Can you change anything?
Can you change anything?

Do you matter? Are you trying to create the life you want? Are you aiming to change the organization where you work? Are you contributing to the world? Can you change anything?

Seriously. What is your immediate, inner response? If there’s a shadow of a doubt, you might be interested in what Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement, discovered.

Seligman designed an experiment: He administered electric shocks to dogs. One group could stop this torture by touching a button with their muzzle. Another group couldn’t stop the shocks no matter what they did. As it turned out, the dogs who couldn’t change their fate in this experiment, would not even attempt to do anything about any future situation either. They had learned to be helpless.

People, too, can learn to feel helpless – or hopeful and resilient. While it is normal to feel helpless in a situation of defeat, our “explanatory style” determines whether we “bounce back” or not. We all have a habitual narrative that we tell ourselves to explain negative events.

What is yours? I suspect many people have learned that they don’t matter much outside their families and there’s not much they can change.

“The world is too big to change. The bosses determine what happens. Money rules – deal with it. This is the way of the world: there’s power, there’s scarcity – and you have to survive. Who do you think you are? Just be a good citizen.”
(The hierarchy-scarcity mindset)

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I observe a certain helplessness around me – and I know how it feels, too.
A couple of warmhearted Facebook friends suffer about the Syrian refugees – it breaks their hearts but they can’t stop people drowning in the Mediterranean. Others have stopped watching the news. Some wealthy, well-educated friends of mine don’t see the point of eating organically or less meat to save the climate – because what’s the point if no one else does? Quite a few fellow consultants feel exhausted from going through the same change protocols with another client again – whom they suspect will go back to their old ways when the change project is officially done.
The employees I work with during consulting projects often look played out. They have lost hope, and they acquiesce. Some are cynical and angry.

The power to change

But what stands out for me is that even managers claim that they cannot change their organizations or teams… If anyone would have the power to change anything in their pyramid – it would be them!

But not according to them. To be honest, that depletes not only their energy but mine, too. I remember an executive team that felt defeated by an acquisition and that had to obey the foreign headquarters. No matter what I said, or what exercises I introduced – they persisted in their victimhood.

I tried to help them see that they still had a choice – there are always small things that you can do differently, questions you can ask, decisions you can question. There are ways to see the situation in a different light and change your response to be helpful, empowering.

But to no avail. They were not open to this. Their energy was infectious and I had to work hard to not feel overwhelmed by helplessness.

The other occasion I started to feel depleted, was with a group of really bright middle managers who kept repeating that higher management would torpedo their initiatives – so their hands were completely tied. Even working with them was a waste of my time, they said. They were just puppets on a string – so they wanted me to outplay their bosses…

Interesting. In spite of my vision of positive change, positive leadership, and positive organizations – there’s also another perspective on the same reality.

Many people feel discouraged, skeptical, cynical – and often for good reasons, I understand that. Looking at the news, the world seems a hostile place. Many good developments go way too slow – or are hampered by conflicts of interest and money. It can be hard to survive the toxic politics of your organization – and it can make you distrust leaders. It may be difficult to see how your highly specialized, repetitive job contributes to the larger whole.

That’s why only 32% of US employees are engaged at work (Gallup data, January 2016). Worldwide, only 13% feel engaged!

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Imagine the potential that is left unused! Not just in monetary terms, but also the loss of inspiration, innovation, energy, happiness, connection and health that this situation causes. People who think that they don’t matter much and can’t change anything substantial, won’t even try.

We can’t afford NOT to use this potential. The global, societal and organizational challenges are tremendous and we need everyone’s ideas and energy to solve them.

Nevertheless, 68% of US workers are just going through the motions – waiting for the work day to end. They take this mindset and its associated lack of energy home – where it spreads to their spouses, children, and the community.

Is this really what we want to do with our precious time on earth? Watching the world go astray, sitting out our workdays, feeling helpless?
Well, if everyone keeps thinking this way then we’re all on the Titanic – whether the sinking ship is your workplace or the world.

Please reflect on what you believe, deep down. Whether or not you can make a difference… I’ll get back to you soon!

This is blog post #1 from my book “Positive Power at Work”.

Here is the next post.

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2017. All rights reserved.

Leaders, employees, consultants, citizens – everyone can make a positive difference from any position, without needing permission or resources from others. This blog will help you see positive possibilities and (re)claim your positive agency. Unstuck yourself and engage others by your interaction and actions. Transform into a positive organization where people and performance thrive.

I’m blogging my next book: “Positive Power at Work – How to make a positive difference from any position.” Your feedback is appreciated!

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Bethany Warburton

    Thank you Marcella – I’m a consultant and currently working in an organization with 200 years of inertia behind it. The resistance to change has less to do with feeling powerless and more to do with excessively long tenure of the resources in the decision making roles. They simply haven’t seen it done differently elsewhere and many assume that their approach is superior…without the ability to really open up to see where opportunity might lay. I live change but understand its difficult for many but this particular org has challenged me in surprising ways. Always learning more.

    1. Marcella Bremer

      Wow, Bethany, I understand that’s a challenge. I’ve seen it before – senior staff that has been with the company forever doesn’t have a tendency to change. That’s why they have been in the same position for so long. Within that context, though, one can still ask open questions to stimulate critical thinking and help people open up to options they haven’t considered before. Or you can find evidence and examples from elsewhere that show what else is possible. If more and more subordinates start to ask genuine open questions about decisions, the context for the decision makers changes. It’s no longer a “we decide you execute” environment. They will have to rethink and explain more. This will give decision makers a different context and might help them change some beliefs and behaviors. Of course, this may be a long-term process and it’s easier said than done. But this is the way individuals can contribute to change: one interaction at a time.

  2. Graham Williams

    Hi Marcella.
    I love you positivity and clarity.
    Agree that we should be the change we wish to see.
    Agree that the advent of Seligman’s positive psychology was timely.
    On a spectrum of extremely negative to extremely positive there are dangers at both ends. Those suffering from change fatigue, the disillusioned and the cynical are difficult to shift away from being too negative and not seeing possibilities. Those who have adopted ‘an abundance mentality’, belief that the universe will overcome all obstacles and they will easily attain what they want and envision because they deserve it – love, money, whatever can sometimes have a problem that is just as serious and may need a good dose of realism.
    So I’m arguing for realistic positivity that incorporates needed balance………….
    I’m not arguing against being positive and proactive!

    1. Marcella Bremer

      I agree with you, Graham! As I describe in post #3 (this is #1) positive is still realistic but keeping an eye for positive possibilities. It is not happy hippie talk.

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