and its values and then just say the word “no”.

Align Your Leadership Team

I work with CEOs and their leadership teams quite often to strengthen that unit. I see it as just that – a unit. In a thriving organization, the CEO and the leadership team lead together.

Gather the group and lead. Honor the feelings that they have – they may feel defensive and want desperately for you and the organization to get “credit” for work that has been done.

And please honor those on your team who have been personally impacted by the injustice in your organization. Your team needs to turn up the volume on these voices, seek advice, and at the same time, not exonerate you or anyone else from the accountability to do better. Give these team members the space to grieve, to feel and express their concerns in a respectful and productive way.

Then, consider setting a tone about the mindset you expect from this team. Remind them the disruption is important and valuable – that your work as a leader is to balance the need for urgency with the need for the organization to do the hard work, and that it will take time.

To be clear, I am not at all talking about asking for some lockstep on messaging. I’m talking about being in the same place about the mindset shift you may need from your team.

Action Plans Need Measurable Outcomes and Accountability

I’m following lots of social media during this time. Instagram accounts with the hashtag #blackat______ are everywhere. If you have not followed one or more, you should. The pain, the power, the eloquence and the anger are all palpable. Consider it part of your learning journey.

There are a number of tactics institutions take in times of disruption. Three of the most common are listening sessions, special task forces, and climate surveys.

Before you release an action plan, review it with a committee of key stakeholders and be thoughtful about who you include on this team. Don’t seek out your overachievers. Request and ask those members of your team who normally would not volunteer for these types of committees to participate. It is sometimes the quiet voice that has the most poignant and powerful input.

Don’t expect rousing applause when your plan comes out with these three items on the list. In and of themselves, they are gestures. It is your job to convert them from hollow gestures to meaningful actions to do better.

You’ll develop lots of relevant ideas here too but a few feel especially important to mention.

There must be specific outcomes identified up front and those outcomes must be developed by all voices.

Next, these outcomes must have measurable results and timelines.

Lastly, both of these must be made publicly available at regular intervals. Public and authentic accountability turns a gesture into a meaningful action.

If I talk to one more member of a racial equity task force who says, “I’m not sure exactly what our charge is and our authority is not very clear,” I will scream.

Why will I scream?

Because I can’t stand a missed opportunity. This hard and painful disruption has demanded courage of the participants and points to a deep conviction about your work. Please see it in this light.

Because in this light, disruption is an invitation to transformation.

And please stay safe.

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