Composure | Why the Future is More Important than the Past in Shaping Culture
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Why the Future is More Important than the Past in Shaping Culture

A recent article by Prof Martin E. P. Seligman (NY Times, 19 May 2017) reports that the key ability that distinguishes our species from other animals is our ability to contemplate the future. More than language, tools, cooperation or culture, our capacity to envision a future differentiates us from all other species and has enabled us to create civilisation and sustain society. Equally, this ability to envision a future has contributed to the creation of the systems of organised work that we know as ‘organisations’. As Prof Seligman states, human culture — our language, our division of labour, our knowledge, our laws and technology — is possible only because we can anticipate what fellow humans will do in the distant future.

Our Brains Are Wired to Be Drawn to the Future

The fascinating thing about this aspect of our nature as human beings is that our minds are mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past. For example, a study in Chicago recently found that participants actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.

Recent brain imaging research has shown that even when we are relaxing, our brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future. For example, this research found that when there was a break in even specific tasks like mental arithmetic, there were sudden shifts to activity in the part of participants’ brains used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

Similarly, research in the field of Prospective Psychology (the science of prospection, defined as the mental representation and evaluation of possible futures) found that those suffering from depression and anxiety have a bleak view of the future — and it is this that seems to be the chief cause of their problems, not their past traumas nor their view of the present.

Harnessing the Power of Prospective Psychology in Your Business

So what does this research mean for organisations trying to change their culture? Prospective psychology highlights 2 main implications for our work with organisations in shaping, shifting and strengthening their culture:

  1.  One of the main benefits of embarking upon a coordinated and focused culture transformation program is that it harnesses this capacity to envision a future, particularly when the organisation is able to successfully create a unified vision for that future. Getting all your people on the same page, using the same language and sharing a common dream of what this future culture will look like, is a key component of shifting the culture. In fact, in a number of clients we have worked with, simply doing this creates an immediate shift in behaviours and mood around the workplace.
  2. One of the significant contributing factors to toxic cultures in organisations is the lack of hope and the pessimism that nothing will change. Similar to the bleak perspective of people who are depressed, people in organisations who have unsuccessfully attempted to shift their culture in the past, or worse still, paid lip service to the needs of staff, tend to imagine fewer positive scenarios while overestimating the likelihood of failure. This often leads to a disempowered and unhappy state. The first task of a culture transformation program is to reestablish hope and the potential for change. Researchers have begun successfully testing therapies designed to break this pattern in people who are depressed by training patients to envision positive outcomes and to see future risks more realistically. Similarly, our culture transformation programs in such organisations focus on communicating how this effort will be different from previous efforts, and ensuring that leaders follow through with their commitments early so that people can envision a future more realistically and positively.

A Case Study

In 2013 we were working with a department within a large national business that had a particularly poor culture, and a reputation for low morale and productivity. As part of our engagement with this department we assessed their culture, and delivered the results across a two-day workshop with all staff. The workshops focused on facilitating discussion and interpretation of the culture results, and helping the entire team identify their aspirational culture. A big part of our role as facilitators was to acknowledge the staff’s experiences but continue to invite them to focus on the future rather than the past and the failure of previous attempts to change the culture.

In progressively shifting the conversation from what was wrong in the current state of the culture to the culture the staff wanted, they were able to reach a common and united view of the desired future. The participants then began working on the ‘How’ together, focusing on generating ideas for how this aspirational culture could be achieved.

Interestingly, just 1 week later the State Manager reported a significant uplift in mood around the place, and he had already noticed a positive change in the way people were behaving towards each other. This improvement in morale was before any of the intended actions or ideas had been implemented. From the perspective of Prospective Psychology this shift in behaviour and mindsets can be understood as a direct consequence of reestablishing hope and reducing the perception of likely failure in changing the culture.

This recent paper from Prof Seligman is a timely reminder of the power we have as human beings to transform the world we live and work in, through the creation of a mutual and unified vision of the future.

Written by: Jim Houston
Principal Consultant

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