sticking close to the bucking horse

Often when working with organizations in the process of change, I encounter what I like to call “a bucking horse.”  This is a person or group that seems to resist change loudly and forcefully and generally makes life difficult for those who are tasked to lead it.  For me it was a union that was convinced that the plan and process I suggested would result in their jobs being outsourced.

Resistance to change is a reality that challenges every leader and consultant at some point in their tenure. There are typical ways to deal with this, ranging from strong-arming the other party to rolling over and giving up, which are all about power and control. There is another way, though – more effective but hard to do – which is “staying close to the bucking horse.”   It takes patience and courage, and the willingness to make oneself vulnerable.  I personally experienced challenges to my reputation, many sleepless nights, and intense bursts of anger, self-doubt and hopelessness — unlike the cool, collected facilitator that I always wanted to portray.

The Situation

I was hired by a large urban school district to conduct strategic planning with their school health program.   The district had over 45,000 students in nearly 90 schools, and it could not keep up with the growing health care needs of its student population.  Many children had no health insurance and no connection to primary health care.

As in many other districts with budget problems, the school health department had been severely cut.  By the time I started consulting with them, only 25 members of the school health staff were registered school nurses.  School buildings were actually staffed by health assistants, who worked part time with limited training.  They were to operate under the supervision of nurses; however, the nurses were spread so thin that they were often unable to provide it.  The result was that health assistants took on situations and tasks that were often outside of their training, and the school district as a whole was potentially exposed for a multi-million-dollar malpractice suit.  To make matters worse, the union representing the health assistants was now demanding that their members be paid the same as nurses, since obviously they were doing the work of them.

My Process Causes Concern

This situation was actually symptomatic of a much larger system breakdown that was out of the school district’s control – access to affordable health care.  As a result, I proposed inviting the larger community – including local health care providers, parent groups, government agencies, and foundations, among others – to join the school district in solving this problem.

Everyone loved the approach except for the paraprofessional union, which was convinced that this was simply a ploy for the district to outsource their jobs.  No amount of discussion could dissuade the union of this opinion.  In addition, their president (I will call her Mona) was a force to be reckoned with.    Mona had learned the ropes of union organizing the hard way, from the ground up, and was a formidable opponent.   She continually stoked the fire with rumors and insinuations.

Because I believed so strongly in the need to “stay close to the bucking horse,” I made sure that Mona as union president was a member of the planning team and included in every meeting that took place, along with the business agent for the union and several other key union members.  This was different from the normal “arms-length” approach that department leaders had used in the past.   However, I respected that Mona was simply trying to protect her members and was probably distrustful of management.  I believed that if she and union members were integral to the planning team, they would realize that no one had a preconceived notion of what was going to come out of this planning effort, and would begin to trust us and collaborate for a solution.

The result?  Mona tried to have me fired by the school board.

I quickly learned that she had earned her reputation as being a disruptive force for good reason.  She worked hard to throw me off balance as a facilitator with a litany of complaints and accusations about my loyalties, the fairness of ground rules, and how I facilitated the meetings.  This was truly the biggest “bucking horse” I’d ever encountered.

Practical Tips to Make This Work

  • Expect the horse to buck! Resistance to change is normal, and is more about fear of loss than fear of change.   Understanding — and helping others to understand — the difference between real and imagined losses is critically important.  In addition, helping people to tangibly experience what the future might look like can help them support a change.  
  • It is OK to be objective and not simply neutral. As a facilitator, I am trained to be neutral.  However, being neutral in this situation would have allowed misinformation to continue unchecked.  I needed to be objective, and to state the facts for all to consider on a regular basis.
  • Engage the larger system. Had we only focused on the conflicts between the union and management nothing would have changed.  It was only with the involvement and feedback from the larger system that we could craft a solution and help these two parties find common ground.   
  • Remain open and balanced yourself, and refrain from angry attacks based on your own frustration – that will only strengthen the resistance. It helps to get support from peers, mentors, or other trusted professionals so that you can maintain your own focus and objectivity.
  • At some point, the horse will get tired and stop bucking. If you have consistently shown that you can be trusted, you can step in and guide it to greener pastures.

