There is a shift happening in the social impact sector. The way we have been working is no longer working.
This shift is happening in three dimensions:
- From centralised to decentralised — recognising that legacy bureaucracies are taking precious resources away from the causes and individuals that need them.
- From saviour to partnership —a service delivery model that empowers, rather than creates dependency. In some cases, ‘decolonising’ international social impact organisations where power has historically been held in the global north.
- From toxic to thriving — there is a wakeup call happening within social impact organisations about the harm of toxic working climates and burnout. As one leader in a charity told me: “We are all about saving the world, but we are killing people inside.”
So needless to say, this shift is important. But how are organisations making it happen? In most cases, what we see is changes to structures and processes. Restructures. Bringing in more managers. Interventions. Don’t get me wrong, structures and processes are important and are certainly in need of an upgrade. But there is a missing piece.
I believe that the source of new levels of collaboration, innovation, and development is not new structures and processes but addressing the dynamic underlying how we work together.
In the same way that we are learning how much more effective it is to empower the people we support instead of creating systems where they become dependent on us, we need to shift the dynamics inside our organisations.
I saw a tweet the other day which read something like:
“Managers’ number one complaint about employees is that they don’t take initiative.
Employees’ number one complaint about managers is that they constantly tell them what to do.”
It’s a perfect example of this dynamic at play — the more responsible managers become, the more passive employees become. (And the more they complain about each other!)
In my experience, the parent-child, hierarchical dynamic in social impact organisations is even stronger than in the for-profit sector. This is in part because the sector tends to attract people whose passion and care can easily tip over into overly parental, but also because the system keeps this dynamic firmly in place. Relationships with governmental bodies and other institutions, as well as regulators, can be parent-child in themselves and thus it becomes simply the water we swim in. It is hard not to be swept up in it.
So what if we could start to become aware of this dynamic, this paradigm, and how it shapes what we do and how we are? And what if we could start to practice and train in another way of being, one that is more adult-adult, more trust-based?
This is where I get inspired because one thing that’s abundant in social impact organisations is people who are passionate about the purpose. If we can start to shift this dynamic, we can free up the full capacity of others around us and in doing so unleash new levels of energy and creativity needed to solve the complex issues we face. We can be more confident in having conversations that are tough but necessary. We can have psychological safety and accountability. And how we relate to each other will ripple out to those we are serving, treating everyone around us as the adult, capable human beings that they are.
If you are working in a social impact organisation, and interested in exploring the mindset and skills to cultivate a more adult-adult leadership culture, you may be interested in our Tuff Leadership Training for Social Impact Organisations online programme.
It’s five half-days of practical training in conversations and a way of being that will help you unleash the potential in your teams. Here’s what two participants had to say about it: