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Archive for May 17th, 2010

What Makes Men?

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Some thoughs based on the thinking of Ronald Heifetz at the John F. Kennedy School of Government

Some societies, social systems, cultures, and organizations “get stuck” – and in the worst case, die –  due to their inability to objectively face reality and constructively (productively) adapt. 

Ronald Heifetz calls this “work avoidance”.  You can observe this in politicians, CEO’s, and almost any place where the ability to objectively assess reality and face problems head-on is lacking.

From the “school of experience” perspective, one gains the ability to deal with these uncomfortable and distressful situations over time simply by being placed in these situations time and time again and gaining the proficiency to productively deal with them rather than falling into the trap of work avoidance. 

Sometimes people are challenged too quickly and they collapse into inaction or are paralyzed by the situation.

From Hiefetz:

People fail to adapt because of the distress provoked by the problem and the change it demands.  They resist the pain, anxiety, or the conflict that accompanies a sustained interaction with the situation.  Holding on to past assumptions, blaming authority, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, denying the problem, jumping to conclusions, or finding a distracting issue may restore stability and feel less stressful than facing and taking responsibility for a complex challenge.  These patterns of response to disequilibrium are called work avoidance mechanisms… 

While more research should clarify the distinction between productive and avoidance behavior in different social systems, some rules of thumb are useful.  One might detect work avoidance when the subject of discussion is suddenly taken off the table…; when the focus shifts from attending to the problem to alleviating the symptoms of stress…; or when responsibility for the problem is displaced to an easy target (as with scapegoating).  One ought to take a skeptical stance, at least momentarily, when some action suddenly makes everyone feel good.

Again, some people placed into a position to solve these types of gut-wrenching problems are destroyed.  For others, the opposite happens – they are transformed by it.  Some have called this experience “The Crucible” – a sort of furnace of life-changing trials where one learns and earns confidence of rock-hard determination – a cauldron of turbulent crisis where both character, and sometimes, new societies are forged.

Think of the American Revolution and the founding fathers – Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others.  What happened to folks like these?

The question is this, in the context of work avoidance and the idea of the crucible, “Did the situation make these men or would these men have risen to prominence without the situation?”.  There is no lack of “crucible situations” – but perhaps lack of people who are willing and able to step into the cauldron of a turbulent crisis and seize the opportunity to  “become” men.

Written by frrl

May 17, 2010 at 2:36 am

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