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!