What To Do When Your Team Says It Cannot Be Done

Transformational leaders regularly encounter opposition to their change agenda. How should they respond?

by Glenn Reynolds

“So, what do you guys think?”

Every leader has heard the chirping crickets after that question. Finally, the silence breaks with a barrage of reasons why you cannot do the new idea, plan, or initiative. Whether it is with volunteers or paid staff, transformational leaders regularly encounter opposition to their change agenda. Suddenly, the leader faces opposition that says that his church cannot do his idea. What does he or she do with that?

What Not to Do

First, what a leader cannot do. The thing you do not want to do is blow ahead like nothing ever happened, like no one ever made an objection or surfaced a doubt. Sometimes the leader can be so confident of the idea that he does this without even realizing it. Objections mean we need to slow down to really listen to what is going on around us as we present the new idea or vision for change. Developing the skill of situational awareness allows the leader to reduce unintentional and intentional instances of steamrolling over the team.

The opposite is also true. The leader cannot simply cave in when objections or doubts surface. He cannot just give up because someone raised an issue or noticed a deficiency in the plan.

So, what is a leader to do when the team says it cannot be done?

Try to Understand the Opposition

Critical to understanding the objections raised are the assumptions the leader makes about the team. First, you need to humbly assume you can learn something new if you listen, instead of thinking the team just does not get what you are saying. Second, you need to assume the team member is trying to make sure the ministry stays on track, rather than assuming he is trying to undermine your authority or make you look bad. If you cannot make those two assumptions, seriously evaluate who should stay on the team.

As you seek to understand where the opposition is coming from, several questions can help you zero in on the issues behind the issue. Why do they think the way they do? Could they be right? What is the root of their response — emotional or logical? Is there history behind their response?

In trying to understand the opposition to the idea, you have a choice in the power style you employ. You can embrace assertive power, where you go on an all-in sales drive to get your idea across. Or, you can employ receptive power. Receptive power is not an oxymoron; instead, it is the power you wield by genuinely listening and hearing the concerns and doubts from the people on your team.

Flip the Script

As you attempt to surface doubts and get to the issues behind the issues, flipping the script is a helpful technique to employ as you talk with people. After listening to the other person’s objections, ask, “What would you do to solve the problem?” Do not ask this in a snarky or condescending tone, but in a way that genuinely desires input. This question drives home the point that doing nothing is not an option, but reinforces the idea that we have to work together to find a solution.

One of the greatest issues facing pastors is the challenge of integrating multiple generations into the same church. A long-term member of a church I led was telling me how the old timers were feeling pushed aside in a youth movement. He based much of his anecdotal stories on the narrative older members had constructed, rather than the facts. Instead of arguing about each of the incidents he described, I simply flipped the script and asked, “How would you go about getting the older members to be willing to make sacrifices to reach a new generation? After all, if there is nobody to pass the baton to, we have wasted our efforts.” He did not have an answer. But, I invited him to work together with me to find the solution. He said he would. Flipping the script transfers responsibility to the doubter to engage not just in substantive questions, but answers as well.

Incorporate Valid Objections

As you genuinely understand where the doubt comes from, you might determine there is something to their argument. In that case, it is important to adjust your plan. This will take more time and effort than you want to expend, but in the end the results are often worth it. Leaders tend to be impatient, wanting everything changed yesterday. But sometimes, slower is faster. Sometimes slowing down to get the plan right before you roll it out to the entire congregation or organization might take longer in the short term, but in the long view it will save time. Imagine the time you might waste scraping the entire plan or ministry and start over because you refused to slow down and make adjustments along the way.

Take Action

After you have listened and incorporated the valid objections, it is time to act. Surely, one danger is pushing the doubts down and moving full throttle with the idea. But another — possibly more acute danger — is not acting at all. All of us have fallen prey to the paralysis of indecision. You cannot debate whether or not to start a new ministry, revise a budget, or hire a new staff member. In Christian circles, we buy time by suggesting we need to keep praying about it. At some point, though, you must make a decision. There comes a time to commit to a course of action and move forward with conviction.

Do the Right Thing and Expect Good Things to Happen

The Bible says the sons of Issachar understood the times and knew what Israel should do. Once you have scanned the environment and understood the source of doubts and made the necessary adjustments, it is time to trust your instincts as a God-ordained leader and make the call you need to make. And, do it without fear, but with the expectation that good things are going to happen.

If you have done right by your team — listened to them and incorporated their valid objections, prayed and sought God’s guidance — then you can move forward with confidence in your decision. If you have gone about making the decision in the right way, the possibility of a right outcome dramatically increases.

Nordstrom’s department store is a good example of doing the right thing and expecting good things to happen. They have a no-questions return policy on all merchandise. No questions asked — ever. They have lost money with that policy in the short term, but in the long term they have reaped even more rewards because of customer loyalty. Doing right by their customers has built a reputation of customer service that exceeds other department stores.

When you do right by listening to the objections and surfacing the doubts of your team and volunteers, you will build a reputation for having an open mind and an open heart. That, in turn, will open their hand to join with you in the organizational transformation you seek.

Be Willing to Take a Loss

Pastors love people. And, we want everyone to go with us to the vision that God has put in our hearts. But simply put, not everyone is up for the trip.

David Grissom, chairman of Mayfair Capital, said, “You owe it to the organization to always listen to those people and to their point of view, because guess what? They may be right. So you cannot be dismissive of that. But what I have found is that there tends to be a pattern. The naysayers tend to be the naysayers, and pretty soon you say to yourself as you are coming up with a new initiative, ‘I know Ted’s not going to like this.’ You can debate it and have an open and clear discussion; but, at the end of the day, a decision has to be made. And when you finally make a decision, you say to the naysayers, ‘The train is getting ready to leave the station and I really hope you are on it.’ Now, what’s left unsaid is, if they are not on it, they might be happier somewhere else.”

There are times when the leader has to be willing to lose a team member or a congregational member to move in the new direction, but if you walk through the first steps, you will not take this last step nearly as often.