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An organization: a place where we progressively learn to take responsibility for the whole

Last updated on June 21, 2017

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Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.

Chinese Proverb

I don’t know the provenance of this quote. I got it from @mr_gadget on Twitter. But I like it.

We follow when

  • We see someone move in a way that is not easily reversed.
  • When others copy.

Our reasoning, if we could call it that, goes something like this.

  • Whatever they have noticed must be really important – well really dangerous.
  • So I had better run too.

The ‘reasoning’ sucks. This is what is happening.

  • We are startled and our startle response unleashes a wave of adrenalin or noradrenalin and we have an overwhelming impulse to run.
  • And so we run.

When we think about what we have just done, we justify our actions by saying that there might have been danger. Well, we justify our actions by what Daniel Kahneman calls anticipating our future remembering selves. We don’t want to look back and say we didn’t move when we should have done. And of we are wrong, we can easily justify ourselves to ourselves because other people were alarmed too.  So running when other people run checks the boxes for the future remembering self.

Reacting in panic is a bad idea; keeping cover is a good idea

But really, some people are volatile rather than observant. They might react in alarm to just about anything and run straight into the jaws of a lion.

Basic military training is geared-up to teaching us not to start running every time we get a fright. We can learn something from the foot soldier. Our job is not to scamper about wildly in all directions but to remain under cover where we won’t get shot at.

My more exuberant character chaffes as the idea of taking cover. It smacks of fear and deprives me of what I like – wide open spaces with distant horizons. So let me develop that idea.

I am able to walk freely and joyfully in my wide open spaces, not because they are there – though that certainly helps.

I can walk in my fields because at a collective level we have institutions that keep us ‘under cover’. We have gun control (this is the UK not the US). We are relatively prosperous and you don’t get mugged (much) in the countryside. We have time (contrary to all the grumbling).

We have safe spaces and though we take them for granted, we keep them safe through collective action.

But can we be too safe?

Of course, people who have never lived in unsafe conditions might never develop any awareness of danger. They might even become rather silly and use their biological flight response for entertainment.  How can we design spaces so that we each have to do our fair share of being the proverbial sentry?  Can each of us ask “What lions and marauders do we look out for on behalf of the greater community?”

I think that is why children are given responsibilities early, in like: to take out the trash, to feed the dog. Thinking ahead and thinking broadly – well thinking – is what they are practising. When they have to take out the trash because we are too lazy to do it – that is different – we are using them as servants and not developing them at all.

Create environments where people increasingly take responsibility for the group

Yup, I think I got it. We will react like birds given half a chance. Many of us are bored so we are fascinated by the idea of mobilizing people with as little effort as a cry or an irreversible action. This cannot be our goal. This is what relatively mindless birds do.

Our goal, or at least my goal, is to create environments where people share the responsibility for creating a safe space and we start taking on responsibility in an age-related way – taking full responsibility for an important task to that we learn to think and not simply react like an impulsive creature.  So we start to take out the trash and start to think about the business of keep a place hygienic. And we move on and up, learning to weave many responsibilities together.

Good quote but a different conclusion! When the birds take off, I’ll sit tight. Rapid, panicky reactions are not what it is all about.

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