Priscilla Hammond ~ When Change Is Uninvited: Leading through Uncertainty
Have you ever welcomed an unexpected guest into a house that is not ready for visitors? It is difficult for some of us to prepare for invited guests, as kids, pets, or spouses seem to undo whatever has been done. Things are even worse though when those guests are unexpected. You apologize for the chaotic appearance, leading the way as you toss things behind closed doors. You explain that things don’t normally look like the ruined temple of Jerusalem, its gates burned with fire!
Chaotic change is an uninvited guest. Like an unplanned extra person at an already too-small table, everything seems forced. Decisions have to be made before their time. People have to make room, take on new roles, or change habits even while leading.
Reasons vary when it comes to people disliking change. We may not like being out of control, or we may fear surprises or an uncertain future, or dread a heavier workload. We may have a preference for the “same” over something different, or have defensiveness over our territory, or feel that others question our competence, or we remember past resentments (1). And when that change is unexpected, these feelings are magnified.
When Nehemiah approached the actual ruined temple of Jerusalem, he evaluated the situation, assessed the damage, and called the people to rebuild. But in reading the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, have you ever noticed the people to whom he was speaking were already in the city?
They could see the same broken-down gates and walls; they were standing on rubble as he called them to change. They hadn’t done anything about it, though, before Nehemiah showed up and called them to rebuild. There is a sentence between his evaluation and the people’s response that is easily overlooked due to its brevity. But it explains how the people were inspired and motivated to change.
“I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.” (Nehemiah 2:18)
The people had smelled the smoke. They had seen the walls fall. Change had come and there was nothing they could do about it. Attendance falls. No one shows up to serve. Staff leaves. The budget isn’t met. We smell the smoke of chaotic change. Something is broken.
Nehemiah showed up to the ruined temple without anything more than a positive vision, inspiration, and the commitment to persevere. He had a sense of urgency to bring chaos under control and rebuild. And through his leading, he received the response from the people, “Let us start rebuilding.”
They answered challenges as they came. Naysayers attacked with mocking words, and Nehemiah responded with the vision. Rumors flew of the project’s demise, and Nehemiah responded with changes in roles, delegating half to work while half stood guard. Midway through the rebuilding he had to deal with budget issues and threats to vote him out. Nehemiah 1-6 contains an example of every possible element of a contentious change. Nehemiah 7-12 is an example of the results of persevering through the chaos.
We all want so many volunteers at church that we have to draw straws, everyone “storehouse tithing,” confessing their sins to one another, and living in agreement. Idealized circumstances rarely come to life. We have to see the rubble and be willing to make hard decisions and put in even harder work, leading to make the vision come to life.
This type of chaotic change doesn’t usually follow a step-by-step program, which can frustrate planners used to taking followers through a structured, rational process. Project managers want to analyze and create the best solution with specific leadership roles, which are wonderful skills – for planned change. But when we’re standing on the rubble smelling smoke, how do we manage organizational change?
First, you need to step back and evaluate the situation. This isn’t data collection for a thesis, but a quick assessment – Nehemiah took three days to evaluate an entire city.
Next, evaluate the leaders’ experience, influence, capacity, and willingness to change (both your own and any potential leaders). People have different approaches to change. One resource, de Caluwé and Vermaak’s color-print model (2 and 3) is an excellent way to understand the approaches of your leading team members.
The strength of the leadership team is dependent on having the right type of change leader in the right place for that change situation. In the color-print model, there are five colors, and each can be used to describe the dominant approach needed for the current change initiative. For example, a blue-print thinker is organized and great at managing controlled, planned change (blue = architectural design). Yellow-print thinkers form coalitions and are great at lobbying for change among a power base (yellow = power/sun/fire). When you need to bring common interests together to create a win-win situation, the yellow-print should lead the charge, not the blue-print. Nehemiah may have been a red-print motivational leader, focusing on the emotions of followers; their behavior changed as a result of inspiring vision (red = heart). He was the right leader to lead a downtrodden Jewish remnant who needed to be stimulated to action.
After evaluating the situation and the leadership team, the change requires both management and leadership. This is the equivalent of having a tool in one hand and a weapon in the other.
We must continue to manage what is working in the organization and decide how to prioritize resources for the ongoing activity of the church, while leading in creative collaboration to fix what is not working. Leading means looking past the broken walls being repaired to see the contentious issues on the horizon and working together with followers to craft solutions.
In both planned and unplanned change, leaders are called to exercise wise decision-making, with trust in God, the people, and the process. Leaders must persevere, inspire, and remain positive. Learning the language of change management and different tactics to lead change can result in effective organizational change – even when the change is uninvited.
1 Kanter, R. M. (2012). Ten reasons people resist change. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/09/ten-reasons-people-resist-chang
2 de Caluwé and Vermaak Videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgEvL0aQxoE
3 de Caluwé and Vermaak Article: http://www.decaluwe.nl/articles/ODJournal.pdf)