We think about the parts instead of the whole, and it needs to change. Thinking about the parts translates into laws and policies that don’t solve problems because they aren’t addressing the issue holistically, and departments in organizations that don’t achieve their purpose because they were never given the mandate to do so. For example, when I hear that the marketing team is handling an organization’s social responsibility initiatives, I see it as a red flag that the organization isn’t prioritizing the work or thinking about social change as core to its mission.
As Cheryl Heller explains in her latest piece for Unreasonable.is, this problem may stem from our industrial mindset, and our tendency to work in silos:
“The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces us into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change.”
A must-read article from Pacific Standard, which explores the lack of cultural factors in social science research, shows that psychologically, industrial nations tend to have this siloed psyche.
“As Heine, Norenzayan, and Henrich furthered their search, they began to find research suggesting wide cultural differences almost everywhere they looked: in spatial reasoning, the way we infer the motivations of others, categorization, moral reasoning, the boundaries between the self and others, and other arenas. These differences, they believed, were not genetic. The distinct ways Americans and Machiguengans played the ultimatum game, for instance, wasn’t because they had differently evolved brains. Rather, Americans, without fully realizing it, were manifesting a psychological tendency shared with people in other industrialized countries that had been refined and handed down through thousands of generations in ever more complex market economies.”
Collaboration and thinking holistically is difficult, but maybe our Western mindset to promote the individual and think about the individual parts, is partially at fault, as the Pacific Standard article explains:
“Still, I had to wonder whether describing the Western mind, and the American mind in particular, as weird suggested that our cognition is not just different but somehow malformed or twisted. In their paper the trio pointed out cross-cultural studies that suggest that the “weird” Western mind is the most self-aggrandizing and egotistical on the planet: we are more likely to promote ourselves as individuals versus advancing as a group. WEIRD minds are also more analytic, possessing the tendency to telescope in on an object of interest rather than understanding that object in the context of what is around it.”
“That we in the West develop brains that are wired to see ourselves as separate from others may also be connected to differences in how we reason, Heine argues. Unlike the vast majority of the world, Westerners (and Americans in particular) tend to reason analytically as opposed to holistically. That is, the American mind strives to figure out the world by taking it apart and examining its pieces. Show a Japanese and an American the same cartoon of an aquarium, and the American will remember details mostly about the moving fish while the Japanese observer will likely later be able to describe the seaweed, the bubbles, and other objects in the background. Shown another way, in a different test analytic Americans will do better on something called the “rod and frame” task, where one has to judge whether a line is vertical even though the frame around it is skewed. Americans see the line as apart from the frame, just as they see themselves as apart from the group.”
So, now that we realize this, maybe we can work harder to break this pattern. It can start in organizations–making change happen from inside-out, imbuing the ethos and processes of social change and innovation throughout the organization as opposed to assigned to a siloed department or group. And we can also work on our internal mindset–trying to see ourselves always as part of a bigger system, within the office, and within the world. This goes back to seeing our roles and reality in the world–as influenced by both internal and external perceptions, history, and contexts, which I describe here, and which I’m realizing more and more is at the root of change.