Evolving your People and Reducing Conflict — the Lessons of Groundhog Day (Part I)

Pantanal Bird

Weaverbird, Pantanal, Brazil

A long, long time ago, in a post far, far away :-), I explained the basics of  Spiral Dynamics v-Meme evolution.  Naturally, throughout this blog, this is also coupled with all the others — societal, and empathetic evolution.  But to get out of the spaghetti trap that inevitably comes up when talking about all of this (there are days I like to say “Hey, I know what the whole elephant looks like, and I’m all tangled up with him in a big ball of spaghetti!”) let’s just set those causal connections aside — go ‘Open Loop,’ as it were. How do we understand that personal evolution that we need to promote to reduce conflict?  And why should we care if our employees are enlightened?  Shouldn’t they just listen, and do their job?  Can’t have people meditating on the job, after all!

But really — why do you want enlightened employees?  What principles can we borrow from empathetic evolution to help us understand how higher levels of empathy can assist in the workplace?

To start, evolved minds will have a variety of temporal scales programmed into their neurons that they can operate under.  An enlightened person can more effectively sort the priorities of quarterly reports, yearly summaries, and whose turn it is to clean the coffee pots.  An example is in order — where you can see the consequences when folks DON’T have this.

In my Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), I have somewhere between 60-80 students a semester, all working on their final project for graduation.  There are some 10-15 projects/semester, all with a deliverable.  My age cohort is, not surprisingly, very uniform — most around 21-24, looking to graduate.  As I’ve said earlier, they’re transitioning out of complete externally defined relationships, into the land of independently generated relationships and their first real brush with high-stakes rational empathy.  They have a customer — usually, their very first in their profession!

That means that most of them are very egocentric.  There are only a couple of recognized time scales in their head — their own Survival v-Meme time scale (I wanna drink a beer tonight!), my imposed Authoritarian time scale (canonical design process) and of course, graduation.  My authority is in profound eclipse by this time.  In the back of their heads, they know that whatever they do, they’re likely to graduate.  It’s up to me and my system to stimulate higher-evolutionary behavior in order for them to complete their task.

So what do I have them do?  I have them draw up a schedule for work, multiple times during the semester.  Not surprisingly, the first couple rounds of the schedule are utter B.S.  They have been taught in other classes about Gantt charts and the like — and their charts are typically very linear (as one would expect from their empathetic development and relational sophistication) with broad, generic topics like ‘Research/Development/Design’.  Underneath task assignments are the personnel listing.  Mostly, these are ‘All’.

Which, as anyone who’s worked knows, means ‘None’.  Everyone’s responsible, and no one’s responsible.  All mid-term deliverables are vague, so nothing can get done.  Being a young Authoritarian means having poor executive function — someone else is supposed to tell you what to do.  They’ve had 16 years of education beating THAT lesson in their head.  Do what your betters tell you.

I go at the kids, full-tilt, of course.  The schedule must have multiple paths.  It must have measurable deliverables.  Pairing, as I’ve mentioned before, is big.  Multiple people must be assigned and justify their behavior across the group.

What happens, with poor temporal evolution?  In scheduling, there is a method called Critical Path Analysis, or Critical Path Method (CPM)  In this method, the schedule is laid out as a branching tree, re-converging at the end of the process when the deliverable is shipped.  One route through the network of tasks is the ‘Critical Path’ — the longest time through.  All the other paths have what is called ‘Slack’ — extra days/weeks that exist because those tasks are not on the Critical Path.

Inevitably, the majority of the student groups let all tasks not on the Critical Path slip until, instead of having one Critical Path, you have Critical Paths along ALL the project branches.  Now, if anything comes ups, the project is screwed on the delivery date.  The students do this because they have poor metacognitive awareness and an un-evolved sense of time.  Low responsibility, present because of low empathy, means that nothing will happen until the Survival v-Meme kicks in.  There’s a lot more to unpack here.

It’s in your business’ interest to have employees with a highly evolved sense of time.  It allows appropriate job scheduling and discrimination, for one.  The above is just one example.  You can’t get everyone to be a Zen master, but the more people you can push up the chain, likely, you’re better off.  There are others, of course — but this is a big one.

So how do you do it?  The best example I’ve come up with in explaining the various v-Meme transitions is the movie Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray. Groundhog Day, besides being entertaining, is a very interesting movie.  It’s been translated into (at my last check) over 35 languages.  It’s on a number of ‘best movies of all time’ lists, and I’ve found that I can travel far back into rural China and almost always, find someone who’s seen it.  This is pretty amazing for a movie that is ostensibly about a colloquial American holiday, and not a very famous one at that. But what the movie is about, of course, is the search for human enlightenment.  And that is a transcultural, universal theme.

The movie starts out with Bill Murray, as Phil Conners, a weatherman, stuck in a snowstorm in Punxsatawny, PA, the Groundhog Capital of the world, for the annual Groundhog Day celebration.  It’s all too low-level for Phil, and after he films his clip, he tries to get out of town.  Survival v-Meme all the way – he gets turned back in the snowstorm, as the freeway is closed.

Then the major plot device of the movie kicks in.  Stuck in a magical loop (Tribal/Magical v-Meme), with a totem animal — the groundhog — Phil is forced to repeat that same day over and over again.

The first part of the movie displays Phil in all his Authoritarian/Egocentric glory.  He stuffs his face with donuts.  Impervious to consequentiality, he steals single pieces of information from women to use to get them into bed the following day.  He indulges himself.  And none of it makes him happy.

Phil then moves into the Legalistic v-Meme part of the movie.  He attempts to break the rules of the system, mostly through trying to kill himself.  He tries to kill the groundhog.  Nothing works.

In the first half of the movie, what is interesting is that Phil has almost completely, an externally defined or exploitative relationship not just with others, but himself. He’s going to be the next NYC weatherman, and so on.  And then comes the admission — “I’m not really sure I even like myself.”

But how does Phil start the path toward independent relational generation?  Pause before reading the next paragraph and think.

Most people I’ve talked to will immediately say ‘he gets involved with the community,’ or something similar.  This is actually not true.  We often view community interaction as a way for evolutionary growth, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  But in order for Phil to first have an independent relationship with others, there’s an important person he has to have one with first.  Himself.

And how he does this is the key toward evolving your cohort in the 21-35 year old age group.  The answer awaits in the next blog post!

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