(this article is a high-level summary of an in-process pdf that is (will be!) linked here: Loops . Please take a look when it’s available and comment. Download the pdf if you’d like but if you share it please leave the contact information intact so people can connect to discuss)
I’ve always been process-focused, a product of an environment in various private sector roles. Focus morphed over the past several years into education and whole-person human development. It was a natural progression to dive into systems thinking, especially causal chains, process interrelationships, reinforcing loops.
Senge took us on a loops deep dive in The Fifth Discipline, exploring all kinds of different archetypes. I was given a copy shortly after its release, and loved it. Systems purists and academics really glammed on to the whole “systems thinking” thing and the resulting gobble dee gook is, in my opinion, a huge roadblock to furthering systems awareness and everyday application.
Loops are closed causal chains: a sequence of events where one thing leads to another, “closed” because the chain eventually links back into itself. Per chaos theory, if you look out far enough any loop is closed. Closed loops are self-perpetuating, or reinforcing: they tighten and gain strength on their own. There are good loops, sometimes called virtuous circles, and there are bad loops-vicious cycles. Bad loops can be straightened out with awareness and action. Good loops can be leveraged and are usually a whole lot more fun!
My big take-away was, simplified here for mortals like me, loops. Add a few key points to go along with those loops. There’s a lot that needs to be learned and accomplished.
- People Needs—social-emotional development, well-being etc—rule the roost, validated by decades of study and data on engagement and impacts on academic and workplace performance data. Can’t optimize “doing things” results without first meeting people needs;
- Human development, personal satisfaction and maximizing performance are interrelated in one big, lifelong reinforcing loop;
- We’ve thrown a monkey wrench into things starting with the way we raise and educate our children, through our adult working lives. Self-imposed authoritarian systems and potential- limiting practices have drastically suboptimized our ability (our right!) to be all we can be.
Big deal, right? Yes it is. We’re causing our own mental and emotional challenges up to and including increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, suicides even among middle school children. Declining social health and spikes in significant social problems: opioid addiction, violent crime including mass murders, and intense rudeness and insensitivity…terminal redneck behavior. It’s fair to say our social fabric is tattered and torn, locally and globally. Emotional well-being, physical health and economic effects of these problems are profound.
Fall 2017 Impacts Profundity Update
We’ve been on a roll. Nationalism, race supremacy…random and planned lone wolf attacks. Most aren’t terrorists on jihad. ISIS is not the only group radicalizing, recruiting, hating. Newtown still wipes me out. And the Vegas slaughter was a whopper. Where do these people come from? Are there no warning signs? Neighbors and relatives said the shooter and his girlfriend were quiet, normal, stuck to themselves. So…why? My opinion: it comes down to chronic disconnection, self-imposed solitude. We’re social creatures and we must reunite with our tribe, badly. But that’s just part of it…..
Late addition, fall 2017: the huge spike in allegations of sexual harassment (see “Kids Bully, Big Kids Harass”)
Is the species simply dumbing down? From Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…
The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance” ―
It’s not just poor education or inadequate preparation for the workplace or not becoming an acceptable member of society. Go back to #2 and #3. We’ve become skilled saboteurs of the loop of development > satisfaction > performance that would potentially ensure we realize our potential.
One major monkey wrench: compulsory education and command and control work environment–authoritarian practices, precision amputation of children’s and adults’ ability to think creatively, to freely explore the world around them, to develop and fully utilize their human capabilities. (see School and Work–One Big Prison System.) We’re posing a substantial threat to our selves and doing irreparable harm, making these issues high priority to address. It’s tough to see the subtle relationships behind these issues without a systems thinking view.
A Loopy Vision: make a positive impact on the greater good, improving social well-being through values-based and environmental interventions in all sectors of the general population: home, school, work, community. (1) Build a broad base of grassroots awareness, support and involvement to ensure across-the-board, all stakeholder engagement. (2) Study, understand and leverage shared motivators, perceptions, attitudes and values that originate with basic human nature. And, (3) realize and leverage the existence of loops to formulate a systemic action plan.
This is nothing but incoherent babbling without first envisioning a systems and loops perspective.
The Greater Good Loop: closed loops connect me and others and connect employers, communities and society. If we are aware of the loops, we can consciously leverage them.
