Nonviolent Change

Nonviolent Change

Photo of a room full of business people in silhouette against a window

Change initiatives, and their generally bigger cousins “change programmes”, almost always involve fear, obligation, guilt and shame. And start from a position of coercive violence.

Here’s a typical posture I’ve seen time and again in the context of organisational change both large and small:

“The company needs to make some changes to become more profitable. We judge you, you and you to be of the right stuff for this assignment. You will work on this change effort. Here’s a list of the changes we want to see. And here’s how we insist you should go about these changes. Do things our way and you’ll be ‘right’. Anything else and you’ll be ‘wrong’. If things go well you can hope for some minor level of gratitude and/or recognition. But woe betide things going badly (veiled threats or implicit allusions to the effect that you could be punished or fired in such circumstances). Actually, however things turn out, we’ll classify you all into various shades of right or wrong. Oh, and we also insist that you feel obliged to look happy and motivated whilst doing this.”

Do you see the violence inherent in this system? Walter Wink would describe this as a “Domination System”. Marshall Rosenberg might call it a “Jackal culture”:

“In Jackal culture, feelings and wants are severely punished. People are expected to be docile, subservient to authority; slave-like in their reactions, and alienated from their feelings and needs.

“In Jackal, we expect other people to prove their loyalty to us by doing what we want.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

What’s Wrong With this Picture?

This posture inevitably provokes defensiveness, resistance, and counterattack. We often call this a “passive aggressive” response. Although outright aggression is possible, too. This posture impacts the morale and (initial) goodwill of the people chosen. It robs involvement and motivation, and induces a state of fear, insecurity and learned helplessness. Ultimately, it’s a key contributing factor to increasing the poor health of the organisation.

Yet it’s so much the norm that it’s beyond most folks’ imagination to even notice that there could be an alternative. Let’s take a look at just one viable alternative:

The Nonviolent Posture

“I guess you share some of our concerns about the future of the company. We have noticed X and Y and Z as signs that the company needs to make some changes to become more profitable. How do you feel about this? We feel concerned enough that we’d like to see a group come together to work on this. Who shares our view on this need (to become more profitable)? What need (purpose) would best align with your needs? What would you each need (request) to sign up to this group? If things go well we can all hope for things to be mutually more wonderful. If things don’t go so well, we’ll all see what we can do about it, at the appropriate time. Actually, however things turn out, are you willing to share in our choice to believe that everyone was doing their best?”

“How could this possibly work?”

“Isn’t this lunatic optimism run riot?”

These are questions which often follow as a common response to nonviolence in general, yet time and again nonviolent means have wrought unlikely (positive and beneficial) outcomes.

Aside: Note the general NVC framework in this posture: Empathy, observations, feelings, needs, requests.

In such a scenario as here described, a genuine posture of nonviolence offers the opportunity for everyone to have their needs met. And when folks have their needs met, they’re likely to feel engaged, hopeful, confident, excited and inspired, to name but a few of the positive emotions.

Of course, it’s a matter of personal belief as to whether such emotions are appropriate, and beneficial, in e.g. a business setting.

What do you believe? Which posture do you see as have more benefit? As having more chance of success? As more humane?

And under which posture would you flourish more? Which would best meet your needs?


I chose to characterise both of the above postures in the context of an Analytic-minded organisation. This was both to make the idea more accessible to folks with that worldview, and to illustrate that even in such organisations, it doesn’t require a wholesale shift in the organisational mindset to begin using Nonviolent Communication in e.g. change initiatives.

Just for the record though, here’s the second posture recast in the context of a Synergistic-minded organisation:

“I guess we all share some concerns about the future of our company. Some folks have mentioned X and Y and Z as signs that we need to make some changes. Changes that might incidentally also help improve e.g. profitability. How do we all feel about this? I feel concerned enough to ask whether we’d like to see a group come together specifically to work on this. Who shares our view on this need (to do something, now)? What need (purpose) would best align with each of our own needs at the moment? What would folks each need (request) to sign up to this group? If things go well we can all hope for things to be mutually more wonderful. If things don’t go so well, we’ll all see what we can do about it, at the appropriate time. Maybe it’s not necessary to remind ourselves that actually, however things turn out, we choose to believe that everyone was doing their best?”

And, in a Chaordic-minded organisation, it’s highly unlikely that this conversation would ever even be necessary, as the need for change, the enrolment of people, and the whole nine yards, would be an integral part of daily business-as-usual.

– Bob

Further Reading

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall Rosenberg
Empowerment: The Emperor’s New Clothes ~ Chris Argyris

  1. Thank you!

    This blog post fills me with bliss! I hope this kind of leadership/followship will be my reality some day.

    Have a wonderful day!


  2. Friend was recently subject to the following:

    0. There are only 3 jobs in your department
    1. All 4 of you clear out your desk
    2. Come back at the end of the week for a beauty contest run by people who’ve never worked with you (i.e. a pretend recruitment panel that you will never see again).
    3. On the day of the beauty contest you aren’t supposed to talk to the other victims/contestants
    4. We will make you all wander around the town for a couple of hours, call you in alphabetically, and tell you if you are beautiful enough to keep your job.

    The last guy was the one they didn’t want.

    I am amazed he didn’t clock the brand-new senior manager who thinks the way to reward 20 years of service is an apprentice style public humiliation. Utterly amazed. And I’m a non-violent Buddhist 🙂 It would have been fun to see it come out in court and plead extreme provocation.

    Needless to say, the team are really motivated after this and are all going out of their way to go the extra mile (to the pub). 😉

    This happened in a public sector organisation that has signed up to all of the box ticking government initiatives. Investing in people, I think it’s called.

    I wish more people think the way you think. “If we have to change, let’s work on this together and if someone has to leave then we will make sure that they understand their efforts were valued and we will help them to move on”. And, of course _mean it_. In some cases cutting the manager instead of the troops saves a hell of a lot more money, if that’s the sole reason for losing people.

  3. Forgot to add that, the poor guy was left really traumatised by this event and had to battle with a really bad blow to his self esteem. Undeserved blow.

    • Hi Francis,

      Thanks for sharing this sad, sad story. Not only can I believe it, but have seem similarly incredible (to me) behaviours on some number of occasions. Yet, let’s not vilify the manager in question, but rather ask: “What needs did he/she have that were going unmet? And what caused him/her to choose this way of meeting those needs?”

      My commiserations to all concerned. 😦

      – Bob

      • Unfortunately the manager has a rep for this, he’s known as a slash and burn cost cutter type, sadly. He gets brought in to cut costs by more senior types. But the principle of standing up and saying “let’s talk, let’s act like adults”, is a sound and humane one.

  4. In my experience, non-violent change often happens more easily bottom-up than top-down. If a culture is set where people trust each other, recognise similarities and see each other’s strengths, nonviolent change will be much easier. However, most change initiatives are driven top-down.

    What can we do to initiate top-down, nonviolent, effective and lasting change? My first thought would be on leaders being an example: Being open, transparent, welcoming initiatives, and appreciating what the people are doing in their company?

  5. The only question: don’t you think that nonviolent change might be too long sometimes and some companies or teams need surgery and no mercy?
    Or do you think it’s still worth doing in a softer way, because it pays off in a long run?

  6. John Jolley said:

    Excellent post! I hadn’t read Wink before but plan on checking his books out.

  7. ACM said:

    Right here is the right webpage for anyone who wishes to understand this topic. You know so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I personally will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic which has been discussed for ages. Excellent stuff, just wonderful!

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