By Rick James

This blog is no. 7 in a series of nine on the subject of capacity building:

No. 1: Calling our bluff on capacity building (March 2014)
No. 2: Cultivating capacity: returning to first principles (March 2014)
No. 3: Obsessed by assessment tools (April 2014)
No. 4: It’s (almost) all about leadership (May 2014)
No. 5: Cultivating character in capacity building (May 2014)
No. 6: Cultivating trust in partnerships (June 2014)
No. 7: Making it personal (June 2014)
No. 8: Letting go: the missing step in capacity building (July 2014)
No. 9: Strategic funerals in capacity building (August 2014)

According to research by Harvard University[1], 85 per cent of the reason people get a job, keep it, and move ahead in it has to do with people skills. Only 15 per cent is because of their technical ability. Yet many of us in the NGO sector have reduced capacity building to a technical intervention. We have ignored the element of personal change, perhaps because it may be more complicated and even threatening. But the fact is, if people and relationships do not change, there can be no capacity building.

I remember working with a group of consultants in Africa. They were discussing a dilemma they often found in their capacity building work – they were having to spend extra time helping people deal with personal issues the process was bringing up. On reflection, they decided that this was not actually a distraction, but in fact their core business. They decided to build more time for personal issues into their work.

In my own organisational development work, I usually get asked in to solve a problem at a level below the person asking me. If it is the leader, then the problem is to do with staff… or so I’m usually told at the beginning.

I have often tried to follow Robert Quinn, who writes: ‘When I discuss the leadership of organisational change with executives I usually go to the place they least expect. The bottom line is that they cannot change the organisation unless they first change themselves.’[2]

Change is not an easy thing for anyone. It involves giving up past ways of behaving that may have become comfortable. Change requires letting go, not just taking on the new. As human beings, we naturally resist letting go. Yet if we hope to build capacity and bring about organisational change, then we have to help people within organisations to change on an individual and personal level.

People aren’t always willing to change. A while back I was facilitating an event to resolve board-staff tensions at an NGO. Communication was an obvious issue but the board in particular was unwilling to explore some of the differences in values and attitudes that were the cause of the communication breakdown. It would have required board members to confront themselves and each other at a deep level. In the end they kept it to safe, superficial statements of intent to communicate more, leaving the underlying issue unchanged. Unsurprisingly the tension persisted.

I have found that taking a more personal approach to change often involves:

  • Engaging people’s emotions, not just their rational, cerebral selves. It’s often necessary to bring emotions to the surface to provide the energy and even anxiety needed for change.
  • Creating opportunities for people to hear negative feedback in a context where they feel psychologically safe enough to react constructively rather than simply defensively.
  • Working with cultural norms. For example, what is appropriate feedback is highly culturally relative. I need to find out what feedback is tolerable in a particular context. In many countries any confrontation must be done gently and privately. As one African colleague said to me, ‘In all my interventions I find I have to give leadership feedback that they have stopped getting from staff. This often entails us going for walks in the forest together.’
  • Engaging with the spiritual beliefs that underpin people’s values and sense of self and which therefore affect how they behave. Successive studies[3] have found that faith and religion are central to the worldview of the majority of people in Africa and Asia. People’s spiritual beliefs may be the most powerful and important lever for change. Inspiring Change and Creating Space for Grace provide plenty of examples for how this might be done in a church context. Even in a secular context, it is still important to give people space to connect with their conscience, intuition or deeper selves.
  • Taking it personally myself. If I have the audacity to engage with the personal dimension to change, especially in other cultures, I have to know myself, my own biases and baggage intimately.

Though not without its technical elements, capacity building is not a mechanical process. First and foremost it is a process of human change. This is personal, emotional, and I believe it is also spiritual. If capacity building is to make a difference, people have to take it personally.

[1] Ziglar, Zig (1986), Top Performance, Baker Book House Company

[2] Quinn, R. (2000), Change the World: How Ordinary People can Accomplish Extraordinary Results, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. p106

[3] Narayan, D. (2000) ‘Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us?’ Washington OUP, World Bank; Marshall, K and Keough, L. (Eds.)(2004), Mind, Heart and Soul in the Fight Against Poverty, Washington DC: The World Bank; Commission for Africa (2005) ‘Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa’, March; Barron, M. (2007) ‘The Role of Pastoral Care in Development – is it really development?’, IMU Report, March-May


Image credit: ‘Soul Searching’ by gaspi *yg, via Flickr. Used under creative commons licensing.