Navigating Organizational Politics and Paving the Way for Real Organizational Change by Cynthia Cortez

I’m Cynthia Cortez, current Director of Evaluation and Learning at Bresee Foundation, a multi-service non-profit focused on battling poverty. My experience in promoting organizational improvement as an internal evaluator has taught me something very important: recognize how politics mediates improvement.

Politics. Yes, I know it can be triggering. Yet, it’s always present and as a professor used to say “just are.” In my capacityI confront organizational politics because conversations on quality inevitably tap into our whole organizational ecosystem. Each unit can have its own values and priorities— and so can each staff member or program participant.

I live in the space where organizational politics meets organizational improvement. Not easy. Thus, as an advocate for quality, I offer the following insights:

Hot Tip: Humanize organizational learning. Organizational improvement requires staff– front line, administration, board members – to think and do differently. Each person involved has their own perspective and will respond uniquely to change efforts. Yet, everyone inherently seeks good. Pay keen attention to the emotions at hand when problems are surfaced and note where resistance lives. My best strategy: use low inference language to state how things exist. When I approach change from this angle, I’m able to cultivate a space that enables perspective inclusion, solutions, and actions.

Lessons Learned: 

  • Teach about evaluation and rally excitement through show and tellI’ve used Joseph Wholey’s “Evaluability Assessment” and Center of Disease Control’s “Types of Evaluations” to match programs to the appropriate evaluation journey. This helps teams adopt a framework they feel is appropriate. Despite their inherent orientation towards quality, frameworks alone do not spark change enthusiasm – painting the picture of what improvement looks and sounds like for the organization drives weigh in and buy in.
  • Expand improvement conversations beyond program theories. In the 10 years I have spent promoting program and organizational improvement, I can recall having many conversations on change isolated from budgetary realities and organizational priorities. Most of these instances have been with front line staff and they have commented on how damaging it can be to talk about improvement without addressing these factors. Thus, I intentionally serve as a bridge between programs and operations, finance, and/or development.

And this brings me back to organizational politics. Everyone will have an opinion and, to be frank, it can be notoriously challenging to seek organizational or program-specific improvement. But conditions can be created to diffuse the barriers to change and elevate improvement processes pan-organizationally. While politics influence how things develop, empirical evidence on program outcomes, delivery, and participant perspectives, allow conversations between the right partners to take place and the right decisions to be made.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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