Leading Change: Overcome 3 Common Pitfalls

By Next Step Partners
Partner, Next Step Partners

Since President Trump was elected, I’ve been having lots of conversations with my clients and friends who lead mission-driven organizations, whose work is profoundly affected by the new environment he’s created. This is a pivotal moment when budgets, programs and sometimes even the focus of organizations are in flux and may need to shift. Many industries are feeling the burn: finance, technology, media, renewables—to name a few.

Some organizations—think of the environmental space—are seeing their work upended and the methods they’ve always used to influence policy blocked. Others, like the ACLU, which reportedly raised $24 million over the weekend that the travel ban took effect, will need to move quickly to figure out how to make the greatest impact with a tidal wave of attention and support. Think tanks are finding their expertise—their stock and trade—being devalued as facts and data themselves are being questioned.

For the last 10 years leaders have been struggling with information overload, the dissolution of traditional organizational boundaries, disruptive technologies and practices, increased globalization and generational differences in values and expectations as Millennials enter the workplace. Now these forces are magnified and you need to recognize the threats to business as usual while seeking new opportunities and work-arounds.

Previously, I’ve written about how leaders can take organizations from the turbulence of managing growth to sustainable success as a mature organization. This article covers three common pitfalls that anyone steering his or her organization through highly uncertain times could face, along with ways to overcome these. The piece is especially relevant right now for leaders at mission-driven organizations.

3 Common Struggles and Solutions for Leading Change

Leadership fatigue: Health and well-being come first | Next Step Partners

Anxiety and fear are bedfellows of change, especially in the early stages when we don’t have good visibility into where things are going. It’s easy to fall into catastrophic thinking. The vast majority of leaders I’m talking to right now are expressing some degree of anxiety. They also are facing pervasive morale issues and stress among their staffs.

Anxiety is the canary in the coal mine of leadership fatigue. It can create exactly the opposite conditions to the ones needed most at this moment; rather than mobilizing energy, creativity and resourcefulness, you are dealing with infighting, distraction and resistance to innovation. You find yourself awake at night rather than getting needed rest. This is the time to take good care of yourself and encourage your organization to set this as a priority so that you have the resilience to meet the challenges ahead.

Over the last several years, there has been a great deal of research showing that mindfulness practices (such as deep breathing and meditation) can calm the nervous system and rewire the brain so that we are less apt to slip into a fight, flight or freeze reaction.

Remarkably, even six seconds of slow, deep breathing (which you can do on your way from one meeting to the next) is enough to reset from an over-reaction. 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day can have a profound effect on your sense of wellbeing and leadership.

Janet Marturano, author of Finding the Space to Lead: a Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership, and a former vice president and deputy general counsel at General Mills, learned mindfulness meditation in an effort to restore her personal equilibrium during a time of stress. She discovered that mindfulness not only gave her sense of calm, but helped her lead better. Learn more about Marturano’s experience as well as a simple mindfulness exercise this interview on mindful leadership.

Look for the Opportunities in Setbacks

There are opportunities in even the most difficult situations, but it takes a growth mindset to see them. When you and your people find yourselves ruminating over setbacks, step back and look for the learning and opportunity instead.

Learn how to develop a growth mindset and cultivate resilience in my colleague Rebecca Zucker’s post.

Recharge Your Batteries Daily

At mission-driven organizations, where commitment to the cause is especially fierce from top to bottom, leaders face additional pressure to power through moments of great stress. However, if you don’t take extra care of yourself—both your body and mind—you won’t have the energy that you need both for your organization and yourself. It’s essential that you rest and recharge daily.

Are you getting enough sleep so that you wake up feeling rested? Are you eating plenty of protein, greens and good fats to feed your brain or are you relying on caffeine and sugar to get you through the day and alcohol to unwind at night? Does your body feel strong and flexible? Even little shifts to your sleep, eating and exercise can make a big difference in how you roll with stress.

Fire fighting: step back, chart a path to get others on board

Several organizations I work with have been in the middle of strategic planning processes over the last year or so and now, with new Trump policies unfolding each day, those plans are looking less appropriate and basic assumptions are being challenged.

At the same time there are daily fires to fight. Sometimes it’s necessary for a leader to suit up and do battle. But if you are running from fire to fire, you will get manhandled by the change instead of navigating it.

To get ahead of the challenges, you’ll need to deliberately set aside time with your senior team and other stakeholders, including ones who will challenge the status quo, to discover a new path.


Questions to ask include:


  • | What do we know?
  • | What do we not know?
  • | What’s in our control and what is not in our control?
  • | What are our blindspots?
  • | What’s sitting obviously just in front of us?
  • | If we had no fear what would we be doing?
  • | What story would we like to tell five years from now about what happened at this moment?


There’s value in having a neutral party, such as an external coach or facilitator to help get all the issues on the table, cut through the internal politics and offer fresh perspectives.

Chip and Dan Heath have developed a four-step model to avoid common decision-making biases that will help you make better, bolder decisions. Here’s a brief overview; I highly recommend their book, Decisive for more detail.

Chip + Dan Heath’s Decisive model
Chip + Dan Heath’s Decisive model | Next Step Partners

Widen your options | Narrow framing leads us to overlook options. “Whether or not” decisions, which are commonly made by executives, close down possibilities rather than opening them up. Uncover new options and even, when possible, consider options simultaneously. (Think AND not OR.)

