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.
Great post Cynthia. Intuitively this makes a lot of sense and I can see this pattern where I work. Two things jumped out at me. First, I was disappointed to read early on that this wasn’t based on actual data. Then I instantly jumped to thinking about how to set up a story project to gather this data. These two thoughts spawned the next aha. I am one of those middle people (although new to the territory) – I am still engaged and looking for ways to do things differently. The desire to “prove” this phenomenon, at least within our local context, comes from a belief that the powers-that-be won’t budge unless they see the proof. However, I am not certain this is true. The real issue seems to lie in the heart of two questions, “what am I budging from?” And, “what am I budging to?”
My desire for the “proof” follows the thought that understanding what we are budging from would be adequate to get the motion flowing. However, without a clear idea of what we are budging to creates a sense of anxiety. In my experience people are far more likely to dismiss evidence that their current position is wrong in order to maintain that position when no clear alternative is present. Likewise, when a clear alternative is present that “appears” better than the current position, people will abandon whole heartedly in the new direction without the need for evidence. It’s like the person that moves from one toxic relationship to another. The new relationship seems shiny and new! However, things quickly devolve into the status quo and the toxicity flows again.
Organizations will recreate the same thing over and over despite the idea du-jour. Predictability has taken such a privileged position in our society. Managing complexity is fine…so long as we can predict the outcome (yes, that is an oxymoron). We often cite the notion that there is “no need to reinvent the wheel.” There are many occasions where I would agree with that notion, but there are times when we need to reinvent the wheel. Or perhaps a more nuanced position would be that it is vital we re-invest some of our energy into our understanding of why we need the wheel in the first place. This can lead to more effective and efficient uses of the wheel, new ideas of how to use the wheel, and it opens the door to conceptualize of something entirely different. This can be thought of as outward change fueled by cultural change. The energy emerges from within the culture to affect the outer circumstances. The reverse can happen but the results are less sustainable and often lead to your 3b scenario. The outward circumstances are so powerful that they fuel the cultural change, in essence, “resistance if futile.”
Cultural change fueling outward change holds the most promise in my opinion and it is exactly what attracts me to story work. A story project engages a community into challenging their most inner held beliefs. It can shatter entrenched thinking. And, if done right it doesn’t fill the void with pre-conceived new ideas, but rather the void is reconfigured in new and exciting ways – not necessarily new to the world, but new to that community (or organization). Story work is a great step toward managing complexity. The outcome is not predictable. In fact outcomes get annihilated and replaced with a continuous set of milestones. And, those milestones continually morph as they get constantly reshaped by the simple question – “Is this really what we want?”
Hi Stephen, thanks for the thoughtful comments! The post IS based on actual data; it's just that the data resides in lots of separate projects. Clients very rarely give permission to re-use data outside the original study; and besides, narrative data is highly contextual and can't be mashed together without distortion. What I've written about here is not a single observation but a collection of remarkably and surprisingly similar observations in similar data sets. I don't think it can be taken as proof of anything, but it can provide useful food for thought. I agree that it would be interesting to design a story project to demonstrate the pattern. But I wouldn't bother trying before I did a strong sweep of the literature, because surely SOMEbody has noticed this pattern before.
I like what you said about budging-from and budging-to. The issue this sort of thing always brings up for me is: Why is there always a from and a to? Why is there only room for one position? It's as though people have a belief bin that can hold only one belief at a time. We don't have to be that limited. Why must reinventing the wheel be either all good or all bad? Why must everything switch from being complicated to complex? Why must silos be all bad? Why must we be Republicans or Democrats? Why must the earth be warming or not warming, and not both? Why can't best and worst practices be the same practices? (Because sometimes they are, of course!) If there is one thing I think holds people in our culture (but not in all cultures!) back the most, even more than outward circumstances or sluggish cultural change or entrenched thinking, it's this inability to let ideas stay mixed. It's like we are living in a giant mental centrifuge.
One the one hand, as you point out, proof is a necessity in a world where power rests on fact, or near-universal assumptions thereof. (The philosopher Paul Simon: "Proof is the bottom line for everyone.") Where I find ideas dangerous or wrong, I'm as much in favor of proof as anyone else. On the other hand, it bothers me how competing camps use proof as a bludgeon in battles of will, to the point where it proof is nothing more than identity. And again, why should identity be single and simple?
My favorite quotes on this are the pair from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
"The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
and George Orwell:
"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary."
The first is intelligence, the second doublethink, and you need the whole second quote to see the difference between them. The biggest challenge of my life so far has been to increase the first while reducing the second.
I also like what you said about "is this really what we want" because there is that word "really" again. In story work it keeps coming up. It represents to me breaking through the shell of something, widening out beyond artificial limitations to a deeper reality. So, maybe if we can't find a way to turn off the centrifuge, we can jump out of it, at least sometimes, and see what things look like when they are not so easily separated.
All of which is obviously my opinion not "proof" of anything :) Great talking with you as always!
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