Virtuous Circles aka Reinforcing Loops

In September 2014, BlessingWhite’s article Satisfaction and Contribution: the Virtuous Circle  proposed that the more satisfied a person is, the greater their level of contribution. And it is a two-way street: the greater a person’s level of contribution, the more highly satisfied they are. When the highest levels of satisfaction and contribution are both present, engagement is maximized.

The UK’s Engage for Success movement published The Evidence: Wellbeing and Engagement in May 2014.  In the US and more recently around the world, Gallup and Healthways  are championing the same basic message: without wellbeing, people cannot fully engage. Without high engagement, people will not achieve their greatest potential level of wellbeing. One is not sustainable without the other. Our overall social health…the sustainability of our way of life…is also on the table.

Twenty years ago (can that be possible?!), Peter Senge introduced us to his thinking on reinforcing loops and other system archetypes in The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.  Systems thinking has gone mainstream, one proponent being Gene Bellinger who published a systems thinking website in 2004. He offers this description of the reinforcing loop, also known as the virtuous circle or cycle, and its evil twin the vicious circle.
“A reinforcing loop is one in which an action produces a result which influences more of the same action thus resulting in growth or decline. If a reinforcing structure is producing a desirable result it is generally referred to as a virtuous cycle. When this happens there is a tendency to ignore it and let it go. This is a mistake, as nothing grows forever. When everything is going just the way you want it to that’s the best time to be concerned about how to ensure it continues going the way you want it to.
When a reinforcing structure is producing an undesirable result it is …a vicious cycle. The best way to deal with a vicious cycle is to find a way to break one of the feedback loops so the structure can no longer reinforce itself.
…. Because of the manner in which this structure reinforces itself it generally produces an exponential growth or decline. This exponential change may be unnoticeable for a period of time until it reaches a certain threshold. The structure then seems to change very rapidly causing one to wonder how it began all at once, when in fact it really didn’t. The growth just wasn’t substantial enough to be noticed.”

The premise of The Greater Good is based on the virtuous circle, a reinforcing loop. It is a broader application of a well-established model. Organizations and individuals coexist within a social system. Organizational and individual values and overall wellbeing reinforce each other and together make up society’s fabric, for better or worse.

It’s too simple and it’s too common sense, yet there are major ramifications for individuals and organizations, and for society. It’s good business for an organization to maximize their employees’ engagement levels, and to be actively involved in improving the health of the social system upon which the organization’s future depends. If you really think about it, this has got to be among the most essential sustainability strategies that truly matter.

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