Active Hope for a positive culture

Why don’t we take action if something is wrong? This blocked response is based on our dominant story and culture. However, if we act on and believe in another story – we prepare for a more positive future. So, thank your distress and take action to develop a positive culture and future.

Remember I wrote about Active Hope before? Active Hope is a process that supports a positive organizational culture, based on positive psychology.

You’ll find more information in “Active Hope – How to Face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. The Active Hope process is inspired by Buddhism and system thinking and based on Macy’s practice “The Work That Reconnects”. It is a crucial process that supports a positive organizational culture, based on positive psychology. It’s relevant for all organizations and people and helps to unleash resilience, creativity, and the teamwork needed to achieve solutions and other positive goals. So, leaders, consultants, and team members consider the process of Active Hope (AH).

Four phases to retrieve active hope and action

Passive hope is waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire. Active Hope is about becoming active participants in the process of moving toward our hopes. Active Hope is a practice like tai chi or gardening, it is something we do rather than have. The process involves four phases:

  1. Coming from Gratitude
  2. Honoring our pain for the world
  3. Seeing with new eyes (with exercises about a wider sense of self, a different kind of power, a richer experience of community, and a larger view of time)
  4. Going forth

The AH process identifies three stories of our time that are active at the same time:

  1. Business as Usual
  2. The Great Unraveling
  3. The Great Turning

Most of us recognize these stories – where Business as Usual represents our current industrialized, technological, consumerist society. This story hopes it won’t be as bad as the IPCC climate panel showed and that we’ll find technical solutions. The Great Unraveling is a pessimistic story about when everything goes wrong and systems and societies crash. The Great Turning is the positive outcome of this transition period of challenges. It’s the world we want to create – when we do our best.

You might go back and forth between these stories, depending on what happens and your mood. Whichever story is active in your brain informs your decisions and actions. Sometimes we move on in Business as Usual, sometimes we’re depressed and discouraged seeing everything unravel, sometimes we believe that most people are good and we’ll turn just in time…

The AH process offers great exercises to retrieve your hope and motivation, come up with actionable ideas and make informed decisions. The approach uses possibility-oriented questions, such as: If you were free from fear and doubt, what would you choose to do for the Great Turning? So, what will you do this year?

As I’ve written a lot about gratitude as a base for positive thinking and a positive culture, let’s take a look at “honoring our pain” in this post. Why don’t we take action if something is wrong and can be improved? This blocked response is common, not just concerning the climate and other global crises. I see it in my organizational change work as well. Let’s see if you recognize it too.

It’s our dominant story and culture

First, it’s the power of culture! People copy others even when they’re not aware of it. It just happens automatically. We influence each other, even moods are contagious. An interesting research study let people fill out a questionnaire in a room that was slowly filling with smoke. Why didn’t people get alarmed, ask for help, or left? If people saw others remaining calm and continuing to fill in their questionnaires, they were more likely to do so too. Even when the room became so smoky that it was difficult to see and some subjects were coughing or rubbing their eyes, nearly two-thirds of the subjects persisted with their questionnaires. There you have it. “The rest stays calm, so this is normal. It’s the way we do things around here.”

Second, there are many beliefs from the narrative of Business as Usual that are very compelling. You’ll likely recognize the power of this Business as Usual story. The core assumption is that things aren’t too bad and that we can carry on, while periodic disasters are seen as only temporary interruptions. This is the mainstream mode of industrialized countries and organizations.

The harmful norms of Business as Usual are held in place by a set of core assumptions, such as:
Economic growth is essential for prosperity.
Nature is a resource to be used for human purposes.
Promoting consumption is good for the economy.
Life is unequal, and some lives matter more than others.
The problems of other peoples, nations, and species are not our concern.
There’s no point in worrying about the distant future, as we’ll be dead by then.
What we do doesn’t make any difference; we can’t change the world.

