There are a lot of reasons I love this recent story by Bruce Grierson — What if Age is Nothing But a Mindset? — that ran in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. If you missed it, it’s worth a read, if only for how it reinforces the power of our minds over our bodies and our perspectives on our lives and possibilities.
But there’s also this mention in there of a previous study by the psychologist Ellen Langer, the subject of the piece, that really struck me. Here’s Grierson’s description:
Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.
I find this fascinating, not just for what it says about how we treat the elderly, but also for the implications in the workplace. I hear repeatedly from clients — and have seen firsthand — how employers undervalue their employees, fail to recognize their talents and skills, and therefore fail to give them adequate responsibilities and work that challenges them. The result is not only employers who waste time and money hiring outsiders to do the job their own employees can already do, but the rapid demoralization and incapacitation of the employees themselves.
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze talk about this in their book, Walk Out, Walk On. I’ve quoted parts of this before, but I think it’s worth revisiting in light of the Langer study. Wheatley and Frieze write that rigid hierarchies and “command-and-control” leadership — “the most common form of leadership worldwide” — actually “smothers basic human capacities such as intelligence, creativity, caring and dreaming…. When it doesn’t work, those in power simply apply more force…. People resist the imposition of force by withdrawing, opposing and sabotaging the leader’s directives…. This destructive cycle continues to gain speed, with people resenting leaders and leaders blaming people.”
“This cycle not only destroys our motivation, it destroys our sense of worth,” they write. And it’s why people stuck in rigid hierarchies “can’t remember when they last felt good about themselves or confident in their abilities.”
“Power of this kind,” they continue, “has a predictable outcome: it breeds powerlessness. People accept the message they’ve heard so consistently, that they’re helpless without a strong leader. They become dependent and passive, waiting for a leader to rescue them, and their growing dependency leaves leaders with no choice. They must take control if anything is going to get done.”
I’ve seen this happen repeatedly in organizations. Leaders get so caught up in their top-down command models that they end up creating zombie employees who will do just enough to get by but not more, because they’re “not authorized” or that’s “above their pay grade.” And they come to believe that they’re not capable of more, either.
Being treated as incompetent can also leave employees seething. But if you find yourself in this situation, the key is to channel that energy into something productive rather than letting it eat you up inside and fuel that destructive cycle. Even if for now you have to follow the rules at the organization you work for, keep reminding yourself what you know you’re capable of, because that will eventually help you leave the organization, act outside of it or change it. To remember your own talents and abilities, try reflecting on a time when you were in a position to act on them and what you were able to accomplish (recall a “peak experience” when you felt empowered, for example), and find supportive people around you (such as a friend, family member or coach) who can remind you of those times and of your strengths.
Ultimately, as Langer tells Grierson, it all comes down to being aware of what’s going on around you, and not giving in to the labels, judgments or expectations someone else may have slapped on you or on a situation that have little to do with reality.
“If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them,” Langer says, “they would fulfill their potential and improve their health.”
Grierson, quoting Langer, sums it up: “When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual’ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”