I have a story about going against the grain.
I used to work for a large Ontario school board. When I first started working for the organization, I was running the Student Leadership for Global Development project. I was interacting with student leaders regularly and planned events and activities designed to empower them to create change in their communities and world. The project was funded by the now defunct Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) (I also got to write grants for the funding to secure my job and project, and do the reporting — it was challenging and awesome).
At that time in the board office (this was around 2005-06), there was recycling, but only of paper.
I couldn’t stand it.
It seemed contradictory and counterintuitive to me. We were educating children. I felt hypocritical especially given the purpose of my role.
I attempted to go through the appropriate channels to raise my concern and was told the recycling workload wouldn’t change
My conscience runs deep… If I see something I feel isn’t right, I feel pulled to act. And so, I found another way.
I teamed up with my friend who was a custodian and also frustrated by the situation, and we asked the municipality to drop off enough bins. We ensured the recycling would be picked at no additional charge to the board. We put the bins out around the education center in locations we had scouted in advance. We then sent an email to all employees in the building announcing the arrival of the bins and asking for volunteers to collect the recycling. My friend and I had committed to doing the collection ourselves if no one stepped up.
Well, we got volunteers, but within a few days of executing our mission, the senior administration made the decision to add full recycling to the custodial workload.
What happened next inspired me
I wasn’t disciplined for my bold behaviour.
Instead, my director recognized my passion and interest and got me a spot on the environmental policy committee. I ended up drafting the board’s first environmental policy.
I was so impressed by the leadership of the organization (I have to say, I was spoiled to have worked with such great leaders at the start of my career). To this day, I still see the organization as the most progressive and courageous in the education space.
I’m not saying you should take such extreme action
Rebel behaviour isn’t always effective, nor does it always end up as well as my story. But there are subtle ways to create change.
Adam Grant’s book Originals covers this topic. An important message he shares is to build trust and prove your competency before speaking truth to power.
I like to see change overnight. And in large systems, that’s not realistic. Coming out too strong too soon can be risky, so you have to decide if the greater good or the issue you’re trying to improve is worth the personal risk.
How to influence change within a large system
Build a grassroots following
There are others within the organization who want to work for a better way, like you. Find those people and inspire them. This doesn’t mean doing things to sabotage or undermine organizational efforts. Work within the organization’s stated goals and values. For example, you could help them take opportunities to go above and beyond to build strong relationships with external organizations or to improve internal communications.
Focus on what you can impact
There are items you control in your day-to-day work. Even if it’s just the wording of an email, how quickly you respond to people or the care you take when completing tasks. If you want to make improvements, start with things you control or can impact and build from there. Do a great job. As you gain trust and responsibility, you can take on bigger issues.
Embrace face-to-face communication and relationships
Even with all the technological solutions available to us, face-to-face communication remains most effective. Make a point to communicate with people face to face or at least by phone as much as possible. I used to walk to people’s desks when I needed to follow up on something or talk to them about an opportunity. You might be concerned about interrupting them. In my experience, these visits resulted in some great relationships that went beyond the work we were doing. Also, it got me up from my desk, which is important for health and productivity.
Have a hopeful, positive outlook
People want hope. They’re drawn to leaders who help them to understand a vision. Even if you’re not in a formal leadership position, you can help people to feel good and hopeful. You can reframe situations. You can remain steadfast that better is possible. You’ve probably read about the value of a gratitude practice in your personal life. Having a similar approach to your job is a great way to stay positive. What’s going right? Focus on that.
Find other changemakers to support
If you don’t want to be out in front of an issue, you can work to clear the way for other changemakers. In some cases, the changemakers may be people in more senior roles. Do what you can to support their efforts. Remove barriers, and let them know they inspire you. We all need encouragement, especially if we’re going against the grain.
What to do if you can’t sleep at night
At some point, you may be forced to decide if an issue or cause is worth risking your job or a promotion for. This comes down to your own integrity and values, what you’re willing to live with or work within and how important you think an issue is.
Happy change making!