How to leverage opposition to your advantage and drive change forward

How to leverage opposition to your advantage and drive change forward

Clearly, we live in a time of great flux. First, #MeToo, then Covid-19 and now a new racial consciousness in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The most important task for leaders over the coming years will be to guide their organizations through change. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy. Important changes always encounter staunch resistance.

In Cascades, I researched dozens of change efforts ranging from historic turnarounds at major corporations like IBM and Alcoa, to political revolutions like the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and social movements like the struggle for civil and LGBT rights in America. Every one had to overcome entrenched opposition to succeed.

Yet probably the most impressive strategy for overcoming opposition I came across was how the Serbian movement called Otpor devised a plan to turn arrests to their advantage. The key to their strategy was to study their opposition, anticipate its actions and leverage them for their own benefit. Business leaders can use similar strategies to drive change forward.

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Forming A Sense Of Identity

Clearly, the threat of arrests poses a significant obstacle to any protest movement. In the case of Otpor, which was working to bring down the brutal Milošević regime, there was not only the threat of incarceration and embarrassment, but serious physical harm. The authorities depended on this fear to keep people in line.

So Otpor set out to make arrests a source of pride rather than fear. Anyone who was arrested got a t-shirt and the more times you were arrested, the better t-shirt you got. Once you were arrested five times, you received the coveted black Otpor t-shirt that you could wear to school the next day and impress all your friends.

Many of the transformational change efforts I researched used similar strategies. In his quest to reform the Pentagon from within, Colonel John Boyd gathered around him a passionate group of “Acolytes” which would support each other, help check facts, streamline logical arguments and hone the message of a particular reform plan.

Those who are working to undermine your efforts want to make you feel isolated and alone. Even a seemingly powerful CEO can face a skeptical board, investor community and media. So the first step is to build a strong sense of identity, which is why even massive transformations tend to start with small groups and build out from there.

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Devising An Infiltration Strategy

Whenever you set out to make a significant change, there are going to be some people who aren’t going to like it. Change of any kind threatens the status quo, which has inertia on its side and never yields its power gracefully.

Yet one of the biggest mistakes a change effort can make is to see the opposition as monolithic. While it’s easy to think that anyone who isn’t with you to be against you, the truth is that there are always shades of belief. Some really are dead set against the change you want to bring about, but others are only passively opposed and most are probably fairly neutral.

One of the Otpor activists’ most brilliant strokes was to see arrests as an opportunity for infiltration because it gave them the opportunity to make friends with the individual police officers, most of whom didn’t particularly like arresting peaceful student protestors. Later, when many of these same officers had to decide whether to shoot into the crowd or join the movement, they chose the latter.

Make no mistake. To drive any kind of change forward you need to bring people in who don’t immediately agree with you. Transformation is never really top down or bottom up, but moves side to side. You don’t create change just by rallying your supporters, but by breaking through higher thresholds of resistance to bring in others.

Let Your Opponents Overreach And Send People Your Way

While Otpor’s infiltration strategy was highly effective, it didn’t solve the problem of arrests. Peaceful activists were still being taken in and, in many cases, abused. No amount of respectful behavior and playful banter could fully inoculate the activists from the reality that at least some of the police officers enjoyed terrorizing them.

Yet here too, Otpor found ways to use the situation to their advantage. First, every activist had the local Otpor office on speed dial. When someone got arrested, they pressed the button on their phones and their colleagues immediately knew that an arrest was under way. Which set into motion a number of actions.

First, lawyers were called to ensure that the rights of the activists would be protected. Then, a protest would be organized outside the police station and the media would be notified. An affiliate group, “Mothers of Otpor,” would show up and demand to know why their sons and daughters were being persecuted and abused.

So instead of arrests embarrassing the protestors, they embarrassed the regime. Every time it arrested an Otpor activist, it was subjected to a media barrage that showed peaceful protests outside police stations including not only well behaved activists, but their mothers demanding to know why the regime was terrorizing their children.

Once your opposition senses that you are gaining traction, they will tend to lash out and send people your way. In my research, I’ve been truly amazed at how consistent this behavior is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an activist executing peaceful protests, a change agent trying to scale an important program or simply someone trying to win a consensus in a meeting. Getting your opponents to overreach will often be the thing that breaks the logjam and brings change about.

Learning To Love Your Haters

Every transformational change starts with a heartfelt sense of grievance and it doesn’t take a brutal regime to arouse passions. The need to adopt a new technology, transform a business model or shift an organizational culture, can be just as emotional as a political movement like Otpor. So it can be incredibly frustrating when people stand in the way of change.

Yet in my research, I found that successful change efforts didn’t demonize their opposition, they learned from them. In some cases, those that resisted change had good reasons and helped point out flaws in the plan. In other cases, by engaging in dialogue, they helped identify shared values and a common purpose.

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The genius behind Otpor’s arrest strategy is that it made a distinction between the institution of the regime and the humanity of the police officers who were just trying to do their job and go home to their families at night. It was that insight that led them to engage with the individual officers, joke with them and get to know them on a personal basis.

And that’s the lesson we can learn, whether we are working to transform an organization, an industry, a community or society as a whole. Those that oppose us often feel just as passionately about their cause as we do ours. We overcome opposition not by overpowering it, but through identifying shared values and attracting others to our side.

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