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Become a “Tempered Radical” Four Steps to Saving the Planet

Saybrook University | Monday June 21st, 2010 | 0 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Dennis T. Jaffe

There are plenty of environmental outrages out there: the BP oil spill, the lack of a plan for renewable energy, massive over-consumption …  and in the face of them is a feeling of powerlessness that seems to characterize our emerging lives in the 21st century.

We want to do something about it, but from the financial system to the energy grid, everything is part of a huge, interconnected, global system that we can’t see, feel, or touch, but depend on utterly.  How do we small individuals change that?

The problem is that we are applying the same old strategies for organizing and activism to this new world.  We … you and me, individuals … can do better.  We can do more.  It is possible to influence the systems that influence us.

By becoming “tempered radicals,” business professor Debra Myerson’s term for people who align their organizations with larger causes instead of pitting one against the other, we can give voice to our frustration and offer our good intentions in a meaningful way.  We can have an impact.  What’s important to realize is that global activism, where most people try to begin, is actually the last step:  personal education and change comes first, followed by organizational change, because they build the stepping stones to effective global change.

Here are the tools:

1)  Develop meaningful metrics instead of “feel good” gestures.

In his book The Upside of Irrationality, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely presents potent examples of how actions that “feel” right can actually have the opposite effect.  Our impulses to avoid anxiety, please the people we know, and pursue immediate pleasure and comfort lead us astray.  Such actions are not only non-productive, they can be counter-productive.  He counsels that we need to develop the critical facilities to tell the difference between symbolic and meaningful gestures.  The best way to approach this comes from Chris Argyris:  look self-critically at what we say we believe in – our espoused values – and see how we’re falling short.  Those are the places where we can exert meaningful influence in our daily lives.

Now how do you apply that?

2)  Change Your Personal Ecology.

We all have a personal space where we interact with these systems—how we arrange our environment, use information, energy, food and money. Rather than relate to this by gestures, and risk the irrational satisfaction Ariely warns us about, we can draw up a clear plan for our personal ecology, research it, write it down and live it. We can find a way to live sustainably while feelings satisfaction and even joy.

3)  Claim Active Citizenship in Your Own Core Systems.

None of us live in isolation.  We are members of organizations — employers, educational systems, a neighborhood, a spiritual or professional group.   For most of us, belonging means passive membership.  However, just as you have now developed meaningful metrics for yourself and changes in your personal ecology, you can claim active citizenship in the organizations to which you belong.  The process is identical:  develop meaningful metrics and change the organizational ecology.

The key, as a tempered radical, is to do this not in a way that reflects and supports your own values alone, but in a way that supports and respects the organization’s values as well.  Pitting an organization’s values against a larger cause is ultimately destructive:  no organization can be expected to embrace a plan that violates its core values.  But finding the connections between an organization’s core values and larger issues, then putting pressure on them through meaningful metrics and achievable goals, can yield large results in a surprisingly short time.

The most important thing to remember about this process is that you are not alone:  most people are feeling the same frustration and anger you are.  They are also coming to the same conclusions:  if you lead by example in your personal ecology, and provide a meaningful opportunity to address larger issues through the systems you belong to, others will join you.  Just as crucially, other people, in other systems, are working there to create change as well.

4)  Support Activism in the Global Dialogue

This last step is traditionally where most people begin, and that’s largely ineffective because individuals are trying to change immense systems using unrealistic goals.  But as personal and organizational ecologies change, it becomes easier to reach out to a larger circle of engagement, and to a larger community – and larger projects get done.

It is scary and difficult to live in a global world, and with our expanded capacity for knowledge and our only human-scale ability to act, we always run the risk of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead of us. But hiding out, and avoiding membership in the larger effort is no longer feasible. Our personal lives are always lived in the shadow of the larger ecosystems, which are today dangerously unstable and able to tip the balance and unsettle or even destroy life in our comfortable niche.

Through effective action, beginning with the personal, moving through the organizational, and eventually reaching the global, we can tip back.

Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D. is the co-director of the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University.


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