Category Archives: Social Change

Making the Shift – Mysterious Miracles

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I’m intrigued with that hard-to-describe, ever so powerful moment when we decide to act differently than we usually would.  That moment when we break out of our usual routines of thought or action; when we, in a sense, set aside nearly everything that has made us who we are up to that point.  Why do we sometimes choose or allow these shifts, what makes them happen?

For me, that isn’t just a peripheral, mind-games question, but one that has profound impact on my work.  If I’m working with a group on how they approach conflict, talking with a work team about collaborative processes, working with trainers developing workshops, facilitating a group meeting, or designing interactions related to social justice and -isms, all of that work is by necessity predicated on the idea that my intervention may have an impact … that some external stimulus may prompt a change for the people I’m working with.  And because I have the privilege of a fairly high degree of control of my own work and because I tailor each activity to the people I’m working with, I have to think about what may have the most impact for each particular intervention.

I’m no expert on the science of these shifts, but what I’ve noticed, and what seems to be backed up by research, is that lasting change usually comes from both cognitive (thinking) and emotional or subjective processes … being introduced to something new that logically “makes sense” is only part of it.  It seems we’re more likely to change our habitual patterns and behaviors …

  • If people we like or who have influence or power over us adopt the “new” attitude or behavior,
  • If we believe that the “new” attitude or behavior either is intrinsically rewarding (now or in the expected future) or that there would be heavy costs to not changing,
  • If we believe that the “new” attitude or behavior fits in in some way with our values and our image of ourselves.

(See more on motivation in What if … we were motivated to collaborate?.)

So part of what I’m doing when I work with groups is trying to create a setting that both encourages, challenges and supports participants to consider how new ideas fit for them.  How would what I offer change their perceived rewards or costs, how does it work with their existing beliefs and patterns, how does it fit with what others around them might say or do?

Figuring out whether what I do may have the impact I intend isn’t a mathematical equation whose answer I can predict.  What motivates one person or organization to change won’t be the same as what works for another, and I can’t be an expert on whether or how what I have to offer may fit for someone else.  There has to be a certain kind of humility in this work.  To try to force a shift to happen, to manipulate people into un-chosen change, or to insist that the miracle take the form and timing I think it should is hubris – and disrespectful.

Which is why I feel such awe when I’m able to witness a moment where one of these shifts takes place.  There is in that moment a mysterious miracle, a moment when the balance shifts – perhaps in part inspired by something I did (or didn’t do), but most certainly born from some internally created and nurtured seed that has burst into bloom.  A moment when all that had been stacked up against change suddenly tilts, an opening appears, and consciously realized or not, our motivational equations add up differently.  Marvelous, isn’t it?

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Filed under General collaboration, Social Change, Training and Learning

What if .. we were motivated to collaborate?

In our post-election world, it seems challenging to imagine a truly collaborative “working across the aisle” while we collectively grapple with the dismay that half of this country “isn’t like me,” “doesn’t get it,” and “is just wrong.”  (Check out the recent This American Life show on political divides – whew, sobering.)

Makes me think about what motivates people to collaborate, and to consider whether there is anything we can do to strengthen our political resolve to work together with our differences.

Motivation can be based on internal or external factors.  On the internal side, we often feel motivated to do something 1) because it meets a personal need (for example, getting food on the table or doing something that makes us healthy), 2) because it feels good to do it (it’s fun, fulfills a duty, shows altruism, etc.), or 3) because there is a strong sense that a personal need is not being met (for example, unfair working conditions, threats to human rights or pollution of our common resources.)

External motivation usually comes in the form of 1) acquiring or maintaining status (reputation, social connections, etc.), 2) receiving financial compensation or other concrete benefits (for example, getting money or access to services, or cultivating networks that will lead to getting more funding or business in the future), or 3) being included in a group (for example, going along with what we think others are doing or want us to do.)  We may also feel more externally motivated to do something when it seems easy (there are support systems and tools, and the way forward is clear), and when we see leaders doing the same thing.

So, using these factors, how are we doing in the political sphere on the internal and external motivation to collaborate?  Not too surprisingly, the current scene looks discouraging.  In terms of external motivators, the financial pressure to adopt particular policies or practices and the peer pressure to maintain party loyalties are forces working against collaboration.  Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that our elected officials want to maintain their high-status positions, the financial perks, and the potentially lucrative and secure positions they’ll get once their political careers are over … and that those benefits often come at the price of working within the contentious, non-collaborative status quo.

