3 Ways Organizations React to the Challenge of Restorative Justice

Reimagining justice and relationships within organizations requires a change process. Accordingly, as we find ourselves in conversations with our clients and partners about justice, we’re also involved in a parallel conversation about organizational change. There is a lot to be learned about organizational change, and the inevitable resistance to it, with plenty of valuable information out there already on this topic. What I will offer is simply some brief observations, specifically about how some organizations react and resist once the work of restorative justice gets underway.

A couple of caveats: first, we believe with fierce conviction in our implementation processes (we plan to write about this process in more detail in a future blog!) because we think that they model principles of shared power, genuine collaboration and (as a result) deep ownership of the change process by those most impacted by the changes. And yet we still encounter and witness deep resistance to change.

Second, this is not a veiled attempt to shame or judge organizations who display resistance to change. We are aware that any judgment misses the central point, which is that resistance is a natural and inevitable response to change. Fundamentally, we believe that behind the resistance is an invitation for rich learning—and that this invitation is for both us and our clients.

Here are three ways that we have observed organizations react to the challenge and demands of restorative justice.

  1. “Just give us the tools.” Anyone working on restorative justice implementation in organizations will have heard some version of this refrain. Faced with the pressures of service delivery, clients are prone to request skills training that can be immediately incorporated into daily practice. To be clear, communication and facilitation tools are an essential part of most restorative justice work.  However, when disembodied from the principles and understandings of human relationships, healing and justice that define a restorative approach, the “tools” alone can fall flat, or at worst, contribute to unintended harm.
  2. “Let’s focus on the future.” Restorative justice invites, in part, a reckoning with the past to meet unmet needs and take important lessons for the future. Some organizations asking us to help them design a restorative approach do so with an explicit intention to address past harms, while others come to us thinking mainly about building future capacity. Interestingly, in both circumstances, we commonly encounter a reticence within top leadership or other powerful factions to deeply examine the impacts and lessons of past norms, policies and behaviors. This tendency can serve to weaken or undermine a restorative approach.
  3. “We’ll take it from here.” A restorative approach to change often requires significant shifts in how power is understood and wielded. Therefore, implementing restorative justice cannot be achieved with integrity solely from the top down but must instead engage people at all levels and especially the margins of a given system. This can feel perilous to those in traditional roles of authority, who may experience fear of the unknown and move to retain a sense of control or revert to business as usual, even at the expense of initiatives they had worked hard to initiate and promote.

Make no mistake – rightly understood, a restorative approach to justice does challenge many accepted ways of thinking and acting in many organizations and systems. And so it makes sense that this approach would produce some fear and resistance. But our task – that of Just Outcomes and all change-minded organizational insiders – is to ask: what would make it safe for others to encounter and explore their resistance? A restorative mindset would invite us all to consider how curiosity, empathy and relationship may help to uncover the kind of depth and richness of conversation that provides the fertility for real and lasting change.

Whether your initiative is large or small, urgent or strategic – we are ready support you.

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