In my work in organisations I frequently come across people trying to bring about meaningful change by making lists of ‘behaviours’ that people should take up. If we can just pin down how people behave when they’re being loyal, or creative, or leading, or trusting – the theory goes – and can convince people to agree to it, we’ll be done.
But it is woefully insufficient. Easy to talk about, easy to imagine, and based on a misunderstanding of what human beings are.
You can do a simple thought-experiment to show this. Start by making a list of all the behaviour that constitute ‘trust’ for example.
Can you make a complete list? Whatever you write down, there will always be something important left out – some situation you didn’t yet think of where trust would be expressed in a new way. A phenomenon such as ‘trust’ is way too complex, too rich, and too changeable to be enumerated like this.
Now, look at the items you have written down on your list. Can you imagine situations where somebody does the opposite of what you’ve written but it still could constitute trust? For some items on your list the answer will be yes – because human behaviour is always contextual. We make sense of a particular moment in the light of the particular situation, its history, the future possibilities and intentions we’re pursuing, and who is involved. There is no context-free list of behaviour that defines trust. We know trust when we experience it, but its way of being expressed is particular to this moment.
Lastly, imagine a robot carrying out those behaviours – a robot that has action on the outside but is empty of feeling or meaning on the inside. Would that constitute trust? I don’t think so.
Can you see how this extends to empathy, leadership, friendship?
Yes, we can make lists of behaviour that can help us understand. And, yes, bringing change into being does require us to change our actions. But our lists of behaviour can never be definite and they never are by themselves the phenomenon we are trying to bring about.
Just because I’ve agreed to your list doesn’t mean I’m going to be able do it in anything more than a robotic fashion, or know how to respond when I find myself and others acting ‘outside’ of the list.
Bringing about change by tying people into lists of behaviour fails in large part because it’s a technical response to a developmental issue.
Instead of reducing trust or leadership to something measurable and observable in a fixed way, we need to look upstream at what gives rise to it, and work there. This takes new questions – more powerful, and more complex. How does trust appear in me, between us? What practices make it possible? How might we correct ourselves? And how do we need to speak with one another, when it’s not appearing?