Change Management, Influence, Integrity and Ethics, Leadership, Listening, Mission, Stress & Avoiding Burnout

Leadership Backlash: Keeping Your Cool When the Heat Is On

Ever experienced rejection of your vision as a leader? You’ve consulted widely, thought you had the commitment of your key people but when you started to initiate change it was rejected. That experience is known as ‘leadership backlash’. And leadership backlash hurts!

Leadership backlash is a particular form of work conflict. It refers to the negative reactions of followers, other leaders, staff and sometimes external stakeholders to the decisions and actions taken by the leader, often when initiating change. Leadership backlash tests a leader’s beliefs, values, vision, character and goals. It is often a make or break time, a turning point – a time for growth and learning or a damage to confidence that breaks a leader. Professor Robert J Clinton in ‘The Making of a Leader’, describes leadership backlash as “…the condition when followers react against the course of action taken by a leader; usually due to unforeseen complications arising after the followers have previously approved of the action.”

For me it happened some 30 years ago when I was in pastoral ministry. I was proposing the relocation of our church which was limited to a quarter acre block on a downtown site. I had found a five acre property in an ideal location, very competitively priced and with sufficient space to expand our ministry. My leadership team agreed to support the proposal but when it came to a church members vote it was rejected due to opposition that surfaced while I was on leave.

When leaders experience a backlash their usual reaction is the flight, fight or freeze response. That is to quit, to argue for your case or to withdraw and stop leading. My reaction was freeze! For one month I ceased leading; I just carried out the traditional functions of my role. But eventually I experienced an inner conviction that withdrawal wasn’t a mature option and so once again I picked up the reins of leadership.

In his book “Canoeing the Mountains” Tod Bolsinger, drawing on the insights of Jim Osterhaus, Joe Jurkowski and Todd Hahn, distinguishes between the Blue Zone and Red Zone. Blue Zone leadership is about serving the mission of the organization. However, Bolsinger writes, “when the heat is on, if we’re not deliberately conscious to do otherwise, we will operate out of the Red Zone of high emotional reactivity based on one or more of four core issues: survival, acceptance, competence and control.”

Successful leaders invariably have experienced backlash. Although perhaps reacting initially like me, nevertheless they come through it and have grown as leaders. ‘Play it safe’ managers and pastors who refuse to take risks are little more than people-pleasers and will never be authentic leaders unless they change their mindset.

Surviving a leadership backlash is a great confidence booster as well as a key learning experience. For me, I came to appreciate the importance of respectful communication and the need to be present when important decisions are being processed. In addition, I’ve come to value the benefit of greater objectivity in having a leadership coach with whom I can processes my feelings and explore constructive strategies.

As indicated, the key to dealing with backlash is respectful communication. Here are four important steps I’ve found to be helpful: 

1)  Invite people to meet, phone or email you to express any concerns they may have regarding your proposal within a specified timeframe;

2)  Once responses have been received within that timeframe, invite members to an open meeting to hear the concerns you’ve received. Then respond to each respectfully while maintaining your own integrity. Often just being heard respectfully will ameliorate people’s concerns;

3)   Attempt to reach consensus regarding appropriate next steps arising from (2);

4)   Be sure to action any commitments made from (3).

Finally… Having worked through the above process, if as a leader you feel unable to compromise your position, it may be wise to resign. However, before doing so I would strongly encourage you to process such a decision with a leadership coach. Just recently, one of my clients introduced me to some friends by saying, “He saved my butt!” My client freely acknowledged that when he was facing leadership backlash, a few years ago, he would have resigned if he didn’t have a coach who could support and guide him. The difficult issue he was facing then is no longer present and his church is now in a positive space.

Graham Beattie

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