In high school and into my early twenties, I believed that publicly sharing your anger about injustices was the most direct way to enact change. Getting furiously angry about racism, sexism, homophobia and other injustices felt like the best way to make the world better.
What I know now: In the 20 years since, I've been tasked (and sometimes just stubbornly tasked myself), with implementing changes at companies that improved equity and inclusion for employees. What I learned from my failures and successes in those two decades: using anger as your main tool mostly back-fires. It makes others feel unsafe to collaborate with you, it creates more drama that helps no one and completely distracts you from the real work, and in general it makes it take sooooo much longer to truly enact positive changes in the workplace. It feels good short-term (very short term) but produces so much less in the long term.
Let's go way back: I went to high school in Corona, California, and it is there that I became a passionate feminist and riot grrrl. I wrote a zine called Nuna that I photocopied religiously every month at my local Kinkos (pre-internet people, you know what I’m talking about). The premise of this zine: BURN THE PATRIARCHY TO THE GROUND. It was 80% anger, 20% sadness, 0% ideas or tactics. I believed then that the way to care about these issues was to share your anger with as many people as possible. The more people you reached with your anger, the closer you were to changing the world.
It was this philosophy that brought me to start a women’s equality club at my school. My goal: to gather a group of students together so we could collectively rally against oppressive forces. I posted my first set of flyers around the school to recruit new members, and within hours they were promptly taken down by the Vice Principal. I was enraged. I walked into her office and asked why they were taken down, she said the posters were inappropriate for a high school. I guffawed and stomped out, and plotted a two-tiered revenge: I plastered the school the next week with copies of the first amendment, and on the eve of our high school graduation, I broke into the school at 2 am and graffitied the outside of her office with huuuuge anti-tyranny slogans.
I felt soooo clever. And I felt so...POWERFUL.
I also felt righteous: I was sure that when you feel your rights are attacked, the only appropriate response is to ATTACK BACK with anger.
Last month, I heard a story on the news about a high school student who found himself in a similar situation as I had, back when I was his age. This kid took a strong political stance against racism at a school event and then got critique from the adults in his life about it, because they said it was inappropriate for a school event and it would harm his academic career to be involved in political protest.
Instead of attacking the adults back, calling them oppressors, racists, etc, this student spent time researching the history of the issue (in his case, systemic racism). He then wrote up a thoughtful paper that tied together his own town’s history with this issue. He ended his paper with a clear ask: that the history of racist policies in their town should be taught in his school’s history classes. The outcome: the local paper published his paper, his peers high-fived him for it, and the city council invited him to speak to move a resolution forward on his policy recommendation. Bam.
This brilliant kid’s actions were successful in influencing the people around him and changing the future policies in his world. This story forced me to ask myself: “Did my actions accomplish the goal of bringing women’s rights and feminism to more people in my school? Did the graffiti and the first amendment posters move the needle on those issues?”
The answer: not really. They did make me feel powerful, so that’s cool. And they made me feel righteous. But the posters were probably confusing to my fellow students because they had zero context for why there were up. The graffiti calling the Vice Principal a tyrant: it possibly pissed her off or hurt her, or it possibly meant nothing to her because she had 50 other things to worry about, like kids bringing guns to school (which happened monthly) and meth use (which was rampant in that school). I seriously have no idea how she felt because I didn’t ever follow up with her. My antics were never meant to be a two-way conversation.
The difference in these two stories helps illustrate the findings from two areas of study: influence psychology and “theories of human change”. A strong theory in these arenas is that if you want to get humans to change authentically and for the long term, one of the easiest and most efficient ways to do that is to 1) use collaborative influence (not force or coercion) to change their minds and 2) design environments where those new behaviors and new thoughts can thrive.
Notice that the formula does not include:
- Making yourself feel more powerful (you can feel equally powerful to others to create change).
- That you feel more righteous (you can take turns being right, and you can take turns learning from each other).
- A one-way conversation (it requires both parties to feel truly heard, truly understood).
- Complete stubbornness about all of your demands (it often requires getting to know what specifically is your goal so you can be flexible about all the ways to accomplish that goal).
If I could go back in time, I would absolutely do things differently:
- I would have first asked myself “What’s my goal? To feel morally superior to the Vice Principal, or to start the first women’s rights club at this school so more students have a space to think about these issues?” When I was 16, I never considered what specifically was my goal (besides to get things done my way).
- When the Vice Principal took my posters down, rather than feeling righteous anger, I would have also tried listening to her concerns fully, by asking questions like: “What makes the posters inappropriate?” and “What would make them more appropriate?” -- Because what I didn’t mention is that the posters had a black and white photograph of a woman in chains. So...yeah, possibly a bit intense for high school hallways.
- I would have realized that if indeed the imagery was the issue, not the idea of the club itself, it would have absolutely not veered me from my goal to change the damn image to be a little less triggering for students walking down the halls.
- I would have also reminded myself that I had a right to start a club, but she had a right to try to do her job too, and we could negotiate together on how to mutually fulfill our goals.
In the 20 years since this high school incident, I've learned that you can either start your own thing so you can make up your own rules (hence why I'm now an entrepreneur) - or you can keep working within companies and learn how to position yourself as a peer with the most powerful people (so that you can negotiate towards your goal faster and quicker). You can do so without anyone bequeathing power to you on a tray (they often won't). To do so however, you need to build the right skills: skills in influence, listening, and negotiation.
This is why I’m so damn excited about the upcoming influence workshop, its focus is on how to apply these techniques towards equity and inclusion changes in your company.
To be fair, every now and then a good dose of anger and emotional transparency is potent, but anger is no longer my go-to, one-size-fits-all tool because I’ve learned first-hand how many other tools can often get the job done better and quicker - especially if your goal is to build lasting positive change.
Intrigued? Join us on June 26th for the in-person workshop -- together we’ll dive into the tactics and skills that make influence such a powerful tool.