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When You Face Obstinate Opposition, Don’t Create A Conflict, Create A Dilemma

2022 July 24
by Greg Satell

In the summer of 1982, Poland was under strict martial law. The leaders of the revolutionary Solidarity movement were either in jail or in hiding. As the regime tightened its grip, any kind of protest risked arrest. People were demoralized, forced to sit in their homes with nothing to do but watch propaganda-laden “news” and old movies.

Yet the resident’s of Świdnik, a small city in central Poland, refused to take it sitting down. Instead, they walked. Every night at 7:30, when the evening news program began to spew the regime’s lies, they went for a walk and, just to put a fine point on the matter, some took their TV sets with them, in wheelbarrows and baby carriages.

It was fun—and funny. Similar “walking protests” soon spread virally to cities across Poland, which put the regime in a bind, they either had to shut the protests down or let people thumb their nose at the regime. This is what’s known as a dilemma action, a brilliant strategy that allows you to avoid conflict while at the same time putting your opposition into a bad spot.

Starting With A Shared Value Or Widely Held Belief

When we first start working with a team on a change initiative, they want to focus on what they’re passionate about, what differentiates their effort from the status quo. It’s something we all do. When we feel fervently about an idea, we want others to see it the same way we do, with all its beautiful complexity and nuance.

Yet to bring others in, we need to switch from differentiating values—what we love about an idea—to more widely shared values. For example, when we work with teams looking to move their organizations toward agile development, they often want to focus on the agile manifesto, because that’s what they’re passionate about. It rarely resonates with people outside the agile community, however.

Once they begin to focus on shared values, like better quality projects done faster and cheaper, it’s much easier to get people to come along. After all, who could argue with better results? That doesn’t mean that agile teams are abandoning the manifesto or hiding it in any way, they’re just not leading with it.

Shared values are also part of what made the Świdnik walking protests so powerful. As one of the protesters put it, “If the resistance is done by underground activists, it’s not you or me. But if you see your neighbors taking their TV for a walk, it makes you feel part of something. An aim of the dictatorship is to make you feel isolated.”

Designing A Constructive Act

Some years ago, I was brought in to rebuild a sales and marketing operation. It immediately became clear that the sales director was a big part of the problem. Not only was she still calling on clients herself and competing with her own salespeople, she was accounting for 90% of the revenues! Clearly, this wasn’t because of superhuman ability, but because she was assigning the best clients to herself.

It was obvious that if I was ever going to get things going in the right direction, I was going to have to get rid of the sales director, but that would be difficult. She was politically savvy, well liked and, because she accounted for so much revenue, was seen as critical to the viability of the company.

She had agreed to distribute her clients among the team and focus on managing instead of selling, but never seemed to get around to it. Put simply, she was sandbagging me. So I set up a sales call for one of the staff and a key client, which put the sales director in a position. She couldn’t object—it was what she agreed to—but if she acceded it would break her hold on the business.

It was similar to the action in Świdnik. Who could object to taking an evening stroll? When an action is seen to be constructive, it takes on the power of legitimacy. One of the mistakes changemakers often make is that in their anger they do something that is seen as destructive and lose credibility. That’s always a mistake.

Forcing A Decision

What makes a dilemma action so powerful is that it forces your opposition to make a choice. In Poland, the walking protests quickly spread beyond Świdnik to cities throughout the country. The communist regime had to decide whether to let them continue or to put a stop to them. If the protests continued, the the apparatchiks would look impotent, but if they took action against people going out for a simple evening stroll, they would look ridiculous.

My situation with the sales director was difficult because the onus was on me. I had to decide whether to continue to let her sandbag or to fire her without a clear cause. Designing a dilemma action got me out of that bind because it shifted the decision to her. She either had to give up the client (and then others) or to take a deliberately insubordinate action.

We often oppose change not because of any rational logic but because, for whatever reason, it offends our dignity, our identity and our sense of self. The response to a dilemma action is far more likely to be governed by emotion than a deliberate thought process. People are prone to lash out and overreach.

That’s what make a dilemma actions so effective. It calls a bluff. The opposition can no longer wait it out, but are forced to act and, because of how the action is designed, any action they take will hurt their cause and push change forward.

How Transformational Change Really Happens

One of the biggest misconceptions about change is that it comes about when those who oppose it are somehow persuaded. That almost never happens. Look back at any major transformation throughout history and the tide turned when those who opposed it discredited themselves by taking action that was widely judged to be objectionable.

In Gandhi’s Salt March, the British discredited themselves when they violently attacked peaceful protestors. In Birmingham, Bull Connor discredited himself (and Jim Crow laws) when he confronted children with snarling dogs and fire hoses. California’s Proposition 8 was seen as so discriminatory that it aided the cause of same-sex marriage.

We see the same type of thing in our work with organizations. Everybody has been in a meeting in which, after an hour or so of moving slowly to a consensus, someone who hadn’t said a word the whole time suddenly throws a hissy fit in the conference room. This type of behavior doesn’t come from any rational place, but is triggered by an offense to identity.

Dilemma actions give us clear design principles to induce opponents of change to discredit themselves, which they will not only do willingly, but with enthusiasm. The British in India, Bull Connor in Birmingham and anti-gay activists in California wanted to show the world who they were, they merely had to be given the opportunity.

When confronted with fervent, irrational resistance to change the optimal strategy is never to create conflict, but rather a dilemma for your opposition.


Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Photo by Letizia Bordoni on Unsplash

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mike Lippitz permalink
    July 26, 2022

    You’re writing is always helpful and concise. But this one is particularly thought-provoking and insightful. Thank you!

  2. July 26, 2022

    Thanks so much Mike! I hope you are well.

    – Greg

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