Positive organizations challenge this “default normal” and experiment with new assumptions, a new narrative, and new norms. They embrace positive thinking and feel inspired by de UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). When they develop a positive culture, they work on these four elements: Positive thinking, Shared meaningful purpose, Collaboration, Learning & Autonomy. (Also see my book Developing a Positive Culture)

Why don’t we take (more) action?

Third, our default stress response (the freeze or flight response) might get in the way of taking action. Do you recognize these lines of thinking?

1. I don’t believe it’s that dangerous
2. It isn’t my role to sort this out
3. I don’t want to stand out from the crowd
4. This information threatens my commercial or political interests.
5. It is so upsetting that l prefer not to think about it.
6. I feel paralyzed. I’m aware of the danger, but I don’t know what to do.
7. There’s no point doing anything since it won’t make any difference

Number 2 – It isn’t my role to sort this out – is common in organizations as well. Fragmentation of responsibility is the dominant mode in industrialized societies. In this view, the world is divided into separate pieces, and we’re responsible only for the pieces we own, control, or inhabit. In organizations, it’s the same. If it’s not in the job description or another department’s responsibility – why do something about it?

Number 3 – I don’t want to stand out from the crowd – is compelling and common in organizations as well. We want to fit in with the culture and be safe. It can even lead us to doubt our perceptions, for if no one else is acknowledging a problem, perhaps we’ve got it wrong. By naming an issue, on the other hand, we bring it into the open. In doing so we disturb the status quo since it is more difficult to ignore a problem once it has been acknowledged. Whistleblowers are often blamed for the inconvenience… Yet, addressing anything helps to build a positive culture. Also, see my post on How to talk about [bleep] at work?

Tipping point ahead

I have addressed number 7 – There’s no point doing anything since it won’t make any difference – in my books and work with culture. We influence each other all the time. You always make a difference to your direct co-workers – and if you can find one other who agrees you double your influence. You can start with your team, even in a large corporation. Don’t give up. Also: you don’t see the micro changes happening in a larger system right away. It takes time until a critical mass thinks and acts differently – until there’s the tipping point and you experience disruptive, radical change (that has been in the works for a long time, but invisible).

The global crises, especially the climate, require faith and persistence. When will we have a tipping point with 8 billion people? What if we’re too late and our world is dying? This number 7 perspective makes it hard to find authentic meaning and purpose in life – hence, it’s not a helpful, actionable view. It’s okay to think this now and then, don’t deny the thought. But just thank for its warning. Its intention is positive – but don’t let this thought dominate your mind.
The perception of interconnectedness in both Buddhism and system thinking acknowledges such distress as a healthy response and necessary for survival. But don’t be numbed by it.

Thank your distress, digest the information and see what action you want to take regardless. This goes for organizational improvements as well – we’re not only talking about the climate here. Speak up and speak out, be authentic and acknowledge bleak facts and negative thinking. It is what it is. Don’t hide it, don’t fake it – but see how you can find the silver lining, the smallest thing that you can do to alleviate the situation – whether for the climate or for your team or organization.

> What needs to be improved that seems impossible? Remember, the impossible is whispering to you: I’m possible. But no one believes that until it is done. How can you strengthen your belief?

Theory and research can help to strengthen active hope and optimism! Systems theory shows there are tipping points. It might be enough if 25% of people start doing something different for the system to change. Until you reach that 25% you “see nothing” and it feels like it’s impossible. Don’t give up!
In a study involving more than a hundred thousand survey responses and hundreds of focus groups, social psychologists Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson describe the growth of a new subculture committed to ecological values, social justice, and holistic perspectives. Extrapolating their findings, they estimate that in the United States, tens of millions of these “cultural creatives” are leaving behind the old story of Business as Usual and creating something new. When tens of millions of people make such choices in the space of a few decades, we are witnessing not simply a mass personal departures but an exodus at the level of culture itself.”

This raises more questions, that we can explore in a future blog post:
Is your team or organization ready for this change?
Is your organizational culture helping or hindering the transition that’s coming?
How is your organization contributing to the story of the Great Turning?
How can you be inspired by the UN’s SDGs to do more?

Just saying! We have an exciting year ahead. Are you ready for the future?

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