change makes fools of us all
Reading Time: 10 minutes (ashutosh nandeshwar.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, I’ve had evangelicals’ inability to change on my mind. It’s been reminding me powerfully of an episode from my past. See, an evangelical co-worker of mine tried to use his tribe’s strategies for avoiding a big change in our workplace. And the attempt backfired catastrophically. Today, let me show you what his strategies involved, how they failed, and how his attempt predicted what his tribe decided to do in the modern age to avoid cultural change.

change makes fools of us all
(ashutosh nandeshwar.)

(Set your Wayback Machines for about 2004.)

An Evangelical’s Evangelical.

‘Frank’ (not his real name) could have been considered an evangelical’s evangelical. He epitomized and personified his tribe as a whole. Built like a refrigerator with a salad spinner on top, his entire way of life could be summed up as the “Tradition” song from Fiddler on the Roof.

YouTube video

(1971) Fiddler on the Roof

To introduce this 1971 movie’s famous song, Tevye explains that he and his townsfolk are a lot like a fiddler who plays music while balancing on a steep rooftop. The rooftop represents his village, while the music represents the villagers’ attempts to survive and thrive. And, Tevye tells us grandly, they maintain their balance on that metaphorical rooftop through tradition.

During the movie, Tevye draws upon his village’s religious and cultural traditions to solve (what are to him as a pre-Bolshevik-Revolution Russian Jew) modern-age problems. He doesn’t always succeed very well in this balancing act, because those traditions don’t play nicely with modern sensibilities. But overall, he muddles through. I mean, he only severs ties with one of his three rebellious young-adult daughters. That’s pretty good, for someone who prizes tradition like he does.

Frank was a lot like that. He wasn’t overtly preachy about his religious beliefs, but he allowed his ultra-conservative opinions to roam freely. As well, he wore occasional evangelical-swag T-shirts (you know, the kind with ripoff corporate logos and Jesus Juke slogans) and made sure to disapprove visibly at anyone who wasn’t living according to his tribe’s rules.

And Y’all, Frank Knew EVERYTHING.

Frank was much older than the average call-center employee, probably in his late 40s. He made sure people knew two facts very soon after meeting him:

First, that he didn’t work there because he needed the money. Nope. He and his wife operated a struggling little retail business in their faraway hometown. It involved quick printing or uniform embroidery or something like that, something that a teeny-tiny little Idaho town couldn’t possibly support well enough to make its existence worthwhile for its owners. Regardless, they were entrepreneurs, y’all. Five days a week, Frank commuted all the way to our call center for just one reason: to gain health insurance for himself and his wife. That was it. Health insurance was his only reason for working there. His presence there had nothing to do with the paycheck itself. He lowered himself by doing it.

We needed to remember that Frank was entirely too good for this job.

Second, Frank knew absolutely everything about every aspect of his job, the company, its products, and their operation. I mean, strangely enough, the guy escalated more supervisor calls up the chain than the rest of our team combined (his condescending, arrogant attitude sparked most of them). And his technical answers to customers’ questions was, to say the least, creative. But he loudly insisted any time the topic came up that he knew everything. He constantly criticized the company leaders’ decisions.

I’m sure Frank thought it was just mind-blowing that nobody in management had yet recognized his genius to promote him to the company’s C-suite.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Like maybe does it remind you of a certain religious group?

The Big Change.

Like most companies operating with narrow profit margins, ours tended to lurch from business strategy to business strategy.

Call centers often change priorities and strategies on a dime and with no notice at all to their workers.

One month, they care about handle time. But lowering handle time tanks customer-satisfaction scores. It also tends to significantly raise unnecessary product replacements under warranty (because who’s got time to muddle through all the busy-work steps in the troubleshooting guide)?

So the next month, suddenly managers now prioritize customer-satisfaction scores — which tends to utterly tank handle time. Or they’ll introduce sales quotas for some new product they’ve just released, which tanks handle times and satisfaction scores.

Even ideal call-center employees, as a result, can feel a bit adrift sometimes as strategies quickly change around them.

And when authoritarian employees like Frank get presented with a big change they need to make, it’s doubly difficult for them to make that mental and behavioral shift.

Frank’s Objections.

Remember, Frank hailed from a tiny Idaho town. Predictably, he was as hidebound-traditionalist as someone could possibly get, even before considering his religious inclinations.

So when the word came down in a team meeting that the company had decided everyone needed to use a new opening script on every call, Frank got very upset.

The greeting was, I think, a good idea. Instead of asking customers how they were doing today or what was up in their lives, we just asked them what they needed us to do. It got right to the point of the call, showed concern for their time, and all that other good stuff. After all, very, very few people call a call center to engage in a free-ranging open conversations about their personal lives. They call for a purpose, and they want to be done as quickly as possible so they can go about their day.