Reality-test your assumptions | In assessing options, the “confirmation bias” leads us to collect skewed, self-serving information. To combat that bias, ask disconfirming questions (What problem does our program really solve?) We can also zoom out to the 10,000 foot view and zoom in to the granular level. Whenever possible conduct small experiments to learn more.

Attain distance before deciding | Short term emotions can tempt us to make choices that are bad in the long term. To avoid that, we need to shift perspective and gain some distance. Ask yourself, what would my successor do? Clarify core priorities and then look at the decision.

Prepare to be wrong | We can be overconfident, thinking we know how the future will unfold when we really can’t know. We should prepare for bad outcomes as well as good ones. Ask yourself–what would have to happen to make us reconsider our decisions?

Resistance: Having learning conversations | Next Step Partner

Once you’ve landed on a new path, you will need to deal with the inevitable resistance that comes from the disruptions the new path brings. One person’s work will become less significant while someone else’s work will become more important. People may be moved to different projects, initiatives or departments. Some may lose their jobs. Entire projects may be shelved.

The focus of the organization may fundamentally change. A non-profit offering social service programs may shift into advocacy. What was a product company may become a services firm. At mission-driven organizations, people are highly invested in the work they do and to effectively lead the change you must understand how profoundly change can shake up people’s identities. Ignoring resistance and fear will only embed it more deeply.


Ping-Pong Match Conversations

To make things more difficult, many of the NGO’s I deal with, populated as they are by people who are trained to argue and question—lawyers, policy thinkers, political strategists, social scientists, academics, etc.—can have a tendency to default to having conversations that resemble a “ping-pong match” where there’s a back and forth volley expressing opposing views, but little real dialogue.

Each person is asserting his or her side with increasing frustration and intensity. Stopping the “ping-pong match” requires that you change the conversation to address the feelings, history, beliefs and power dynamics that lie beneath.

Three Types of Difficult Conversations

Douglas Stone and colleagues from the Harvard Negotiation Project’s book, Difficult Conversations, provides some guidance. Stone et al conducted research about where dialogue breaks down and found that there there were three main causes. In any given conversation all are likely in play:

1. The situation is more complex than either person can see.

You may find yourself locked into trying to persuade the other person that the new path is correct, but you may be missing important information that the other person has. Or when encountering resistance and negativity, you may believe that you know what the other person intended and you need to let them know what they “did wrong.” Or the individual who is resisting might be convinced that you are entirely at fault for a change in his/her status or work focus and wants you to take responsibility and make amends.

The Approach | A “What Happened” Conversation. Clarify your own intention and the impact you may have had on the other person. and look for what you are missing from the other person’s story.

Questions to ask:

  • | What intention did I have?
  • | What impact did I have?
  • | What intention does the other person have?
  • | What impact did it have on me?

Example | Share your vision and intent.
Our mission here is to help kids get out of poverty. The intention behind this change is not to hurt more kids, but to focus our resources on the work that can have the biggest impact. While our organization helps a hundred kids per year, our advocacy programs offer us the opportunity to lift hundreds of thousands of kids out of poverty by working with the Department of Education to create many programs across the country.


2. Someone’s self-image is at stake

Most people want to be seen as competent, good and relevant in a professional context. Change can call all this into question. When you encounter intense emotional resistance there is a good chance that a key staff member’s self-image is being threatened. Or yours may be, as change maker. Either of you can get triggered into a fight/flight dynamic –what Stone et al call an “identity quake.” At such a moment of destabilization fruitful conversation is difficult.

The Approach | An “Identity” Conversation. Notice and try to re-set from the fight or flight reaction by focusing on your breath or simply noting that there is emotion in the air that needs to be cleared in order to proceed constructively. Acknowledge that there may be a lot at stake for both you and the other person and seek to understand the identity issues on the line.

Questions to ask:

  • | What’s at stake here for my identity as a leader?
  • | Am I competent? Am I a good person?
  • | What is at stake here for the other person’s identity—as a colleague, as a professional?

Example | Look for the significance of what is and what isn’t being spoken.
I understand that our organization has delivered important services to children in need and shuttering this program means that other children will remain in need and that has been core to your position over the last 8 years.

Ask what is at stake here for my identity as a leader? Share on X

3. The situation is emotionally charged

Typical signs of trouble include when you or the other person is avoiding talking about feelings that are present (thinking that they are irrelevant). Another sign is exploding in anger (holding the other person responsible for your feelings).

The Approach | A “Feelings” Conversation. Acknowledge that feelings are the heart of the situation and address them without judgment before problem solving.

Questions to ask:

  • | What feelings are unexpressed?
  • | What am I feeling?
  • | What is the other person feeling?

Example | Acknowledge the emotion and shift to a learning stance. And then listen.
I can see that you are angry and frustrated. Help me understand what I’m missing.

No one said it’s going to be easy

Navigating through a difficult moment such as the present, where change is real, confusing and emotional is hard. But as a leader it’s important that you commit to taking care of your wellbeing, chart a new path that challenges the status quo and bring people along by addressing resistance. This will allow you to see opportunities and develop innovative solutions that can change the world, even at this difficult time. And we need you!




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