Thriving in a broken system
What can you do when ‘the system’ seems intent on thwarting your best efforts..?
“Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim”. – Graham Greene
In 35 years of poking about in organisations throughout Europe, Asia, and the US, I’ve met plenty of people whose experience of organisational reality was very different from the organisation’s rhetoric.
This leads some to despair, others to cynicism, whilst some manage to thrive despite, or perhaps even because of the gap.
How do these individuals maintain a positive stance, outlook, and attitude when ‘the system’ seems determined, or even designed, to thwart them?
Framing this in the spirit of a new year, three virtues enable individuals to maintain a positive state in circumstances where others become mired in negativity.
Not the naïve, dewy-eyed honesty of simply blurting out whatever’s on your mind.
The honesty that comes from the earnest endeavour to clarify and contribute from what you genuinely believe to be true, based on your own real-world, lived experience.
This kind of honesty is cultivated through reflective self-inquiry, both in action and on action, to gain insight into what you genuinely see, think, and feel matters most – not just to you but in the round.
We can all get influenced by impressive things others write, say and do, but we don’t really know how true they are until we’ve tried and tested them out in our own lives.
Only then do they become part of who we are, and integral to our sense making, decision making and action taking.
There’s a big difference between what we know in this way and what we claim we know because we read it in some book, or it seems coherent, or sounds impressive, or was said by someone famous.
Another way to think of honesty is as the best of yourself that you bring to your actions and interactions.
Of course, developing this kind of honesty takes more time, energy, and attention than simply reading another book, watching another video, or listening to another podcast – although these can be useful sources of material, and even inspiration.
Not the faux humility of a persona deliberately cultivated in the service of impression management.
The humility that acknowledges and accepts that none of us ever has, or ever can have, all the answers, and that none of us can ever see, know, or achieve as much as all of us.
This humility contributes significantly to creating conditions that help others gain insight into what they think and feel matters most.
In other words, your humility helps enable their honesty.
It’s a positive contagion that encourages people you interact with to also cultivate humility, which in turn helps cultivate both honesty and humility in the people they interact with.
These two virtues, honesty and humility underpin the 2D3D mindset at the heart of a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness.1
They enable sense making, decision making & action taking to become ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed throughout an organisation.
As such, they’re two of the main virtues for co-creating maximum value in any organisational community, by helping each of us to bring the best of ourselves whilst simultaneously encouraging others to bring the best of themselves to maximise our combined ability to respond to the escalating and ever changing demands and opportunities of an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.
“That's all well and good” you might say, “but what if I don't work in an organisation that encourages this kind of behaviour. Things just aren't set up that way. The system makes you behave in ways that don't make sense.”
I get that, I really do.
It's pretty much inevitable there’ll be gaps between organisational rhetoric and reality.
Sometimes they’ll seem so humungous to be measurable only in astronomical units.
Which is where a third, decisively important, often misunderstood and maligned virtue comes into play.
What do people do when faced with a significant rhetoric-reality gap?
In our joint paper for the Governance Institute of Australia last August, my colleague Dr Richard Claydon drew on his PhD research on irony as a strategy for living in modern organisations. 2
Richard’s PhD research showed that people tend to react to the gap between the exhorted cultural rhetoric and experienced cultural reality in one of three ways:
Cynicism – disgust at the gap
Apathy – despair at the gap, and
Irony – wry recognition of the gap.
In other words, whilst some people get cynical, angry, and upset at the gap, and others apathetic, despairing, and depressed, some adopt a way of being that enables them and others to remain positive, creative, and resourceful.
The humour with which ironists maintain wry recognition of the gaps between rhetoric and reality is what makes Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoons so popular. 3
It’s why a Monty Pythonesque appreciation of the absurdity of life is so uplifting to the spirit, and why Professor Stephen Hawking was happy to do the voiceover for the 2014 remake of The Galaxy Song (and to run over Professor Brian Cox in the process 🙂). 4
It’s why Shakespeare’s fools have been so popular for centuries – using wit and wisdom to influence change.
Ironic humour is often misunderstood and maligned by the positionally powerful because it challenges the deference they can assume is their due…
Irony is sufficiently subtle and nuanced that Richard was able to write a whole PhD thesis on its role in organisational life.
It also helps explain why it’s been a feature of human communities since the time of ancient Greece.
Those who channel humour into ironic perspectives & performances maximise the chances of improving ‘the system’ and helping close the rhetoric/reality gap.
Just as importantly, ironic humour cultivates a positive, creative, resourceful state that helps maximise wellbeing. Not only through its direct mental health benefits but, as the study of psychoneuroimmunology recognises, also the positive effect on physical health and immunity, especially important in a world of escalating viral variants.
Which raises the question that if irony is so vital in maintaining a positive state in the face of an aspiration / actuality gap, why not just focus on humour?
That’s because without honesty and humility, any humour intended as ironic runs a real risk of sliding into sarcasm – literally “tearing off the flesh” of others.
Humour deployed as a form of violence isn’t going to contribute to the collective sense making, decision making & action taking that’s vital in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.
So, in the spirit of a new year of opportunities to make progress on creating a future-fit culture of innovation, agility and adaptiveness, you could do a lot worse than resolve to bring more honesty, humility and humour into your actions and interactions, and encourage others to do the same.
Not by exhortation, but by example. That’s how virtues work.
Alternatively, you could bemoan the fact that your organisation isn’t how you think it should be, that ‘they’ are to blame, and that ‘they’ need to do something about it.
It’s a personal choice.
And like all choices, it has consequences.
The three minute Galaxy Song remake video with Profs Hawking and Cox is here.