Do you buy into the notion that the Private Self and the Work Self are distinctly separate people? Sorry, it doesn’t even make sense. We’re not two people, we can’t somehow magically switch between them. We’re at work for the lion’s share of our adult lives, so it stands to reason that personal norms and belief systems are impacted by the work environment. And workplace influence does not exist just at work; it carries over to personal, home, social environments. To isolate them is to push any conflict under the surface, but only temporarily. What would really help things is if employers understood the systems relationships and took an interest in making sure there was no opportunity for conflict within its people.
Our work life helps shape our personal lives. A community’s social well-being certainly impacts the workplace, the sustainability of organizations that exist within a community. And a company’s success and results are driven by its internal culture, which is the collective influence of the individuals who work there. These are all two-way streets. Work, society and me: one big reinforcing loop. It may be a virtuous circle, may be a vicious cycle. One leads to prosperity, the other to failure.
Organizational Loops: People Generate Profit (gasp!)
It’s human nature to search for a connection, to belong to something bigger than “me”. An employer is very probably the most influential force in peoples’ lives, just because of the amount of time we spend at work. Organizations and their leaders are capable of exerting significant influence not just on employees, but on the surrounding community through their employees.
Consider the potential of an organization with a strong values base and principles-centered, ethical leadership that helps people feel a sense of purpose, belonging and stability, people with something to care about. Think about the impact on social issues when employees have a strong sense of community, a purpose larger than “me”, a values-anchored island of safety and sanity in the midst of the turbulence around them.
Oh, the bottom line…a company with a winning sustainability strategy has values and principles-based organizational expectations for leaders and followers alike, and sets its sights on being a normalizing force in the community. Doing so beefs up the local talent pool, and the existing workforce is highly engaged. There is an encyclopedia full of studies that validate the direct relationship between level of engagement and performance.
Teaser: it should go without saying: community activism builds a strong democratic society. Later.
What About “Me” Loops?
My work environment and society both continuously shape me, that’s easy to buy. But the thought that it’s a two-way street is a bit tougher to embrace. You’re telling me my company and even society is impacted by me? Only when I mess up really bad! Truth: balanced, personally aligned individuals impact both the workplace and society. A culture and its norms are depend on people with strong values who, by intent or accidentally, impact others. So collectively, we enable culture to survive and thrive. DANGER: this could instead be a toxic culture. Both are self-sustaining, reinforcing loops.
Individual community members are the foundation of society, therefore culture. As the workplace influences people, employers have a direct and significant influence on community social well-being. Employer impact potential is much broader than an individual’s, impacting an entire region’s or even country’s ethical foundation, economic stability, way of life, quality of life. The collective influence of people undeniably shapes company culture. So no matter how insignificant an individual’s impact may seem, the reality is more than a bit humbling:
My values and integrity have direct influence on society’s norms!
There are three levels of proven payback from social-emotional well-being:
- Individuals: less stress and longer, healthier lives with greater personal satisfaction;
- Social problems: well-being in general is an amazing antidote and it’s preventive vs reactive;
- Companies and the economy overall: a highly engaged workforce is more productive. Oh, and that physical health thing…have you seen the cost impacts of health issues lately?
At least one of these are wildly important things for most of us. They should all be, because of the Me > Community > Employer loop, but it goes deeper. A closer look…
Social Impact: the Greater Good
The main traditional socializing institutions where norms are established and reinforced—church, education, family—have all lost impact on influencing people. Social development and norming are not good to leave to natural evolution, but there is a huge void in the socializing process.
People need a sense of community, of belonging to something larger than they are. The workplace has a chance to reach people on a regular basis and people will gladly embrace what the workplace offers. But it’s the reciprocating nature of influence within our personal and our employer’s virtuous circle that is the scary proposition: how can we as individuals and even a large, powerful company, expect to influence society? The real question:
How much are individuals and companies willing to commit to impacting society?
The potential is limitless but there are both risks and rewards. No company can survive long-term without a vibrant community. No community can exist without solid norms. Communities with staying power eventually become the building blocks of culture. Communities, even entire cultures, without a solid base are destined to crumble and fall. I take that back…what risks? A sure bet?
The workplace influences me, I influence my workplace and environment. The workplace and individual both impact social well-being. We need to better understand the interdependencies, whether we have earned calling them virtuous circles or reinforcing loops. Key components: engagement and well-being; satisfaction and contribution, (maybe explored later in greater depth in TWO: Loops and the Greater Good.)