The Challenge with Rocking the Boat

One of the most fascinating things about being a parent is watching our children learn new things about themselves. I have a daughter named Amirah who made an interesting discovery when she was 10 years-old. My mom is a psychiatric nurse and was preparing for a workshop by watching the video Who Moved My Cheese? (based on the book by Spencer Johnson) Amirah who had been quietly reading a book in background runs up to her grandmother and screams, “Ma-ma that is what is wrong with me! I don’t like change!”

Now, this was hilarious to us at the time, but later it was not so funny. It turns out Amirah likes everything to stay exactly as it is. This became particularly troubling for her as she grew from five feet tall to almost 6 feet tall over the last three years. She wanted to keep all of her clothes because they have sentimental attachments. Although, we love that she appreciates the gifts that her family has given to her; her size made it impossible for us to allow her to keep those clothes. Can you image a young lady who needs a size 1 pants in juniors still trying to wear size 10 dresses from the girls’ section? As you can probably imagine, it was a not a pretty site. Now as humorous as this is, I had a similar situation to occur at work that was not funny at all that is very similar to Amirah’s change issue.

For almost a decade I worked at a church which experienced explosive growth. Just like Amirah (who seemed to grow inches every month), the organization’s massive growth prohibited it from being able to perform a variety of services that it had provided when the organization was smaller. After a frustrating quarter, we had a long staff meeting where our boss explained to us that our organization could no longer function like a mom and pop store; we had to become Wal-mart and that is when the staff began to split.

Now there are some benefits to being Wal-mart. It is a one-stop location know for good prices and often) but not always) fast service. So, at first it sounded great, but very soon after that meeting, the staff would become divided into two distinguished groups. The first group became the keepers of the “organizational functions of the ‘what’/communicative practices and the ‘how’/understanding the shape an ongoing community of memory” (Arnett, Fritz, & Bell, 2009, p. 145). The other group was comprised of people who wanted to change everything about the organization. For the sake of the discussion, we will call the first group “the old guard” and the second group “the new kids” because honestly, that is the most accurate description that I could give to each group of individuals. Well, the “old guard” actually welcomed some of the changes that the “new kids” suggested but soon it was quite clear that the “new kids” wanted to change nearly everything and that created a very large internal rift because the rhetorical interruption made it virtually impossible for the “old guard” to counter their suggestions with a comprising solution.

For example, the “new kids” wanted the auditorium to be completely dark when people entered. They felt as though it created a cool environment with a concert/movie theater feel. Well not only was that a disruption in the community of memory of how the services had been set up in the past, there was increased risk of people stumbling in the dark. This culture shock was too great for many older member of the organization and they stopped coming to the services. “The difference between shock and surprise rests in the dissimilarity between something novel and unexpected and an unusual turn of events” (Arnett, Fritz, & Bell, 2009, p. 162).

It was not until some of the organization’s founding members got involved and spoke up about the rhetorical interruption of the darkened facility, before a compromise was reached that was enough like the past to ease the older members and was enough change and excitement to draw in younger audiences which was a large part of the “new kids” goal. The compromise was to leave the areas slightly illuminated by all doors, entry and exit locations and have it darker up front but use enough spotlight to keep the auditorium lit during the time where members were entering the building.

There continued to be a big debate between “how it had always been done” and whether or not that way should change across many other areas. The “old guard” always provided sound arguments backed by the community of memory within the organization. Their defense to the “new kids” was very often like the old Midnight Star group song lyrics: “If it’s not broke don’t fix. Just fix it. Relax and let it flow…don’t rock the boat” (1987). However, as you can imagine that boat (figuratively) continued to get rocked and the seats around the executive table continued to change rapidly. It is crucial that organization leaders manage both groups effectively so that the core of the organization is not disrupted, and progress is still able to happen.

Arnett, R.C., Bell, L. M., & Fritz, J.M. (2009). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. Sage Publications.

Don’t Rock the Boat. [Recorded by Midnight Star]. (1987). On Midnight Star [Album/CD]. Los Angeles, CA: Solar Records.

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