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Social disasters stem from the gradual acceptance of unacceptable (but small) changes. Step by unchallenged little step, we march as a whole towards a greater outcome we would not otherwise choose.

Social disasters can start from both bad and good intentions.

A politician fans xenophobia in their community to gain support and power. As the rhetoric ramps up over time, the majority of the population gradually and quietly accept the incremental change. Until disaster strikes in the form of civil war or genocide. Only then will the peaceful majority look up and ask “WTF happened?”

A social movement seeks to reduce discrimination against a community group. As the movement gains traction, it starts to advocate increasingly stringent controls over speech and thought. Laws are changed. Some words are banned. Certain topics of discussions are criminalised. Books are burnt. Then one day, everyone wakes up to find they are living in a tightly-regulated fascist state where all dissent and disagreements are not tolerated.

This phenomenon is seen within the microcosm of an organisation’s culture too.

A new CEO starts imposing more and more numbers-based metrics throughout the organisation. No one speaks up because the changes are gradual. And changes were inevitable anyway when a new CEO comes in. No one notices as morale drops and staff starts leaving in dribs and drabs. A few years later, someone suddenly realises that staff turnover has shot through the roof over the past few years. By then, the organisation’s reputation as a people-centred place of work lies in tatters.

Another new CEO wants to make their organisation more inclusive. A slew of diversity measures are put in place. Hiring practices becomes more focused on diversity instead of merit. New hires sometimes lack core technical skills to do the work, but they look great on the website. Social cohesion and communication problems are ignored because to raise concerns is seen as being anti-diversity. Resentment and divisions grow between the old guard and the new hires, again unrecognised and unaddressed. Feeling unheard and unvalued, the old guard eventually leave in frustration, taking their vast technical knowledge with them.

So what can we do about it?

We speak up. When we see something not right, something unacceptable, however small, we should speak up. Write about it, talk about it. It is unlikely this one act of speaking up will change anything. But cumulatively, our voices matter. And it will also matter to the individuals being wronged.

We inquire. We ask why something is happening. Why people think and feel a certain way. Why it is happening or not happening now. Appreciative inquiry is asking with a genuine, non-judgemental curiosity. We are not asking to condemn, dismiss or belittle.

We listen. Active listening is about trying to place ourselves in others’ shoes. So we get a visceral understanding of what is going on for them, above and beyond the content of their words. Feeling heard can itself be a transformative experience for many people.

We take direct action. Sometimes direct action is required. This can be signing a petition (a real one that has impact, not a social media Like or Amen), giving money to a movement, changing aspects of how we work and live, and joining a public protest.

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