My lack of historical knowledge was my achilles heel

I was the COO of a large non-profit that focused on suicide prevention, pregnancy prevention and substance abuse prevention in Native American communities. I was hired to help facilitate a large replication grant focused on expanding the evidence-based model across North America. My strengths and expertise in leadership development and training program implementation was exactly what they needed.

As I worked with the team of Native American program managers to them become leaders and trainers for the program, I innocently suggested we adopt the wearing of  polo shirts bearing the logo of the organization. The same color and same design across the board.

I soon realized that in this instance my lack of historical knowledge was my achilles heel.

The immediate and firm resistance blew me away

The staff’s reaction, in the form of resistance, blew me away. It wasn’t anything I’d experienced. At other organizations I’d worked at the training teams loved having a uniformed look that was provided by the company. It was considered a perk. But this was different. 

I continued to try and push the benefits. I explained how it would help move the brand forward. What I did not realize was that I was actually getting myself deeper into a hole. 

There is a long history here

Following a particularly tense meeting one of the more senior staff took me aside and said, “I know you mean well. But there is a long history here of white people coming in and trying to make our people comply”. 

He went on to explain that one of the tactics used to sanitize culture from Native American children removed from their families back when the residential boarding schools were operating was to cut everyone’s hair and dress every child in matching uniforms. 

“The resistance that you are experiencing with your dress code suggestion just may have some connection to that history”. 

I’m so grateful 

I am so grateful for this sharing. I am now a business consultant who focuses on improving culture by teaching the skills required to navigate challenging dialogues. A  topic that can cause so much drama and chaos is dress code. 

Certainly not every organization I work in has the same kind of historical legacy as  experienced by Native American populations, but often when I see resistance manifested, I know to become curious. What appears to be a simple issue causing drama is generally a symptom of deeper and more complex cause. Often the people doing the resisting don’t even realize what it is about. My job is to listen for understanding, to provide space for people to be seen and heard and to not make assumptions. That way what is beneath the surface can be revealed and then we can move forward with a solution that serves the good of the whole. 

What is underneath the drama of the simple mandates in your workplace?


  • Beth Wonson

    CEO and Founder of Navigating Challenging Dialogue®

    Beth Wonson & Company

    Since 2015, Beth Wonson, CEO and Founder of Navigating Challenging Dialogue®, has coached hundreds of C-suite professionals in Fortune 500s and the non-profit sector to have meaningful, drama-free conversations.

    Clients learn to end miscommunication mishaps, chaos, and costly conflicts. In turn, they create a culture that fosters greater employee satisfaction, retention, and performance. Grounded in proven methods of self-management, Beth’s proprietary process, Navigating Challenging Dialogue, guides leaders to communicate directly and effectively while strengthening their company’s fundamentals.

    The mission of Beth Wonson & Company is to bring Navigating Challenging Dialogue to everyone who wants to have meaningful, drama-free dialogue. BWC provides leadership coaching, consulting, and training rooted in the NCD Process so our clients are able to stop wasting valuable resources through miscommunication, unhealthy conflict, and unnecessary drama.