Erin, an eight-year-old girl, has no interest in her homework.
Her mother insists she do her homework and spends hours working with her, writes Robert E. Quinn in his wonderful book The Deep Change Field Guide.
The child complains. The mother attempts to be cheerful but becomes increasingly irritated, stating: “The trouble with Erin is especially frustrating because for years I have given her my best efforts.”
Erin’s mother describes the self-discipline she has had to exercise not to compare Erin to her sister, who is highly-motivated and gets good grades.
The mother makes an effort to give Erin warm hugs, assuring her that she is loved. She shares how she drills Erin with flash cards but regrets “Erin’s seemingly perverse efforts to frustrate the effort by knowingly giving wrong answers.”
Erin’s mother feels she has been “kicked in the teeth” and “feels helpless to change her daughter.”
Erin’s mother decides to ask for help. When faced with failure, doing so is often a key first step. She attended a workshop led by Terry Warner where she was encouraged to look more deeply at herself.
“This process had considerable impact,” writes Robert. “She went through a personal change that also altered how she saw the world. As she reflected on her relationship with Erin, she noted considerable self-deception and realized she was implicitly communicating her own negative feelings: ‘I was outwardly encouraging, but inwardly I mistrusted her,'” commented Erin’s mother.
With a new vision for the relationship, Erin’s mother stopped micromanaging her daughter and began modeling the importance of self-discipline, encouraging Erin to come to her for help when she was ready.
“After some weeks, the little girl began to perform well at school,” writes Robert.
Erin’s mother shares: “I pulled her onto my lap… and I had this overwhelming feeling of love… that just seemed to flow between us. I hugged her tightly, and told her how much I loved her. I realized for the first time in eight years I was expressing true love for her… It was as if I was holding a new baby for the first time. Tears were streaming down, and she looked at me and said, ‘Are you crying because you love me, Mommy?’ I nodded. She whispered, “Mommy, I want to stay with you forever.”
So what does this touching personal story have to do with business and leadership?
Erin’s mother’s challenges are “no different from those faced by a basketball coach who cannot get his players to excel, a sales manager who cannot get her sales force to accept a new technique, or the executives at GM who could not turn around the Fremont Plant ,” Robert writes.
In all of these cases, the change agent believes their motives are pure and “tries to change a person who occupies a lower place in the hierarchy,” Robert states.
“The change agent (the mother) defines a problem – the unwillingness of an eight-year-old to study. She describes the purity of her own motives, the logic of her own strategy, the resistance in the change target (Erin), and her frustration.
“The mother, like the GM executives, is sure the problem does not lie within. It is her daughter who needs to be fixed,” states Robert.
When we see our motives as pure, we believe the problem must be with the other person. The message we communicate is change is necessary for everyone but ourselves. With this belief, it is nearly impossible to realize how our actions may be destroying a relationship we want to enrich.
Erin’s mother’s behavior changes when she gains a new, more self-reflective vision. Self-change requires living in a “heightened state of awareness.”
When we change how we see the world, we change our relationship with the world. In that new relationship, “we can lead from the future as it emerges.” By transcending the script she carried in her head, Erin’s mother gains a new understanding and a new capacity. Robert writes: “We do not have to be fearful and rigid because we can blend our intention with the unfolding future.”
The mother’s new behaviors send a message to Erin. She has to make sense of what is happening. The little girl realizes she is no longer being judged as the problem: “In the warmth and safety of her mother’s love, she finds increased confidence and feels safe to experiment with new behaviors of her own,” writes Robert.
Deep change starts with self-change and self-change is crucial to leadership. For an organization to change, the leader(s) must be learning and changing.
“Self-change almost always brings increased clarity of purpose, increased integrity, increased concern for others, and greater awareness of an opening to the potential that surrounds us,” writes Robert.
Reflection: Am I frustrated with any of the relationships in my life? Instead of channeling my frustration toward the other person, are there any changes I might consider?
Action: Journal about any lessons I might take from Erin and her mother’s story.