Rewriting the Story of Resistance

© 2006 Dale Emery

"I’m stuck and I need your help," Susan said. Susan was
Director of Human Resources at a multinational paper company, and was
leading the effort to change the company’s structure from top-down
management to self-directed work teams. The transition involved
thousands of people, and they had been working on the effort for a

Susan said, "Most people are really excited about what we’re
doing, but then there are the resisters." As she said this, she
motioned with her hands as if pushing away. "The resisters don’t
want anything to do with teams. Mostly, they are company veterans who
have been here more than twenty years and are near retirement. Every
time they come to a meeting, I already know what they are going to
say." Again she gestured pushing away.

Susan’s repeated use of word "resisters," and her
repeated gesture of pushing-away, suggested that she was stuck in a
story. The story of resistance is common one. Change agents often
tell the story as a blockbuster drama, complete with good guys with
admirable goals, bad guys with unsavory goals, and escalating
conflict in which the bad guys thwart the good guys at every turn.
The struggle continues until one side vanquishes the other, which
resolves the conflict and ends the story.

In the story of resistance, the good guys are, of course, the
change agents who tell the story. They want only good things for
their organization, and they can accomplish the good things only by
influencing others to change. The bad guys are the "resisters."
Because the story is told from the change agents’ point of view, we
don’t always know what the bad guys want, but we know it’s less
important than what the change agents want. And the conflict is the
resistance–the bad guys refuse to change, preventing the good guys’
from achieving their noble goals. As for the ending, we don’t know
how the story ends, because the story of resistance is usually told
in progress, in the middle of the struggle. But the storyteller, the
change agent, yearns for an ending in which the good guy triumphs by
overcoming the resistance.

Susan’s story was a mild one. She did not make the common mistake
of judging the "resisters" to be stupid, insincere,
incompetent, or mean-spirited. But her story hypnotized her into
seeing the resisters, and possibly herself, as something less than
whole people, as mere roles locked in opposition. The story
constrained her resourcefulness, compounded her frustration, and kept
her stuck.

When you’re stuck in a story of resistance, you can unblock
yourself by peeling away the constricting elements of the story. One
useful approach is to tell the story from a new point of view. How
would a neutral third party tell the story of change at Susan’s
company? What story would the company veterans tell?

Susan’s "resisters" might tell the story this way. We’ve
been working effectively for years. Now suddenly a bunch of nameless
bureaucrats from the central office arbitrarily decide that we have
to change everything and work in a whole new way. And they never even
asked our opinion.

A neutral third party might tell a different story. Susan led
a six-month task force, whose members included representatives from
every department, to determine how to decentralize decisions and give
more autonomy to the people who know the most about making the
product. The task force organized two pilot projects to test the idea
of self-organized teams. The pilot projects were highly successful,
and the task force planned to convert the entire manufacturing
process to self-organized teams. Some of the senior employees liked
the idea of increased autonomy, but were concerned about how such a
dramatic change would affect productivity. Though they expressed
their ambivalence loudly and repeatedly, Susan and the task force
ignored the veterans’ concerns, and moved ahead with the transition.

The point of this approach is not to predict accurately how others
would actually tell the story, but to recognize the range of stories
that different people might tell about the same events. If you can
see that many different stories are possible, and even reasonable,
you’re less likely to remain blocked by your old, constricting story.
That’s the time to ask the "resisters" to tell their story.
Then listen to the story they tell.

A related approach is to shift from heavy words to lighter words
to describe people’s roles and behaviors. "Resisters" is a
heavy, loaded word that suggests a limited range of behaviors and
intentions. What do resisters do? They resist. What are the
resisters’ intentions? To resist. Heavy words lock the story of
resistance in place.

When Susan finished telling me about the "resisters," I
invited her to use lighter words to tell a more resourceful story.
"Instead of calling these folks ‘resisters,’" I said,
"suppose you think of them as people who are resisting this
change at this time."

She considered this in silence for minute, then looked at me and
said, "Wow. That makes a big difference. When I think of them as
resisters, it’s as if I have them all figured out, that they’re just
resistant to change. When I think of them as resisting a particular
change at a particular time, I see them more as people. Maybe they
have reasons for resisting."

I said, "Now, instead of thinking of them as resisting
the change, what if you think of them as responding to it?"

Again she went silent. After a moment, she said, "Thank you!
Now I know what I need to do!"

I talked with Susan several months later. She had met several
times with the company veterans who were most concerned about the
change, and focused on listening carefully to what they had to say.
She learned that their biggest concern was how they would fit in. As
long-time employees, they had worked for years to earn the respect of
their colleagues. Their seniority was reinforced by the old top-down
structure. What would happen to their status, reputation, and
contribution as the company shifted to an unfamiliar way of working?

Susan’s old story of "resisters" fell away. After a few
long conversations, together she and the company veterans worked out
a solution. These senior employees would become mentors who would
help new employees learn "how we work in teams around here."
This solution met Susan’s need to move forward with the transition
and the company veterans’ need to play a significant, distinguished
role in the new organization.

Susan and the company veterans had co-authored a new story in
which everyone was a good guy. Such a story makes for a lousy
blockbuster movie. There’s too little drama. But Susan didn’t care
about drama. She cared about creating a more effective organization.

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