Monday, July 17, 2017

What we should learn from the shooting of Justine

The tragic shooting of Justine Ruszczyk by a police officer in Minneapolis is an example of the power of culture in determining behaviour in society, in organisations, groups and families.

For reasons of which I am not completely aware, I was looking through postings from people, mostly in the US, about the shooting. The most telling thing about them was the array of people thought to be at fault, including Justine herself. Media outlets have been in a similar frenzy of fault finding. We have police brutality, the inexperience of the officer, the government, that Justine must have been a criminal or behaving erratically, the opioid epidemic and so on.

What no-one raised was the American culture around violence. For me, that is the cause. The US of A has allowed a wild west mentality to fester to the point where violence has become the norm. Yes, some people are outraged when someone get’s shot but most are desensitised. With over 30,000 deaths per year due to firearms alone, not counting other means, this is a culture that accepts violence as normative. If it didn’t, then something would change. It is important to note that police, the very people who are asked to keep us safe, are also at huge risk and part of the shooting gallery.

America cannot build enough jails in which to put people. Drug use is seen as being a criminal, rather than a health problem. Huge numbers of people are in jail because of social problems and non-whites are massively over represented. America is a punitive culture.

I won’t bang on about this anymore because it is easy to do your own research. But there is a broader implication here.

Humans are good at simplifying complex problems by finding perpetrators, blaming, defining ‘us’ and ‘them’ and, even, making the victim part of the problem. Our plethora of ‘shock jocks’ and some parts of an increasingly lazy and politicised media assist us in our effort in dumbing down critical thought. Looking at the bigger causes of our ills takes much more effort and we are, mostly, unwilling to do that.

We see the effects of this all around us, whether it is regarding society, teams or organisations. Even consistent failures within any of these are blamed on individuals or events. Very rarely do we look at the system that has enabled the failure to occur.

Over many years I have been asked, countless times, to apply a ‘fix’ to the dilemmas of teams and organisations. This might be training, coaching or a strategic planning workshop. Most of the time this is the wrong ‘fix’. Rather, it is the culture that needs attention and that means change at and from the top of the food chain.

There is a rather poignant example from the history of treating childhood psychological problems. It took years for therapists to work out that they could use all sorts of clever treatments with children to fix their problems but then they would then send them back into a dysfunctional family situation that was a major part of the problem in the first place. A negative culture out trumps (small T) individual effort and resources anytime. So, family therapy was born. We’d bring the whole family into the room and work on them. Much harder, more complex but better outcomes.

I was once asked to do some change management training in a government department. In short, a particular group were seen to be having problems with an organisational change initiative. My involvement revealed that it had nothing to do with the attitude or skills of the group at all. Rather, it was a failure of the organisation as a whole to implement change effectively. Further, the change initiative was designed to create disharmony and stress for all involved. It was always going to fail. This was all borne of a culture that bordered on bullying and a disinterest in the well-being of people.

As for the US of A. I suspect it is too late to change their culture now. Like climate change, the tipping point may be past. At least I can’t see anything good happening for as long as they keep adopting simple solutions to complex problems.

Please don’t let this happen in your group, your organisation, your family.


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  2. I don't quite see how this is relevant