But Frank did not like this new script. No, he did not like it at all!

Instead, he preferred the chitchat opening he’d been using for years. He squinted angrily as he growled out his objections to the new opening script: it was too transactional, felt forced, blah blah blah.

I can’t remember Frank’s stirring speech in the meeting anymore, but I can tell you that he made his position very clear:

He would not be using this script. Instead, he would continue to use the opening he’d always used.

This refusal, too, should sound familiar.

The Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object.

Elmo, our manager (a meek, sweet older Mormon guy who had a huge fascination with expensive wristwatches), tried to reason with Frank. Yes, it was silly, he said. Yes, it was a huge change. But it’s what the company wanted. They were serious. This looked like it’d be the new normal for quite some time. Refusal to use the script would seriously impact Frank’s scores on quality-assurance tests (QAs).

Poor Elmo might as well have been trying to reason with a stump deeply rooted in the wintry ground. Frank sat there with a dour, grim, set-in-stone scowl, his arms crossed across his barrel chest.

The meeting ended. Elmo slumped out of it with a defeated look. Frank strode out like a soldier heading for a battle, his eyes still narrowed.

Over the next weeks, Frank indeed continued to use his favored opening on calls. The rest of us complied with the new orders, and we saw improvements in both handle times and customer demeanor. Meanwhile, Frank continued to throw endless escalated calls up the management line and his handle times soon outpaced the team’s shrinking average.

Frank continued to insist that his opening was much better than the company’s new required opening.

And this insistence, too, should sound familiar.

The Come to Jesus Meeting.

After Frank got QA’d and scored something like 20/100 for the third time, Elmo pulled him into a serious meeting. Since I worked near Elmo’s desk, I heard almost everything.

He handed Frank copies of the past three QAs. Most of his dismal scores came from Frank’s mishandling of the start of his calls — though some of the scores’ dings came from his abrasive engagement style.

Elmo let Frank listen to the calls that QA had captured, and showed him how the new opening could have saved a lot of time and eased upset customers’ frustration by showing them that they’d reached an agent who was on the ball. He showed Frank that those results had, indeed, come to other agents who’d adopted the new opening.

In response, Frank folded his arms across his chest again and scowled.

Absolutely baffled by now, Elmo asked, “But why? Do you seriously just think the company will change again?”

Frank, of course, nodded. “They always do.”

“They won’t this time. Even if they do, it won’t be in time for you to save your job. You’ll be let go long before that.”

“No, I won’t,” Frank replied.

After that conversation, Elmo put Frank on a disciplinary path.

Frank refused to sign the paperwork for it. In his opinion, he’d done absolutely nothing wrong or incorrectly. He insisted up and down — every day, in fact — that his customers vastly preferred his call handling techniques. And he fully expected the company to make another lurch back to chitchatty call-opening scripts well before anyone absolutely had to adopt their more to-the-point script.

The Big Confrontation.

Another month went by, and Frank predictably bombed another three QAs. We were now two months into this required script. Everyone else was using it just fine. It’d had noticeable good impacts on customer satisfaction and handle times. Even people who’d freaked out over the change at first had gotten used to it.

Frank, however, still refused to adopt it. His handle times and QA scores looked worse than ever.

Elmo pulled him over to his desk for another official conversation.

They argued a bit more about the disciplinary path and the new QAs. Then, Elmo said something I will never forget.

“Frank,” he pleaded, “what do you imagine you’re actually accomplishing here? Do you think you’re going to lead some big rebellion against [Company Name] that will end in a big parade in your honor, and everything will be what you want from then on? Do you think of yourself as the grand leader of this rebellion against an opening script?”

Frank just glowered at him.

Now at the end of his managerial rope, Elmo sighed. A moment passed. He asked, “Are you just not ever going to do this? Tell me now, so I can save time for both of us.”

Frank said flatly, “I will not ever do this.”

The statement hung in the air.

From my desk nearby, I felt every muscle in my body tense up. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person overhearing this conversation, or waiting to hear what Elmo would say in reply.

Turns Out, Frank Was Wrong.

“Okay,” said Elmo. “Let’s get your separation papers started.”

Frank’s eyes widened.

For the first time, an expression that wasn’t smug condescension crossed his face.

It was quite clear that Frank had not expected this outcome — especially from Elmo, who wasn’t ever what I’d ever call a confident or confrontational person. (In retrospect, I suspect that Elmo was operating on higher-up instructions here.)

The two of them got up to head for the Human Resources (HR) department. Some time later, Elmo returned alone. He looked sad.