And while there is some potential prestige from working across the aisle, it’s not easy – there aren’t easy channels or venues for cross-party collaboration, and very few political leaders to emulate in that arena.  You could argue that the current threat of a “fiscal cliff” provides some incentive for working together, but it doesn’t sound like that’s resulting in anything more than the same tired, positional soundbites … could it be that the perceived threat isn’t strong enough to inspire collaborative action?

So what’s got me intrigued is whether folks like you and me can do anything to influence politicians’ perceptions of their internal or external motivations to collaborate.  How about recognition or appreciation for any even slightly collaborative action or statement by our representatives, and some fun way of expressing that recognition or appreciation? Depending on who it is, what can we appeal to in order to push for a more collaborative approach … a sense of duty to their constituents, the satisfaction of “helping,” a strong sense of fairness, the reputation as a person who gets things done, etc.?

And on the external side, would a grassroots collaboration campaign diminish or counteract the powerful financial incentives towards the status quo?  What if we made it clear that we wouldn’t re-elect folks who don’t collaborate, that business and other support for their campaigns comes at the price of committing to cross-political divide work?

What if we trained all our young people in the art and science of collaboration, and tested based on our ability to work well on teams and in groups?  What if we awarded an annual collaboration prize, offered scholarships for the study and application of collaborative strategies, created financial incentives for sharing knowledge and using interdisciplinary teams?

What if we made our elected officials mention one thing they liked about their opponent’s proposal before they offered a criticism, made them identify one positive attribute of that opponent, told them they had to check to make sure they’d understood what the other person said and count to three before they responded?

What if we paired up supposed opponents and asked them to draft three options they could live with for every policy challenge?  What if we all had to come up with fifteen options for resolving any problem, without criticizing a one, before we could talk about choosing a solution?

Kind of fun, don’t you think?  I like this “what if” game – it feeds my creativity and inspiration, and yes, it motivates me!  So join the collaboration party – what are your collaborative “what if’s,” what motivates you?

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Filed under Activism, Conflict, Social Change, Working with Groups

“Weak” collaboration?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve seen notices and advertisements for four or five different groups sponsoring events meant to bridge the political divide, to help us get past the polarized talking at each other or so-called debate that has come to dominate our political scene.  (For example, check out On Being’s Civil Conversations Project, based on the important work of Public Conversations Project.)

Healing and hopeful initiatives, these.  Perhaps they will begin to alleviate the despair and sense of powerlessness and disconnection I and others sometimes feel about bringing collaborative approaches to the traditional political arena.  But, my despairing self wonders, “what good is it if the folks who REALLY need this aren’t listening and won’t collaborate?”

I get a related question fairly frequently when I do communication and conflict resolution training – a participant asks, “if I get this “win/win” concept, that’s all well and good, but if the other person doesn’t, how can it work?”  And the question came up in one of my first exposures to the study of conflict.  It was through game theory, looking at the statistical probability that two parties in a conflict will choose to advance their mutual, vs. their individual, best interests … which can lead to the question, won’t my willingness to collaborate cost me all that I hold important?

So that’s it – we fear that moves to collaboration will be seen as weakness, and that moving towards collaboration may make it less likely that our basic needs will be met.

So what makes collaboration worth it, why should we be fostering collaboration in our civic and political life?  Here are a few of my answers:

1) The alternative (competition, aggression, one party wins and the other loses) doesn’t work.  Just look at the current Washington gridlock for a great example.

2) Non-collaboration is inherently unstable and wasteful – there’s always a “loser” who increasingly has little to nothing to lose and every interest in upsetting the current order.  Stability in and of itself may not be an end goal, but if all of our efforts are geared towards either defending or upsetting the current structure, we just can’t be focusing our best attention and resources on creating the kind of world we want to live in.

3) Our world is too complex and interconnected for simplistic “I or my party wins” approaches – with serious and challenging issues like climate change, sustainability, inclusion, violence and war, and (you fill in the blank), we need all hands on deck to contribute their creativity, ideas and most importantly, actions towards solutions.  Whatever solutions (or non-solutions), we ALL will feel the effects.

