The Value of Pretending
I have sympathy with the cynicism that greets institutions that claim they wish to change
- Politicians calling for bipartisanship
- Corporations saying they care for the environment
- Marketing departments creating fables about a company that bear little relation to the employee’s perceptions
However, I have come to believe that pretending is a good thing. Every new initiative in life, government or business begins by pretending – whether that is pretending that the business knows what it is doing or by pretending that it is driven by sincerity. I think this was the case (and still often is) with many change initiatives within modern organizations:
- Equal pay for equal work
- Gender diversity in the boardroom
- Racial diversity
- Sustainability and corporate social responsibility
If you traced the arc of change it would likely look like this..
- Outside pressure forces an organization to consider its opinion
- Organization incorporates that pressure into is “messaging.” It is now a statement delivered in an annual report etc.
- Organization now searches for :proof points” Realizes it has a problem backing up its messaging
- Organization sets about collecting proof points – or creating them
- Organization establishes internal roles that seek to institutionalize this process
- Internal roles begin lobbying for more substantive change
- The culture of the organization now begins to adopt these practices and make them part of the norm
In many cases an organization needs to seek out its “best self” – the parts of it that exemplify where it wishes to go. This is always a process.
We all know this to be true in our personal lives. Change begins with desire… “I really want to lose weight”. But the first step is always pretending. The first day you say, “I am on a diet” well… really? But the declaration has force. The more you declare it the harder it is to avoid living up to your claim.
This is also true in politics where, for example, the rhetoric of the British empire that its ultimate aim was to deliver autonomy and self-governance to its colonies was adopted by activists to lobby, shame and cajole them into making good on the pretense.
So next time you find yourself cynically judging corporate rhetoric ask yourself this question. Do I wish this were so? If the answer is yes then pretend you believe it and focus your energy on holding the company (or yourself as an employee or shareholder) to account. It will be time better spent.