I’m sure Elmo hadn’t personally liked Frank much. Nobody did. If you imagine the phrase “user-cuddly,” Frank habitually functioned as its polar opposite.

That said, this must have felt like the most pointless firing of all time to my kindhearted manager.

Neither Elmo nor I really understood what had made Frank stick to his guns on this silly script. As a result, we could not possibly understand why Frank would want to resist this change to the extent that he obviously had.

But I do now.

Sidebar:

Y’all, It’s Actually Not Easy to Get Fired From Most Call Centers.

What’s so wacky about Frank’s firing is that call centers can be notoriously difficult to get fired from.

If workers show up on time and reliably for every shift, are at their desks taking calls consistently for all of the times they’re scheduled to do so, and avoid using slurs or profanity on calls, they’ll find employment for life — no matter what else they do, just about.

Here’s a short list of stuff I’ve personally heard or seen call-center workers doing that did not get them fired:

  • Leaving a giant half-full bottle of vodka in the women’s bathroom. Then, returning to retrieve said bottle while security was investigating the situation.
  • Turning off all the DVRs of a major pro sportsball player’s home (repeatedly, on one of his game days). Same center: keeping tabs on the porn purchases of a major movie star’s account.
  • Describing their naughty bits in great detail to a customer.
  • Engaging in phone sex on a night-shift technical call with a customer, while the rest of the team listened and cheered.
  • Hitting “mute” to sling slurs and profanities at a caller — but the mute wasn’t actually working and so his customer heard everything. (Rule #1: DO NOT EVER TRUST THE MUTE BUTTON. It wants to get you fired.)
  • Claiming to be a landscaping worker, not a trained tech at all.
  • Telling a clearly disturbed customer that her computer monitor’s built-in camera microphone was there so the manufacturer could beam thoughts into her head.
  • Inventing an Excuse of the Day to use on every call. Same guy also invented an Accent of the Day.
  • Failing required drug screening tests (for the entire call center as a whole).
  • And This Guy Almost Got Away With It: Stealing a customer’s credit card number to use at a local bar to buy drinks. The bartender ratted him out.

Seriously. Knowing what I know about call centers, I think it’s amazing that anybody actually ever calls these places.

So the company in today’s story very clearly was very upset about Frank’s refusal to adopt their new script.

Frank’s Hill to Die On.

I was still years away from really unpacking my time as a fundagelical, and I didn’t really understand authoritarians like I kinda do now. So I didn’t understand then why Frank put his foot down so hard on this relatively minor change.

That required opening script became Frank’s hill to die on.

Back then, I didn’t realize that this change attacked the very core of Frank’s arrogance, entitlement, and narcissism. Even more than that, this script change decidedly affirmed his status as a lowly worker drone who had to obey a lot of other people above him along the chain of command.

In a lot of ways, his inability to change his opening script was his culture-war idol. Just as fighting LGBT rights and women’s self-ownership hits at the heart of everything evangelicals hold dear about themselves, his opening script represented a lot more to Frank than just a shift in words.

A big part of his self-image was that of the totally successful entrepreneur and savvy self-made businessman who totes understood people and ran his own life the way he liked best. No way would he ever make any changes that might contradict that self-image. He wanted our call center to pretend, along with him, that he ran his job and made every call related to it.

But real life didn’t play along with his workplace delusions — just as it is not playing along with the delusions of evangelicals.

Making Up the Difference With Power.

Frank couldn’t push through his delusions at our call center because he did not possess any power in that context. He couldn’t make the mental and emotional shift from complete power over his little retail business back home and significantly less power relating to his call-center drone job. No, he wanted to exercise complete power in both places. And just as he was always right about how he handled his hometown job, he had to be always right in how he conducted his second job’s duties.

If Frank possessed real managerial power at this job, he could have continued with this attitude. But he didn’t. Without real power, he couldn’t maintain his illusions of grandeur.

Neither can today’s evangelicals.

Frank was wrong about just how deep a particular change went and how important it was and how long he could refuse to adjust to it, evangelicals are also wrong about how long this shift will last and what’ll happen if it ever does end up changing again.

Without real power, evangelicals’ strategy for handling cultural change will backfire on them just like it did on this evangelical guy at my old workplace. And they won’t even know what hit ’em when that backfire begins in earnest.

NEXT UP: Yet another literal Nahtzee ended up in the news locally. And I wasn’t even half surprised to learn what his daddy does for a living. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the completely unsurprising connection between modern evangelicalism and a terroristic political movement that just won’t die out. See you tomorrow!


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(The company discussed in this post is the same main one I alluded to in “Leaping From Floe to Floe.”)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...