Stop Being a People Fixer

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Brayden has been working for months on putting together a convention with a limited budget and limited personnel.  He has worked an average of 90 hours a week planning, organizing, coordinating, and preparing.

The convention is for training of and cooperation between the faculties of independently-owned charter schools. This will be the first time Brayden’s school has ever hosted this event.

One morning he gets an email from the convention president asking him if he has printed the T-shirts for the event.

Brayden: “What T-shirts?”

President: “You know very well what T-shirts. Your school is responsible for printing the T-shirts.”

Brayden: “This is the first I’ve heard about T-shirts and we just don’t have the funds for making them. I have put in money from my own pocket to help make this convention a reality and we’re all out of funds. There’s no way we can make the T-shirts.”

President: “It is your school’s responsibility to make the T-Shirts. I expect them to be done by the end of the month.”

What would you do if you were in this situation? How would you respond if you were Brayden?

Brayden called me on the phone and asked my advice. He was livid. I could tell he wanted to write a nice long email ripping the president apart for his imperialist attitude and total disrespect for all that Brayden has done thus far for the event. I could also tell one of the reasons he called me was to help him regain some composure.

My advice to him addressed a common perspective people have that I believe causes many of us to live with more unhappiness in our lives than necessary. The perspective is the idea that somehow we are responsible to fix the people with whom we are in some way connected.

I also see this perspective at work among pastors who feel they have been negligent when the members of their congregation behave in ways they believe are not up to par with the Christian gospel. They feel they have failed; their preaching is not working.

Sometimes, as a result, they go on the offensive and attack the problem head-on with a series of sermons or lessons or meditations telling the people what they’re doing wrong and how they ought to live.

Brayden wanted to know what he should say, what he should write, to make this president act like a true gentleman instead of acting like a tyrant.

Do you want to know what I recommended? I’ll tell you in a second, but first consider the absurdity of the idea that we are personally responsible for the behavior of those around us. That’s crazy! Human beings are free moral agents; we can no longer change them (in a direct sense) than we can stop the flow of the Niagara falls with our bare hands.

We will all be happier leaders when we learn this fact: We cannot directly change people. Once we get that into our heads, we have a couple options.

  1. If we think it’s worth it, we can begin that patient task of indirect influence. I have written about this in another post if you’d like clarification about what that means. At the root, it means laying aside direct confrontation and command-and-control tactics and opting instead for inspiring, modeling, and structuring so that people lead themselves toward the healthier behavior.
  2. The other option is to refuse to play the game. If that individual does not have the power to force you into anything, then just refuse to do it. Turn their demand into a suggestion – one that you don’t adopt. “Well, T-shirts would be nice, for sure, but they’re not coming from us this year. Sorry if that doesn’t meet your expectations, but that’s the way it will have to be.”

Notice that the first response will take a lot more work, patience, and time. The second takes no work and no time (but may require time to patch up the relationship later on if you still value that relationship).

But both options avoid the trap of believing we can directly change the person. The one says, “I do believe you can change but over time and through indirect influence. The other says, ”I don’t believe you can change (or I’m not willing to go that route), so I accept you as you are and answer you accordingly.

My advice to my friend? I said,

You knew what this guy was like before you ever got into this thing. So why are you suddenly surprised? Do you really think writing a detailed letter is going to change him? Just tell him you can’t make the T-shirts and don’t worry about it any more.

What do you think? Did I give good or bad advice? What would you have done?

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

Credits

Photo: Marc Matthieu. Gesture, attitude, behavior. 5 March 2007. Available at Flickr.com.

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