Now What?

My client wanted her off the planning team, and my “loser self” was kicking in – really angry and wanting to teach Mona a lesson.  It would be so easy to do!  But I knew if that happened, we would be playing directly into her hand:  she wanted to prove that this was not an open and collaborative effort, that there was an underlying agenda, and that her union was not respected or accepted as full partners in the process. There were two things I decided to do:

  • I convinced the members of the leadership team to double their effort in communicating with all staff to provide regular in-person updates, so that everyone (including Mona’s union members) would have the opportunity to hear directly from leaders and judge for themselves about the facts, the realities, leader motivations, and the emerging plans.
  • I decided to get some help for Mona had figured out how to get to me.  I knew that I could compromise the entire project if I dealt with her poorly.  I realized that I could use some help to avoid getting personally enmeshed with this client.

With the help of a coach I hired for myself during this process, I began to see that I was confused in my interpretation of my role as a facilitator.  Usually, I saw my role as remaining neutral while working with often differing parties to forge solutions, which usually worked when all parties were faithfully engaged in the process.  However, in the face of active resistance and manipulation, staying purely neutral was not only unhelpful in this situation, but was also against my personal and professional values to let dysfunction go unchecked.  I realized I had to take an objective stance – that is, stating facts and realities, and pointing out patterns as they emerge, even if this information was not well received.

My coach helped me to detach my ego from the work that I was doing with this client, and to recognize when and how I needed to speak up.  This preserved my mental health over the next several months as the planning team started to shape the new organizational design.

The Crisis Comes

The defining moment came as I worked with the planning team to do a one-day “test drive” of the new organizational model with all staff and representative stakeholders – over 125 people.  The goal was to provide everyone with a sense of what a redesigned organization might look like, especially one that had a new and strengthened relationship with the community.   We wanted to get feedback on what processes needed to change.

I was told the night before that Mona was planning to stage a “walk out” to protest the changes.   I was completely disheartened.  There was nothing more I could do.  I braced myself for the confrontation. All morning I waited for something to happen as we walked through the various design elements and tested them out.   After lunch I noticed a buzzing in the hallway, as Mona and several other union leaders gathered.   Here it comes, I thought.

What happened – or better put, what did not happen – was amazing.  People were so engaged in the process that when Mona tried to stage the “walk out,” no one joined.   Even more surprising, Mona and the rest of her union leaders eventually came back into the room and began to engage in the process.

Two days later, the planning team gathered once again to adjust the new organizational model based on the results of the “test drive.”   We were stunned when Mona announced that although some people were “resistant” to change, she herself was fully supportive of the new direction.  Whether she fully embraced the change or simply recognized that her leadership was in jeopardy, it was not clear.   However, her whole demeanor had changed, and she was helpful and collaborative for the remainder of the workshop.  The “bucking horse” had stopped.

The Results

The next few years provided remarkable progress as the organization, the school district, and the community banded together to support children’s health.   Local clinics offered free immunizations to children at the start of school.  The school welcome center and the medical community worked together to get children connected to regular health care.  The school district received a sizable grant from the Centers for Disease Control to implement a new approach to dealing with chronic illnesses.   Within five years, the health of these school children was better than it ever was before, and no jobs had been lost.

When I think back on my time on this project and with Mona, I realize that in another life, I too could have made one hell of a union president.  She and I are both smart, driven, and passionate – she about her cause, me about my work – and I can be as bull-headed as she about what is important to me.  By the time we finished working together we had a grudging respect for one another.

The Moral of the Story

“Sticking close to the bucking horse” means recognizing that today’s opponent might be tomorrow’s ally.  It takes patience and courage, and the willingness to make yourself vulnerable in the process of change as well.

Cathy Perme is the co-owner of Perme & Peterson Associates, LLC.

Fizz by Cathy Perme

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Catherine Perme

Fizz! How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant author Cathy Perme also wrote Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us, released by Wisdom Editions.