Consider the story of a female employee in a sawmill
who unloaded stacks of lumber with a hoist. A team of
men sorted the wood that she unstacked, occasionally
stopping the chain when the wood came too fast.
She noticed the frequent stopping and determined
through experimentation that if she paced her work at
a slightly slower rate, there were fewer stops and
overall productivity and quality improved. She was
pleased with herself and was enthusiastic about her
When her foreman came by, he saw her more relaxed
pace and told her to speed up her work. When she
tried to explain her motives, he didn’t believe
or listen to her. He assumed that she was being lazy
and that he needed to keep an eye on her.
At this point, the woman reacted,
“I’ll show him.” So, she sped up
even faster than the initial pace, reducing
productivity instead of improving it. She convinced
herself that she no longer cared about the problems
this caused. She entered a state of denial.
The foreman was also in denial. He decided that in
the interest of productivity, he wouldn’t care
about her and her feelings.
Later, the woman realized how hard she was working
and that with her union’s protection, she
couldn’t be fired anyway. Her new thinking was:
“Why should I care? I don’t have to work
so hard. I get paid either way. I’ll just put
in my time.” Her new decision was to deny even
more of herself, essentially by saying, “I
won’t be aware that I care.”
Many organizations, especially those that base
their functioning on authority, require denial from
people. This management style forces people to become
superficial and to function at a level far less than
they might. Often these same organizations consider
this superficial, nonfeeling employee to be a
“good employee” because they do what they
are told without complaint.
Later, the woman saw another employee who was
reading on the job. He was paid the same amount of
money as she was, but did far less work. She told
herself, “It doesn’t matter. I
don’t really care.” But it bothered her
nonetheless. Eventually, she went to the union hall
This woman started out as creative and involved in
her work, caring about the company, but now her
creative side was repressed. She lost much of her
ability to see problems in the mill and use
creativity in solving them.
Let’s consider this woman’s situation in
relation to the story of the elephant, a theme of
these articles. She is like one of the blind men who
think an elephant is like a post because he only
touches one leg.
In this case, the woman’s blindness is
self-imposed. It won’t do any good for
management to teach her about “systems
thinking” because her inability to see the
whole elephant is rooted in her denial of hurtful
feelings. Blaming her for not caring also misses the
point. She cares too much.
Breaking out of this requires a crisis. When her
company is going to fail and she is about to lose her
job, she can drop her denial and remember how much
she cares. That’s when she can awaken to who
she really is and think about what she wants. Xerox
Corporation, Florida Power and Light, and IBM all are
examples of amazing “turnaround” stories,
where a crisis sparked everyone to work together in
In earlier articles I described the
transformational thinking process called choice
creating that can solve impossible-to-solve issues.
Choice creating is “heart creativity”
rather than the “head creativity” of
brainstorming. It is similar to the thinking a crisis
can evoke. Also, a dynamic facilitator evokes choice
creating by encouraging people to address the big
issues and to do so in a heartfelt way. Using this
kind of facilitation, the facilitator attends to
group energy more than to a logical agenda, valuing
each comment and each person. Breakthroughs happen
when people get clear about what the real problem is
and what they really think and feel. Then, they see
the whole elephant.
Normal approaches to systems thinking are not
suited to helping people overcome denial, but with
dynamic facilitation the woman and her group were
able to take charge of this situation and build a
relationship of trust with the foreman. They involved
him in developing new ideas for increasing
productivity, and he became a help rather than a
hindrance. Dynamic facilitation and choice creating
are antidotes to denial.
JIM ROUGH is a consultant,
seminar leader, speaker, and author. He invented
dynamic facilitation (www.ToBE.net) and the
wisdom council, and he co-founded the nonprofit
Center for Wise Democratic Processes (www.WiseDemocracy.org).