Youth and middle age
So, what I've seen is this. As people begin their careers, or periods of involvement with an organization (as employees, volunteers, even customers), they start out telling fairly uniform stories.
Many of the stories by younger people display an abundance of energy but little power. These stories could display frustration at the situation, but often they don't because they don't show a strong desire, involve big challenges, or demonstrate an obligation to make a difference. Nor do they involve knowledge to carry out complicated plans. These stories are involved and sometimes passionate, but loosely, contingently, experimentally so.
Engagement and detachment
At this point the dynamic splits and one graph becomes two. At some point in middle age, the stories diverge into two groups. The people don't split into two groups; but the mixture of tendencies expressed in their stories shifts as people get older. I've taken to calling the two sets of stories:
- engaged stories about people (usually their tellers) doing things in the organization, and
- detached stories about people (usually their tellers) dealing with the things other people do in the organization.
Detached stories, on the other hand, show a decrease in power as well as energy. You might think this would increase frustration further, but the reverse happens. These stories are all about pulling away, giving up, learning helplessness, reducing desire and avoiding obligation. Evidence of knowledge continues to grow, but not at the same pace as in the engaged stories, because the stories are largely devoid of challenge. These stories aren't always negative; sometimes they are just about people showing practical sense in a world they can't control. But there is definitely less positive energy here than in any of the other story sets.
I've noticed some places along the sets of curves where I think organizations might release untapped energy based on these observations. Points one and two are the same in both graphs (because the graphs are the same up to the middle point), and points 3a and 3b refer to only one group of stories.
A crazy idea for harvesting cliff plums: Mix interns with regular employees, but don't label them as interns. Give them titles that don't sound temporary, so that people don't reflexively discard their ideas. Involve them in the actual infrastructure of the organization. Don't hold special fake-involvement meetings where the interns present their mini-projects and everyone pats them on the head and goes back to "real" work. Don't quarantine them in young-people's meetings devoid of anyone over thirty. Instead of giving them tiny or fake projects to work in, give them real power in real projects. But be prepared to intervene swiftly in case of problems. Instead of having them swim in a wading pool, send them out into the ocean -- right next to a great big ship loaded with rescue equipment.
A crazy idea for draining the swamps of sadness: Tap volunteerism among frustrated do-gooders. Tell people that, say, everyone can leave at three o-clock in the afternoon on Fridays, or they can use that time to work on things they think the organization needs. (3M famously does this, or at least that's what I've heard...) Give people a little freedom and power to do what they think will work. Employees need confidence in the organization as well as in themselves, and it seems to be in the middle ages when this begins to decline.
The hard part of this crazy idea is that to do this, those in charge (those who decide what people will do on Friday afternoons) have to share the organization's vision and values with those under them. And by share I don't mean "tell them about it." I mean let them have some of it. Some people at the top don't want to share the organization's vision because they consider it their vision. I've seen people in power squirm and argue and stalk out when confronted with the possibility that those they have hired and paid might also have hopes and dreams for the organization. In some places it seems almost taboo to mention it. But a factory worker can be just as proud of the car they helped create as its designer, and rightly so. It takes maturity to share an organization with everybody in it, but it pays off.
A crazy idea for walking the mountain paths: Don't make retirement a step change. Make it both a gradual decrease (in time and energy) and a transition to a different sort of contribution. As with interns, don't sequester retirees; keep them deeply involved. But increasingly tap lower-energy reflection and advice while decreasing expectations of energy-consuming production. It's true that younger people will work longer hours for less, and it's true that younger people are more malleable. But the old people know what's what. It's like that old story about the plumber who goes into the factory, taps one pipe, walks out, and sends the factory owner a bill for $50,050. When the owner balks, the plumber explains. Tapping the pipe: $50. Knowing which pipe to tap: $50,000. Don't tire your masters out tapping all the pipes in the factory, but do keep asking them which ones to tap.
When people tell these stories they are like the Beatles' nowhere man, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. The thing is, some of those plans are actually pretty good. Do you remember what Ringo said to the nowhere man in The Yellow Submarine?
Ringo: Hey, uh, Mr. Boob - you can come with us, if you like.A crazy idea for raising the valley: Take your nowhere people somewhere. Literally. Find the people who could contribute to your organization but don't. Ask them to come to a special meeting or lunch or retreat. Discover the desires they hide, the challenges they wish they could approach, the knowledge they may not know they have, the power and confidence that would enable them, the barriers that stand in their way. See if you can reduce the gap between their desire and their (real and perceived) power and confidence so that they can have a positive impact on the organization.
Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD.: You mean... you'd take a nowhere man?
Ringo: Yeah. Come on, we'll take you somewhere.
So there you go. I find thinking of this set of forces that impact motivations to be helpful in my own efforts to get people to do things (don't we all). Hopefully some other people will find it useful as well.