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Extension > Community > Community Features > Leading through change

Leading through change

Author: Elyse Paxton
Content Source: Brian Fredrickson
Winter 2016

Vision 20/40

A visit to Willmar, Minnesota's Vision 20/40* website makes creating community change look easy. There, you can read about a five-point plan to prepare for Willmar's future. In 2015, they made progress on each of four goals and added a fifth. More than 150 volunteers are working on the projects.

Creating Vision 20/40

But efforts like these require community members to both acknowledge and create change, and Willmar experienced the same resistance to change that all communities face when they experience growth. "People always want bigger and better, but they don't always want to get uncomfortable," says Melissa Sorenson, a member of Willmar's Vision 20/40 leadership program. "Some people are really excited to build, and some people want to stay true to our rural roots."

In the end, citizens of the Willmar Lakes Area adopted five goals to create a new future. Their plan, Sorensen says, intends to spark change and move the community forward:

  1. Attract and retain newcomers to the Willmar Lakes Area
  2. Strengthen the region's economic diversity
  3. Develop more "things to do" in Willmar
  4. Develop the next generation of leaders
  5. Promote health and wellness

To move the community forward, leaders had to acknowledge that change is hard – and that it was their job to help the community get excited about it.

Identifying stopping points

Implementing any sort of change takes time because humans – and the groups they are part of – often resist it. "We all share a desire for stability," explains leadership and civic engagement educator Brian Fredrickson. "We want to be able to predict, 'If I do this, I will have this outcome.' When we can't, we have different levels of anxiety."

In Willmar, Sorenson observed three main stopping points when it came to creating change:

  1. Leaders don't move beyond hearing "no". When city leaders receive pushback on an idea, they often take an initial 'no' as the final answer. When Sorenson hears no, she challenges community members, "Well, why can't we?" And, she asks people why they are opposed to one of the group's goals. "I'll ask, 'What is holding us back? What do we need to get started?'" This tactic allows community members to voice their concerns or fears about implementing something new and gets to the heart of the issue.
  2. Community members don't know why the change is taking place. Sorenson has found that the fewer details community members know about a proposed change, the less likely they are to support it. "I explain the whole plan – where it came from and how it came about," she says. "People are less resistant to change if they understand it, and even less so if they are involved in it." She encourages community members to get involved, whether it's educating others about a change taking place or volunteering to work on one of Vision 20/40's five goals.
  3. People want predictability. This is a big one. Sorensen says many community members want to keep Willmar's rural roots and don't support new building projects. "The most common thing I hear is, 'Well, when I went to school here, it worked fine,'" she says. She challenges these individuals to uncover the real reason for resisting change.

Uncovering competing commitments

When people cling to what's predictable and stable, it's often because they have what scholarship on change calls "competing commitments." Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey explain that a competing commitment is a subconscious goal that conflicts with a stated goal. For example, stimulating growth in a community can conflict with a treasured value of living in a rural place.

Learning to recognize and unearth competing commitments is a key skill leaders need to guide groups through change. Fredrickson and other leadership and civic engagement educators help leaders hone that skill as they lead groups. They also encourage leaders to consider other questions as they lead groups through change, as suggested by Kegan and Lahey:

  1. Has the group agreed upon an improvement goal? Everyone must share a collective commitment to what the group hopes to accomplish.
  2. Is the group not doing things that will move them forward? Are people avoiding certain tasks that need to be done or too preoccupied with unrelated projects?
  3. What assumptions does the group have about what change will mean? What are the group's biggest concerns about how the change will affect the community? How can the group best address these worries?

Looking to the future

Creating change can help a community grow and thrive, but there are times when maintaining stability is the best option. "People need some degree of consistency," Fredrickson says. "Sometimes change is not a good idea because you just made a big change and people need time to adapt. And change should also be something that helps your community move forward, not backward."

Members of Willmar's Vision 20/40 strive to balance the community's need for change with its need for stability. "We've accomplished a lot," Sorensen says, "but we also take time to step back and ask ourselves, 'Are we done now? Is this all we need to do?'"

As the community continues to make progress on each of its five goals, Sorenson is hopeful for Willmar's future. "We've always been a great rural community," she says, "and we'll continue to make adaptions so people are comfortable here."

Learn more


* Extension Leadership and Civic Engagement Educator Tobias Spanier consulted with the community as they designed the 20/40 project, and delivers leadership education programming for the group.

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