ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - November 2001


Issue Highlight — Actions That Might Matter
- In Actions That Might Matter, Peter Block challenges us to rethink our well-intended and often automatic urge during difficult times to just "Do Something!" Think instead, he asks, about authentic change, shifting consciousness, relationships, and reconciliation.

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

  In This Issue...
Global Quality from Johnsonville, WI, to Durban, South Africa, with Jennifer James
The Drugs Are
in the Mail

Virtually Amazing
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along
What Did You Just Say?

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

Actions That Might Matter

In difficult times, whether for a nation, a workplace, or our own lives, our immediate instinct is to want to do something—“Don’t just stand there, do something.” We pride ourselves in being action oriented. While we need to respond to strong events and strong emotions, I want to question what constitutes “doing something.”

  Our conventional idea of action is to do something tangible and concrete. We shift direction, seek justice, enforce controls, increase oversight, set standards, hold people more accountable, budget money, or change regulations. In the face of all of this, I have come to see these as mostly symbolic and constitute doing more today of what we have been doing yesterday.

  I question whether all the habits that we call action ever fulfill their promise to provide a more secure and hopeful future. I wonder whether these kinds of decisions change anything of lasting value, or whether they simply imbed us in the condition we are trying to fix.

  If we think about the changes we truly care about, they have to do with the qualitative dimension of our lives. If I asked you what kind of a world or institution you wanted to create, you would most likely focus on human values: peace, consideration, love, cooperation, social responsibility, harmony with nature, and economic self-sufficiency.

  In the domain of human values, I see little evidence that decisions about direction, controls, standards, more oversight or protections, have much impact. These are decisions that reinforce the illusion that executive action can shift our lives, keep us safe, or make us successful. Most of the decisions we call for only reinforce our belief in capturing more control over events, and it is this mindset of decisiveness that most often created the symptoms of dysfunction we are trying to cure.

Authentic Change
Authentic change in the quality of our experience, of our culture, change that shifts rather than reinforces the ground we stand on, is of a different nature than what grows from decisive decision making and pointed problem solving. If we want to not only fix the symptom, but also revise our part in creating the conditions that trouble us, then problem solving and quick action change nothing.

  I would like to broaden our conception of what we call action to include deepening experiences. Something shifts when we differentiate between decisive action and what we might call “profound action.” Profound action is about our way of thinking, our way of being with those immediately around us, and the nature of the conversations we engage in. Profound action exists in contrast to what might be called decisive action.

  There are three kinds of actions that could be labeled as profound: shifting our consciousness, making relationships primary, and language of reconciliation.

Shifting Our Consciousness
What problem solving misses is that change is about consciousness, it is about our capacity to reflect on our experience and see it in a different way. Consciousness is the realization that I am constructing the world within and around me, even the evil in the world. This means we realize that what disturbs us in others is a part of us. If we long for hope or greater security, it comes from acts of reflection, not decisiveness. There is no adequate protection against the external reality. To believe that decisive, external changes can give us security and safety is to bet on an illusion.

   Bosses cannot protect their employees, the army cannot protect its citizenry, and parents cannot hold their children immune from the pain in the world. All may want to, but as long as we think it is achievable, we will bet our future on acquiring all the power, resources, and protective regulations that we can muster, and thereby miss the point.

  If we would include consciousness as a powerful action step in times of crisis, we would start to value reflection. We would take time to think. We would question the limitations of our own world view. We would value wondering what events mean to us, rather than how to manage events. We would accept the idea that if we wish to change the world we first must change our mind. This puts thought and our thinking at the center of action. It carries the insight that seeing our role in creating the world is the essence of being awake and being in charge.

Making Relationships Primary
In a culture that values decisive action, relationships are viewed as a means to an end. Every time we meet we want to decide something. It is almost illegal to end a meeting without a list of what we have decided to do. Real change comes when the nature of how we come together has shifted. The most important questions that impact our future are not about a list of decisions, but more from a discussion of:

  • Who is to be included and excluded from this discussion?
  • How do we deepen the quality of contact we made with each other?
  • How do all the gifts of those present get brought to the table?

  Inclusion, contact, and valuing gifts are profound action steps. When they are the point, and are not simply process questions to improve the quality of our decisiveness, we increase our hope that the future might be different from the past.

Language of Reconciliation
The third action that offers the possibility of an alternative future comes from a shift in the nature of our conversations. We anesthetize ourselves with the old conversations of decisive actions, greater controls, higher standards, better security, and regulation. We were weaned on these conversations and even at the moment we discuss these, we intuitively know that if more decisiveness were the solution, we would not be facing the problems in front of us.

  We fool ourselves into thinking that last time we were not decisive, controlling, or watchful enough. Greater consciousness and more powerful relationships grow from using language that opens the door of reconciliation. The reconciliation we seek is to come to terms with our past and with our own part in creating the present. We need conversation that reconciles us to the pain and suffering that exists in the world that we are not going to fix.

  Profound action in the form of a new conversation includes speaking about our part in constructing the world we are a part of. This places us in the role of an active player and the act of going public with our confession is the radical act. Another element of reconciliation is forgiveness. We have to live with the limitations, even madness, of those around us, otherwise, in our judgment, we become another version of what we are fighting against.

  We could keep adding elements of a new conversation which might include gratitude, surrender…you have your own list. The point is that the language in which we chose to talk about our concerns is a profound action step that determines our future more significantly than how we rearrange the tangible and physical world.

What’s the Point is the Point
Consciousness, relationship, and conversation create conditions where transformation is possible. They are not the soft side of taking care of business, they are the hard part. Perhaps what is required of us is to acknowledge them for their own sake, and not just as a means to tangible ends. In fact, we may have it backward: Perhaps the only purpose of decisive concrete actions is to provide a means for the real goal of raising consciousness, building relationships, and promoting reconciliation.

   If we seriously adopted this point of view, then the purpose of our institutions, including government, would shift, and instead of being in the business of serving markets and constituent interests, each institution would recognize it was simply and completely in the business of human development. Then we might see some real action.

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