Creating Positive Change

When dealing with large scale issues – climate change, systemic injustice, or changing an organisation’s culture – we can sometime feel powerless. A natural response is righteous anger, as in the sense that “those people – the people in power — just don’t get it. They are (or the system is) the problem.” At such times it’s important, as Pema Chödrön reminds us*, to consider that we can be more effective working with the world rather than struggling against it.

First of all, what’s the outcome you want? As individuals we all have a limited perspective, and the same is true for systems; if a system or culture includes primarily one kind of person in power positions and excludes others, will another structure replicate the same issues with different players? In other words, do you want to exchange one entrenched power structure for another? Or do we want to create a more inclusive and equitable culture – power with rather than power over? As, an executive in a large multinational company said in an interview: “I’m all for having more diversity, but I don’t want to trade one straight jacket for another.”

While our anger at injustice may well be justified, and even useful in some situations, we also need to look not only at what we want to achieve but how we get there. To work with change, we need to work with emotions – ours and others’.

The technique: – working with emotion

Our core work — leadership, culture, diversity and inclusion – all require working skilfully with emotions, because all involve change. And change often involves a perceived sense of threat or loss.

If you are looking to create changes in a system that’s dominated by a particular group of people, and if those people feel threatened, then it’s more difficult to make that change. So, to be effective, you need to work skilfully with those feelings of threat and loss – fear and sadness. And to do this, you need to be able to work skilfully and compassionately with your own experience of those feelings.

When you yourself feel positively about a change, it is even more important to deeply understand the level of threat and fear that other people may feel. For example, men may feel threatened by a focus on increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles – something we’ve seen frequently in our work. So as a change leader, it’s essential to be able to work with that fear, and work with the people who feel threatened, to help them navigate the change. It’s particularly tricky when the people who feel threatened have the power to derail the process. Working with such people in a skilful way is critical.

The skill – start with yourself

How do we shift our approach to problem solving from antagonism to compassion? It’s possible that the very people we feel opposed to and find difficult to work with are the ones we most need to work with. If so, we need first to understand why working with these people is difficult for us. What are the feelings, the emotions that come up in ourselves?

The Dalai Lama has said that to shape the future is not a matter of employing technology or spending more money, it’s a question of developing a sense of concern for others’ well-being: “We need to be sensible, warm hearted, more compassionate human beings…..our inner lives are something we ignore at our own peril, and many of the greatest problems we face in today’s world are the result of such neglect.”**

We need to do our own work first, so that we can work effectively with people who are struggling with the change, and especially with the people who we find difficult. As a practical example, how do you challenge a comment that increases exclusion – a sexist, racist, or homophobic comment for example? One strategy currently being promoted in some organisations is to say either “What do you mean?” or “Could you repeat that?” If you do this, how aware are you of your intention when using this strategy – is it to make the other person wrong? If so, you may be making the polarity worse. Can you respond in a spirit of genuine inquiry and trying to bridge the divide? To do so will take vulnerability, deep listening, and the ability to work with your own emotions in the moment. This takes practice – and is why compassion always starts with self-compassion and why mindful awareness of feelings in the body is an essential part of the work. [See “Working with Polarities” in our September 2019 newsletter:]

Why is mindfulness becoming increasingly recognised as important in today’s world? One reason is that it helps us, when we’re struggling, to pause, inquire, begin to breathe and try to feel what’s underneath the struggle. As Pema Chödrön reminds us, some things that come up you find workable, some you don’t – the question is how do you work with it? *


As we consider how to respond to global and organisational challenges – challenges of leadership, culture, diversity and inclusion – a useful question to ask is: what energy do you want to bring into the world? Righteous anger can be a strong motivator to help us speak truth to power. At the same time, compassion in the face of injustice does not mean compromise or weakness. Compassion is an act of self-care that ultimately has great power to bring about positive change. The Dalai Lama reminds us that “there are going to be frustrations in life. The question is not How do I escape? It is: How can I use this a something positive?”**

*Chödrön, Pema, Start Where You Are, Shambala, 2004
**Insights from the Dalai Lama, Andrews McMeel, 2018

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