What are the rules, habits, cultures, situations, and structures that help “you do you” in the most gratifying ways? Who are the people and what are the circumstances that help you thrive or that shut you down?
Most of us don’t give these questions enough thought. Nor do we think enough about what we might be doing or promoting that diminishes another’s opportunity to thrive.
There’s a lot of talk about systemic and structural impact, but in this individualistic culture and with our psychological habit of fundamental attribution error (our tendency to assign blame and responsibility to individual actors rather than to consider how circumstances might be driving their behaviors), we consistently undervalue the extent to which the structures we build around ourselves determine our behaviors and outcomes.
Here are some recent, seemingly unrelated examples that made me think about how systemic impact shows up everywhere:
- A few weeks ago I experienced an episode of trans global amnesia (TGA). TGA is not dangerous in the long run but it’s incredibly scary; your brain temporarily loses the ability to create new memories so you can’t record any new thoughts or track time. It resembles a stroke and is pretty uncommon so doctors and nurses have to scramble to rule out possibilities and figure out what’s happening. From the time I went to the ER to the to the time I got an MRI and met with my primary doctor, I interacted with over 20 medical professionals. With only one exception, they were thoughtful, attentive and demonstrated genuine desire to help. But their ability to impact my overall experience was limited by the medical system they were in. A system that provided no clear or easy ways for them to share information with each other or with me. When I handed one doctor some paperwork from the ER explaining that it didn’t seem to contain much that was useful, she said, “No this is gold! Just seeing the language they use is more than I usually get. Carry these with you wherever you go!” Over several days, I never saw any provider more than once; three of them expressed quiet frustration about this, a combination of resignation and panic in their eyes as they sent me off to the next phase of things. With the help of my own google research, we all ultimately put the pieces together. But I was acutely aware that each person I interacted with, no matter their intentions or desire to follow through with me, could only provide the level of care that the system enabled.
- A recent HBR article by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey called “Stop Telling Women they Have Imposter Syndrome” has been wildly popular. Imposter syndrome is a common topic in my work. I wrote a blog about it years ago that included the assertion that one reason we experience imposter syndrome is that we are trying to be productive and valuable in environments that are mis-aligned with our values, good instincts, communication style, etc. We are not conditioned to look at systems critically, we are conditioned to look at ourselves critically. So we internalize the disconnect we feel with “the way things are” and “the way people do things around here” as imposter syndrome; as a shortcoming in us rather than questioning the processes and systems that define the culture we’re in. This questioning is something leaders need to do more of and they need to make such questioning safe for those they lead.
- In my wonderful, nerdy book club, we read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. We discussed the main character at length; his bad behavior, his careless treatment of people he cares about. I was surprised by how long our conversation went on without addressing the world this man inhabits. We discussed his behavior in isolation, his choices as character flaws, without acknowledging that this is a man at war with himself because the family and culture he wants to belong to reject who he knows himself to be; a gay man in the 1950s. Would he behave differently if he could be true to himself and also be accepted? Of course! This is a mistake we make over and again. In our performance measurement, our judicial system, in our instinctive reactions to people around us—we blame, doubt and question individuals without considering the extent to which the various systems we move through either limit or enable good or bad intentions, plans and habits.
- Things got nicely summed up when I was listening to Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast with James Clear. In his book Atomic Habits, he asserts, “We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.”
It’s a necessary practice to pause and consider the culture, the context, the rules and norms, the unseen processes always at play. Under what conditions were they created? Who and what do they serve? How do they impact me and others? These questions slow us down, interrupt habitual thinking, engender compassion and steer us towards more inclusivity.
Ultimately we all fall to the level of our systems.