Compassionate Intolerance

The Value of Intolerance

It seems obvious, but yet it is not well understood; when developing a new operating concept or model, there has to be a strong motivation for change. The problem with change is not a lack of ideas on how to change a process. The problem does not lie in the efforts to change the physical appearance or the function of the business. The problem is not a matter of acquiring the equipment needed to operate the new process. The problem is not training or re-training the staff to operate the new process. The problem lies in the minds of key staff operating the business. The problem is one of tolerance. Tolerance of the way things are in the face of the need for change.

Tolerance is normally viewed as being an admirable trait. A desire to ‘get along’ is viewed as a positive aspect of being a member of society. Few people would speak with pride about working for a truly intolerant supervisor. Intolerance is typically viewed as being a personal fault, a character trait to be screened out of the organization. Yet it is the presence of a type of intolerance that is required for the implementation of a new concept to be successful.

Tolerance is acceptance. If the present situation is tolerated, it will not be changed. The root of change, however, is not in the situation, but in the thought process and actions of the people surrounding the situation. To change the situation, you must change actions. To change actions, you must change thinking. We think in terms of language. The first step in changing thinking is to change the conversation, what we say and how it is said. There are two vital steps in changing the organizational conversation; the accepted language of the organization must be changed, and an intolerance of the thinking and therefore actions that created the problem in the first place must be established. Achieving the first, but not the second step amounts to nothing but ‘happy talk’. Achieving the second step without the first will give rise to disillusionment, low morale, and ultimately failure.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “No problem can be solved at the level of thinking used when the problem was created”. Einstein’s position may well be correct, but it is not sufficient. The new level of thinking must include the creation of new language to define a new direction for the organization. We are still short one step.

To borrow from a popular political phase from 2000, what is needed is a heavy dose of ‘Compassionate Intolerance’. Compassionate Intolerance avoids the meanness conveyed in the sociological use of the term ‘intolerance’. What remains is a commitment to not accept behavior, performance, or circumstances, which are counter to the needs of the new process. Compassionate Intolerance places the highest value on the fundamentals of the new process. Behavior which does not support the fundamentals of the new model cannot be tolerated. Situations which do not support the new model are aggressively challenged, so as to change the situation to one conducive to the further development and implementation of the process.

How does one become compassionately intolerant? It starts with being committed to making the change. No one will show more commitment to change than the person leading the change. The second step is to assume that you are the only person who sees actions that support the old process. Understand that if you do not take an immediate corrective action, the opportunity to support the change is lost. The third step is to be relentless in making the new method routine. Be compassionate; understand the difficulties of performing in a different way; work with staff to develop new skills; but above all, be intolerant of all efforts to go back to the old way. Without intolerance change will not stick.

At the beginning, people will resist the new process, seeking to stay with the old comfortable method. In the middle of change, those same people run the model as you direct. With the completion of change, a small number of staff will begin to improve on the new process. It is through the personal enhancements made to an imposed process that the new process becomes truly embedded in the organization. At this point, the shift has been completed. The organization is a new place. The only step remaining is for the leader to look for the opportunity to begin the process again.

Joe Schumacker

April 2006

Updated August 2009

There are but two true competitive advantages in business today; being able to think better than the other guy, and the ability and willingness to do exactly what you say you are going to do.