ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum


Online Edition - February 2002

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Issue Highlight — Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment
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Can saying no be the first step to yes? Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment is the provocative subject of Peter Block's One From Column B in this issue.

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

 In This Issue...
The World of Patch Adams and Gesundheit!
Behind Pike Place Fish: A Conversation With Jim Bergquist
Fishcamp!
How We Use “Fish!” the Video

Teamwork at the Ground Zero Cleanup
Thriving Through Teamwork


 Features...
Peter Block Column



Return to NFC Index


Refusal as a Doorway to Commitment

   In our desire to create effective workplaces and lives with some meaning, finding genuine, from-the-heart commitment is the illusive prize. All the strategies, tools, and structures in the world are useless if there is no commitment to make them work. In our personal lives, personal dreams cost us more than we imagined and constantly question our commitment. And so a major challenge is how to create commitment in others and find commitment within ourselves to fulfill our intentions.

We pursue commitment in many ways; we encourage optimism, we enroll others through our vision, we urge a can-do attitude, we devise elaborate reward systems, and plaster our walls and calendars with inspirational messages. Authentic commitment, though, is a strange commodity. It is much like happiness, if pursued frontally, it eludes us. Commitment is most likely to occur if we approach it from the back door. Commitment enters through the portal of refusal.

The basic idea is that if we cannot say no, then our yes, our commitment, has no meaning. It is our capacity to withstand the conventions of society, the demands and expectations of others, the rules of the game that initiates commitment. Commitment carries a price, and that price is the willingness to live with the possible cost of saying no.

No Easy Task

The problem with this is that in most high-control cultures, we believe that to say no, to comment on the emperor’s meager wardrobe, and to be the bearer of bad news, are forms of institutional suicide. Most cultures believe that if you stand up, you get shot.

As a result of these injunctions, we operate on the basis of compliance, which too often masquerades as commitment. Commitment is the choice to say yes, without barter, without a promise of future return, in the face of a culture that may or may not value what we pursue. It is a difficult choice to make. That choice is more likely to occur if we understand its intimate connection with our willingness to say no, or to refuse. There is a power in the act of refusal that we do not fully appreciate. Here are some variations on this theme:

  1. Our identity is defined by our boundaries—by being as clear about what we are not, as being clear about what we are. An infant’s first inkling that it is a separate being from its mother comes through the act of saying no. By the age of two we have developed this capacity to an art form.
  2. Genuine commitment always begins with the expression of doubts. If we have no doubts about a proposal, an action, or a strategy, then it means that we do not care. I have no doubts only about those things that do not matter. Confidence is the willingness to proceed in the face of our doubts, not in their absence.
  3. Carl Jung stated that all consciousness begins with an act of disobedience. Adulthood begins at the moment we betray the expectations of those who have power over us. In the family, our freedom is first claimed when we understand that we are not the children our parents had in mind, and that is fine, the way it should be.
  4. In the workplace, we become emotional owners of the business when we set limits on what we will do and declare our doubts about what does not make sense to us. Being a partner in the business means we have the ultimate right to say no, and not have to leave the business. If we cannot say no, then we are a property of the business, not a partner. Partners do not vote with their feet, they find their voice and use it. We may never exercise this right to say no, but knowing that it exists is what engages us in full membership.
  5. Refusal, which can appear to be a form of absolute individualism, serves the community when we realize that refusal is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. Refusal is an early act of engagement. It begs to be responded to with a question, not with a demand. “ I have my doubts,” asks for a response of “tell me about them.”
  6. Leaders can reap the benefits of refusal as a means of commitment only if they accept that every question asked of them does not need an answer. If people have doubts, are even angry, that is their business, not ours. An important role of leadership in building a culture of commitment is to hear the doubts, the refusals, without answering them or fixing them. This means that leaders have to admit they do not have all the answers, which is always the truth.
  7. For society at large, refusal has an even more noble tradition, which is the role of dissent as a cornerstone of democracy. Freedom of speech is not about saying yes; it is about the right of refusal. The phrase freedom of speech expresses the intimate connection between refusal and our freedom. We might say that if you cannot say no, you have surrendered your freedom.
  8. One more dimension of refusal is its role in the struggle to find balance in our lives. We hear about the struggle for work/life balance. We complain about our plate being too full. So much to do, so little time to do it. These are all symptoms of our inability to say no. If we want more time for “life,” then it has to be purchased by turning down opportunities. We will have to disappoint some others, even yield on some of our own desires. Staying in balance is dependent on our ability to say no to others and also to say no to ourselves.

The Contribution of Refusal

The possibility of refusal means we are acting on choice. It recognizes that change and transformation occur through choice, not compliance. This means that we achieve change through invitation, for it is invitation that carries the possibility of refusal. In fact, the heroic journal always includes a stage where the call to greatness is refused. We see this in religious terms and in the nature of a calling. We have many cultural stories of the calling to God, being called to serve. We have the proverb that many are called but only a few answer. Christ’s 40 days in the desert was a period of doubt, an opening to the possibility of refusal, and formed the basis for his surrender to his own destiny, which is the ultimate act of commitment.

A Commitment Starter

All this means that saying no is a gift. It is a gift from others when they express their doubts or reluctance to us, a gift from us when we name our own unwillingness to them. The gift of refusal is in the way it initiates powerful conversations. Saying no in this context does not mean it is our final answer. The discussion of doubts is a source of energy in our dialogue. It makes the conversation real and creative, and thereby creates the condition for commitment.

Commitment comes when doubts lose their destructive power, and they lose their negative power through expression and dialogue. It is the suppression of doubts that builds steam. This means that discussion of doubts is an action step. An action step essential to our freedom, essential to the emotional investment that anything of value requires.

False Refusal

Granted there are false and compulsive forms of refusal. Sometimes we make refusal a life stance, or rebel simply for its own sake. These are really not forms of refusal; they are more about resistance and reaction to power than the acquisition of power. In fact, the belief that we work in a culture where doubts are not welcome, and no is not an option, is in itself a form of resistance. It is the wish for a free pass, and reluctance to enter the passageway of our own freedom. This steals from our institution and us all the possibilities that genuine commitment has to offer.

Peter Block is author of the best-selling books, The Empowered Manager, Flawless Consulting, Stewardship, and The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion. Block can be reached at pbi@att.net .

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