Friends, omens, contrary men - RSA

Friends, omens, contrary men

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  • Behaviour change

One reason for inertia is hard to break down, two can feel insuperable.

I once had a friend who wore me out. When we met in our favourite pub in Battersea I would ask him how he was. The answer invariably was long and gloomy. He was tired, stressed, put upon, lacking joy in his life. When eventually he had finished, I felt it was my role to offer some advice.

But when I suggested he change his job, give up some of his volunteering work, take up online dating, his tone would change. ‘I guess so’ he would say to my practical suggestions before concluding, without a flicker of self-awareness, much less irony, ‘but things are OK really’. I’ve had similar interactions with other friends and relatives but he was the worst. I started making excuses and we drifted apart.

The other day I was reminded of my old mate. It was in a discussion with a colleague about a project the RSA is undertaking with a local authority (let’s call it ‘Anytown’). The project – based on our adaptation of a North American methodology - is to support a group of public sector leaders to set a transformative goal and to engage the wider community in working towards that goal. But progress in Anytown has been slow and I was interested to know why.

‘The problem’ my colleague said ‘is this: half the time the Anytown leaders doubt whether they could achieve transformative outcomes while the rest of the time, when pressed to commit to action, they say they’re not sure the place actually needs to change that much. Given we are only at the stage of committing to change it doesn’t auger well’.

As I listened I couldn’t help recalling my old friend leaning forward over his pint with a frown and then leaning back with a shrug.

My engagement with various group therapy techniques has taught me that most of us are committed to a powerful narrative which we rely on when we want a reason not to do the things we suspect we should. The content varies from person to person but its form is universal; ‘it’s hard being me so that’s why I can’t……’.

Our work with organisations and professions in trouble has taught me they too tend to harbour such a narrative; ‘it’s hard being an MP so I should be able to have a few extras’; ‘it’s tough being a police officer so we have to cover up our failings’; ‘because our shareholders are so demanding we can’t act responsibly for the long term’.

These defences are strong but once named they can be challenged. But my erstwhile friend and the leaders of Anytown reveal that even stronger than a single narrative is a kind of exculpatory homeostasis. The first line of defence against the case for change is that it’s too hard (so to demand it is unreasonable or unrealistic), but when this is threatened a second front can be opened; ‘actually things aren’t really so bad anyway’ (so change is unnecessary). To their puzzlement and ultimate frustration, anyone making the case for change finds that just as they have broken one defence, the other comes into play.

I gave up on my friend but we aren’t going to give up on Anytown. I’m not sure what the solution is. Perhaps it involves juxtaposing the two narratives, identifying their mutual contradictions so that the only way out of the resulting cognitive dissonance is for the leaders to leap out of their comfort zone and commit to think and act differently. Wish us luck!

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  • Dear Matthew, 

    Thanks for your reflections. I agree that supporting change and transition is both an art and a science.  The rule of thumb I work with is that it takes at least 17 years for habituated patterns on deeply held beliefs i.e. "I am a member of this Zionist Church", "I am a coal miner", to get to the place where the individual mind starts to allow in the new 'identity'.  

    'Who I am' is deep.  However when one can handle the natural fear, anger, guilt, frustration, loneliness, stuckness and confusion, as a natural expression of deep human change and facilitate the constructive emergence of new self and group awareness, and replace the 'future social void' with something meaningful, then stuff happens.  With such an approach I have heard many voices express the awareness of the time to move on: "I can now brush the coal dust from my shoulders"; "it was like having a veil lifted from my eyes". 

    It is possible to take the energy of an apparent irrational inertia and free an individual or group to create meaningful and highly creative futures. Of course history is littered with examples of patterns of such change when crisis or common enemy triggers a collective response, and the constraints of the present are relaxed to allow greater behavioural flexibility.  There are many examples around the last Foot and Mouth outbreak, The 1995 Yorkshire Drought, The Lockerbie Disaster.  And of course once the crisis is past the organisations / society slip back into their peace time mode, much as you describe the inertia in your article.

    What is rare is successful intentional change that can handle the presenting complexity without creating unintended consequences that ultimately make the situation worse! Most present day solutions (methods) succeed in doing this that result in nothing more than palliative care that follows a surge of 'smileys'; And there are some initiatives, some new thinking, that can shine a light into these seemingly intractable situations.  These are typically led by history's heretics who dared to challenge the 'established truth' with a 'new truth' on their pathway to later become the hero's who saved the day! Buckminster Fuller, or William Smith ("the father of Modern Geology") are great examples.

    So how do we find the thinking, methods, practices, and applications that will achieve the RSA Mission: "enriching society through ideas and action" from a standpoint that "We believe that all human beings have creative capacities that, when understood and supported, can be mobilised to deliver a 21st century enlightenment".

    My view is that all that is needed is out there waiting to be used of only we knew how!.  For example...

    M Scott Peck offered a simple but meaningful reframe:

    “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

    ― M. Scott PeckThe Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth

    One of the signatures of 'thought leadership' for the 21st Century Enlightenment will be the demonstration of new capacities for 'acceptance' that is underpinned by a sense of the magnificence of existence of all life. Here is an era transitioning awareness; An acceptance of paradox and apparent contradiction underpinned by a 'stratified awareness' that can see and legitimise the multiple simultaneous truths of today, yet is aware of and inspired not only by the truths of tomorrow, but the truths that will form bridge between the world that is and the world that will be.

    Perhaps the truth that we are avoiding today is that most of what we believe to be true is wrong! Overall society still educates, trains, facilitates, and strategises based upon past certainty - often a dogmatic, rigid perpetual regressive search for safety, self expression, security, independence, equity and belonging.  With stratified acceptance myopic certainty is tempered with a humility that perhaps we have much to learn especially when working with nature; both human and biospheric.

    In my view here lays an expansive psychological space of the art, science and practices of human transition, that the RSA could embrace.

    Oh! and for any-town. They can become only what they can next naturally become! Which is likely to be way more than any-other-town if the are facilitated with one foot in the way the world is and one foot informed by new era thought leadership. Choose your methodology carefully!

    With warm regards.