Sustainability, Systems Thinking and Cycle of Mistrust

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Several streams of thought are coming together for me, on a local scale (within a company) but also on a broader (global) scale.

  1. The idea of moving from one world view to another is not new. We wrote a white paper on this topic which cited a number of prominent thought leaders in business, science and philosophy. It seems we are still in the midst of a struggle to let go of what seemed to work in the past, and learn about new principles that will help us to thrive and survive. For instance, moving away from the hierarchy view of the “command and control” world, and realizing the value of viewing the organization (and our world) as a system. Other examples of the outgoing and incoming world view are: less focus on managing the parts, more attention to managing the interactions, less focus on the people (or person) more focus on the process.
  2. People will not just give up their mental models, at least not easily. Fear must be overcome. What causes fear? What is the antidote to fear? It seems that building trust will be critical. When people do not have all of the information, they will fill in the gaps as best as they can. Many times, these gaps are based on negative assumptions about the intentions of others. The “Cycle of Mistrust” described by Kathleen Ryan and Dan Oestriech in their 1993 book Driving Fear Out of the Workplacecontinues to be one of the most useful concepts I have learned. I blogged about the model a few years ago and the model has good utility on both a local and global scale. Here’s a high-level summary: Person “A” (or group A) has negative assumptions about the intentions of Person “B” (or group B). Person “A” demonstrates “self-protective behavior” which is interpreted by Person “B” as confusing, frustrating or irritating behavior. This tends to reinforce the negative assumptions that Person B has about Person A (it works both ways). Person B, in turn, will engage in self-protective behavior which is viewed by Person A as confusing, frustrating or irritating. This only reinforces the original negative assumptions. And the cycle accelerates, faster and faster. What can be done? More listening, less talking (or tweeting, texting, e-mailing). This means increased awareness of how these self-protective behaviors can be interpreted by others as confusing, frustrating and irritating. Try to make positive or at least neutral assumptions about the intentions of others.

We’ve got more work to do in this space – both locally and globally. One thing is certain – leaders set the tone and mood. People will look to leaders to see what behavior is the “norm” and they will tend to imitate that behavior. Will that behavior instill fear, short-term thinking and more of the prevailing style of management? Or will that behavior instill trust, and a long-term and systems view?

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