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.
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 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.