4) Non-collaboration maintains and creates injustice.  As long as we act as though those with more power will have more of their needs met, as long as bullies and plutocrats get their way, we are all at risk.  And if we put on our blinders and think, oh at least it’s not me, we’re only fooling ourselves – we’re next in line. (Martin Niemoller: “First they came for the ____ and I didn’t speak out, then they came for ____ and I didn’t speak out … and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”)

5) It’s a myth that collaboration means “I get less than what I want.”  More on this in another post, but collaboration means that I express fully what my needs and preferred strategies are for getting those needs met.  You do the same (and I listen carefully, deeply), and we together come up solutions that meet both needs. As a strategy, collaboration is more likely than non-collaboration to help me get my needs met.

6) And more personally, if I live based on my fear, I’m not really living.  That is, if the “other guy” doesn’t want to act like I want her or him to act, should that dictate my approach or actions?  And besides, do I believe myself so powerless that it would be impossible for my collaborative approach to change the situation or the other person’s approach?  Maybe my taking that first collaboration step won’t result in my ideal strategy or outcome … but maybe it will, and even if it doesn’t in the short term, just being as collaborative as I’m able creates the kind of world I want to live in.  And in my experience I’m much more likely to feel good about getting my needs met by acting in a way that affirms everyone’s needs.

Anything you’d add?

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Filed under Conflict, Social Change

Organizations and groups that care

I’ve been talking with various colleagues and friends who believe the organizations or businesses they work with don’t recognize or value their contributions, and more generally that they don’t CARE about them as people in a holistic sense.  Their frustration is not necessarily that they’re not getting paid enough, not getting recognition or appreciation, or not being included – but that they feel powerless to pursue the things they care about, and that their co-workers, supervisors and others not only don’t listen but on some deeper level don’t care that they be satisfied or engaged in activities which are meaningful to them.

An organization is made up of people, and so if we’re acting with some integrity, taking responsibility for the state of our organizations, we each have to look at ourselves and our own role in creating or strengthening a work environment where we and others do (or don’t) feel cared for.  And yet, a group is more than the sum of its individual parts, so it can be tempting to think that our individual reflection and action is meaningless or unsubstantial in the face of the group’s social norms which may seem to preclude caring.  Or that it’s not the purpose of a group to be caring.

Which brings me to a deeper issue … to what degree do groups or organizations or businesses exist for their own purposes or mission, and to what degree do they exist to serve the people who make up those entities?

I’ve mostly experienced working within groups where the organization or business mission is primary .. individual participants or workers or members are expected to toe the cultural or social line in favor of achieving the group’s mission and/or continuing to get the paycheck or other benefits from their work, regardless of what they think about the mission.  So either due to the threat of losing your job or because you agree with the “end” and can accept this group’s “means,” you’ll do what’s asked and go along with a culture that at best de-emphasizes, and perhaps at worst ignores or actively works against, individual employee or member interests or needs.  And if you don’t agree with the means or the end, and you are lucky enough to have other employment options, you’ll move on to somewhere else where you’re willing to accept the rules of their game.

But I worked in one organization where there was quite a different culture, where it seemed to me that the group was created by its employees with a strong desire to serve their needs, and serving those employees’ needs was as (not more) important as serving clients.  So when the organization needed to adapt to new financial circumstances or consider new programming, individuals’ contributions were not just input into “how” to make the change dictated by the organization, but were the substance (the “what”) of what those changes would be.

Even when all the employees might agree that a particular focus or program might help the organization, or that there might be a market for a particular service which would help their mission or financial goals, if no one would feel satisfaction or pleasure in doing that work, it wouldn’t happen (at least at that time).  Don’t get me wrong, the organization is pushing for social change, clear about its mission, and acting in a coherent manner to achieve its mission.  But it’s doing so based on what individuals within the group care about, and the group as a whole cares deeply that its employees feel satisfied and fulfilled.

Is it clear how radical these ideas seem? It’s not just about participatory decision-making (a process), or getting buy-in for something already determined by some other part of the organization or business – it’s a question of how we conceive of the goals and objectives of the groups and organizations we are a part of, and the degree to which individual vs. collective needs and interests are considered in the work of that group.

Food for thought, welcome your comments …

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Filed under Social Change, Working with Groups