Disarming the Tension

Leading change is hard. As change agents, we often need to react to situations in the opposite way from what our emotions would lead us to do. Instead of fighting fire with fire, we need to quench the fire with humility and kindness.

My mother worked in a pathology lab while I was growing up. The head pathologist in this hospital was a bully: whenever other doctors would visit, he would purposely drop trays of slides and call in the (almost entirely female) staff to pick up the items off the floor. By–literally–forcing his employees to get down on their hands and knees, this was how the pathologist showed everyone how powerful he was.

One day, the pathologist hired a new secretary. We lived in Wisconsin, yet the new hire was a true Southern belle. She had a lovely accent and referred to everyone as “Hon.” The first time the pathologist publicly screamed at her for doing something wrong, instead of getting angry or showing any frustration, this Southern belle apologized, took the doctor’s arm, and asked him to “come show little ol’ me how to do it right.” She decided not to allow herself to feel belittled or bullied, but instead enlisted him to help her get it right.

The secretary did not get defensive; her response of humility and asking for help defused the situation. Her genuine openness to want to learn disarmed the bully, and turned him into part of the solution. After that, if any of the lab staff had a challenge or concern, they looked to the doctor’s secretary for guidance in how best to solve the problem. Through her approach, she was able to change the entire tenor of the lab’s culture.¬†She became a valuable agent of change within the hospital.

Leading change is hard. If we can control our emotions and respond in an unexpected way from the direction that someone is pushing us, we may be able to disarm the situation. And who knows, by doing the unexpected, we may help difficult people find an alternate way of behaving!

About Michelle Smeby

Michelle Smeby is CEO of wHolistic Change, Inc. with more than 10 years of experience implementing enterprise solutions at Fortune 100 companies. Michelle specializes in helping corporations deliver transformational change.
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