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I have been researching for a while the not-that-easy topic of ‘cognitive mental frames’ or ‘mental models’ that take over our organizational life, so this is a conversation that will go for a while on and off.

I really believe that people in organizations perform on shared ‘moral ecologies’ and that most of these have been learnt and copied from the environment. There are powerful belief systems that determine our mundane day to day behaviours.

For example, there is the mental frame of old-fashioned social sciences concept of  ‘agency’. That means, I am in charge of my destiny, I am not governed by the systems and structures, I may have to deal with them but, ultimately, I can do things, be responsible for my actions and, ultimately, accountable for my own professional and personal development. I am an agent, my own one.

In the opposite extreme there is ‘victimhood’. That means, the system (the company) oppresses me, I don’t have space to grow and develop, I am not in control of my life, the company will need to take care of me (including development, but it may not do it) and, ultimately, I have zero space. I am victim (whether this is articulated or not)

These beliefs systems are opposite. You can’t sit in both at the same time.

I think of victimhood as incredibly self-reinforcing and perpetuating. There is a fine line between real victims and those who have occupied the victim space without being one. In fact I would call the later a state of victimism,  the land pseudo-victims.

My hypothesis is that, some disengaged organizations ( as in poor employee engagement scores), have a lot to do with having appropriated a culture of victimhood. This is not a popular statement, and not going to be liked by many, because it sounds like disregarding specific organizational problems that may impact negatively in the moral of employees. But, putting aside flagrant negative and high impact real issues (long hours, underpaid, or, say, bullying), there is not a good explanation why in many ‘reasonably ok’ organizations, with no obvious oppression, there are entire sub-populations that seem to have lost agency completely. Hopelessness there does not seem to correlate well with any particular middle of the  ground issue spotted in surveys. There is a halo effect in disengagement that cannot be explained by survey scores on individual items. When you are disengaged, lots of issues seem to come together. If this is so, trying to deal with the specific low-score items misses the point.

More to come. But, to give an  example on how mental models have their own language, creating their own ecosystem of beliefs, consider this. In the macro social arena, we often use the term ‘lifting people out of poverty’ which clearly implies that these people need to be lifted, cannot do it by themselves (this is what we say), they are victims in need of rescuing. So the consequence is that we need to throw money to people and organizations who do the ‘air lifting’ for them,  perpetuating the loss of agency.

This trivial example shows that the adoption of a simple, common, widespread language can perpetuate a mental frame (view of the world, in fact), and that a good intention (out of poverty) delivers bad outcomes.

I wonder if our ‘engagement model’ in business organizations, with its own dialect,  is also perpetuating the problem, stuck on scores up and down, but missing the fact that an alternative mental model, such agency (or lack of) with all the consequences on how to boost it, how to make employees ‘agents’, is a better way out to improvement. The how may  be a conversation for another day.

It may sound like a simple semantic change, but think of the ‘lifting out of poverty model’ and what it potentially does. It is impossible to ignore the power of the collective mental frames  (‘engage’, ‘not engaged’)

Is our organizational language in 2019 fit for purpose?

(Alternative title: Victimhood and the organization: another way to look at disengagement)


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