Throughout my life, I have worked with people and organizations, studying and trying to help them produce change and then measure its impact validly. After 75 years of life, I feel like I have put my time to good use and learned a lot, not only about systems – how they work at the cellular, mid-level and big-picture levels, and what best promotes change within them – but also about the importance of meaning… what makes people feel like what they’re doing is meaningful.
I have learned that people in retirement want good health, passion, purpose, and joy or contentment. I discovered that people at younger ages want passion, purpose, and joy, too. More than a paycheck.
I started interviewing people in their early 50s. They had started out wanting money, power, and status, but their values changed as they faced their limited time on Earth. Now, they wanted passion and meaning as well. Even millennials, I learned, wanted meaning in addition to money from their work.
Sadly, as I began to ask countless people in a multitude of workshops how many of them had achieved these things, the percentages were astoundingly low. About 15% believed they had passion in their lives; 20-25% had found a sense of purpose; and only around 30% had achieved contentment.
So, I decided to write an ongoing column structured for your questions and designed to bring together three primary concepts: How to have an impact or create positive change, find personal meaning, and sometimes even make money doing it. In the column, we will spotlight new and existing opportunities for community impact – what’s out there and what can be done to achieve these goals. We will introduce and discuss innovative processes and new tools to balance individual fulfillment and capital needs in the world of “causes,” plus impact investing avenues and other ways to influence/create change.
Why start with our own community? Because with our society’s financial and political problems change now has to happen from the bottom up. Real change is deeply personal. Built on clarity and trust, it depends on strong relationships.
To begin the column, I recently had a conversation where this question arose:
Question: I feel powerless to change the system I’m in. I can manage my schedule, desk, board meetings, responsibilities, and leisure time. But it has stopped feeling (or maybe it never did feel) like enough. One day blends into the next, and eventually they all start to feel the same. Similarly, I donate time and money to a good cause, thinking I’m helping, but the world’s or community’s problems remain the same. The ironic paradox is that life continues to move faster, we have access to tools that have never existed before, and yet the core of humanity’s problems never seem to change in any permanent way. Any suggestions?
Answer: Here’s an allegory about the nature of “powerlessness.” Three men and one woman are tasked to get a heavy cart up a hill.
• Sam wants to pull the cart up the hill. He’s convinced that that’s the only way to accomplish the assignment.
• Sarah wants everyone to push the cart. She’s convinced that success lies in everyone pushing together.
• Stephen is focused on the issue of who’s going to get the most credit for completing the challenge. Unless he can find a way to get nearly all the credit, he won’t help push or pull.
• Mike is angry because the others treat him like a second-class citizen. Consequently, he has decided to only give the “appearance” of effort.
Sadly, they all feel powerless and the cart remains at the bottom of the hill. No change. Four intelligent people trapped in an emotional bog. What’s the underlying problem? They lack trust in one another, and thus the ability to communicate and cooperate. They are not truly a team. When the basic essentials of a relationship break down or are missing, everyone feels powerless.
Notice what has changed in our society over time:
• In 1980, all measures of trust and organizational identification dropped from a stable 60-70% to 20%. Why? Organizations adopted a “commodity model” for themselves. Everything from the organization itself to its parts and pensions can now be “bought and sold” like commodities. Loyalty to employees has disappeared. No longer able to count on anything from their employers, employees’ careers have become a hop-scotch of stress and job insecurity as they move through multiple organizations. Trust in organizations overall has declined significantly. One lie made under such a weakened system and trust is lost forever.
• Similarly, if the organization exists solely for the bottom line, if people are exploiting the system or the customer, if the work isn’t for some social good or higher purpose, there is little or no meaning in the job. Under such circumstances, why should employees cooperate with one another? Why should they feel motivated? Why shouldn’t they get frustrated and mad? No matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, feelings matter.
• Now consider how few employees meet face to face anymore. They only relate electronically. Locked in an unending dance with their phones and computers, one has to wonder if they might just as well be standing in front of a mirror seeing, hearing, and sensing only their own words, feelings, and point of view. What does that do to relationships?
• Further, there has been a huge loss of trust in society.
• The book Bowling Alone was a study of trust. Published in 2000, it showed a large deterioration of trust and societal participation, using as a major example the fact that people used to bowl in leagues and increasingly now bowl alone.
• Since then, almost every institution of society has seen both a large drop in participation and more human isolation.
• One of my own organization’s studies showed that almost 50% of employees are significantly anxious, depressed, abusing or addicted to a substance. A lot of people around you are in significant distress.
What can be done?
1. Work on yourself… Are you trustworthy? Are you empowering others? Where are you adding to the problem needlessly? We have become a society of blamers.
2. Try to remember that the other person is trying to find happiness, too, in their own uncertain, powerless way.
3. Remember that trust and relationships have to be built. No one owes it to you to be concerned about what you want. You must earn their trust as much as they must earn yours.
4. Don’t jump quickly, either personally or in organizations, from distrust to trust. Trust is a big issue. It needs to evolve:
• Stage 1 – “Safety trust”: Can I trust that I am safe with you and this organization physically, emotionally, psychologically, and financially? Similarly, are others safe with you? Are you willing to tell the truth (and fact-check) or will you spread unverified rumors? Remember, you’re just as responsible for establishing “safety trust” as everyone else.
• Stage 2 – “Inclusion trust”: Can I trust that I will be included and treated respectfully in your or this organization’s inner circle?
• Stage 3 – “Acceptance trust”: Can I trust that I will be accepted and valued by you or this organization despite my differences, strengths, and weaknesses?
• Stage 4 – “Inspiration trust”: Can I trust that if I put a lot of creative energy and effort into what we’re doing together, you will “have my back” and I won’t end up feeling used or disappointed?
5. Learn to rise above fear and greed in all of their subtle manifestations. They blind us from clarity and keep us from seeing how to create change. We are all prisoners of our own perceptions and beliefs. We developed those through our families and life experiences, where we felt like a victim or a privileged person. Our experiences shape us. Our fear creates rigid beliefs. Our own personality problems create difficulties for others.
In the end, you have to stop blaming or you’ll never get your power back. You have to find compassion for yourself and others, so you can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. When you blame others, you become blind to how people, relationships and systems actually work. Understanding people and situations better gives you more power.
Please write to me about specific situations where you personally feel powerless and I will attempt to respond. We will keep your name anonymous. Maybe together we can get that cart up the hill. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.