Very often I find myself listening to people talking about their levels of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction in their work environments, work relationships, personal lives and even marriages. What always takes me by surprise is how long people spend in states of dissatisfaction feeling helpless and unable to see the options available to them. As a psychologist my role is to use frameworks to help people find a way out of what it is that they are stuck in. One such framework is the simple Change Situation offered by Adam Grant in his book Originals (2016).
Having used this framework with several clients, both in the corporate and private sector, I’m always surprised at how well it lands. It successfully enables people to step up and out of the detail of their situation and clarify the options they have available. In doing so, it almost immediately provides you with a sense of control, understanding and agency – the self belief that you can make a change and shift your current situation. From there – it’s up to you to explore which option is best and what acting on that may practically look like.
So lets get to the point:
Grant (2016) suggests that when facing a difficult decision or dissatisfaction in an organizational setting or even a personal relationship you have 4 choices. You can Exit, Voice, Neglect or Persist. They are visually displayed below:
The options are further split up into passive and active. The bottom two options, Neglect and Persist are both passive in the sense that they will continue to maintain the status quo. If you choose to Neglect the situation, you will be emotionally, mentally and perhaps even relationally checking yourself out. In the work context this looks like the ostrich with its head in the sand at best, and a very aloof disinterested employee at worst. We have all been in this space or seen this acted out as someone feels so frustrated or dissatisfied with the situation that they quite literally just ‘switch off’ -making it very difficult to get things done and equally difficult to work with. For these reasons the choice of Neglect is seen to be detrimental to the organization, and the situation stagnates.
You can also choose to Persist. This option is less harmful to the organization than neglect because you are still engaged in your work function, but it also still maintains the status quo and nothing actually changes. In Persist, you adopting the “grit your teeth and bear it” mentality. It is effective in the short-term but generally is not sustainable and before you know it, you will be in the Neglect state.
Whilst Neglect and Persist have different impacts on the organization, neither of them shift the situation. If you want to shift the situation you have to be active, and in doing so adopt either Exit or Voice.
Exit needs no explanation. You’ve looked at your situation conducted some analysis and realized that this organization is not a good fit for you and potentially you are not a good fit for them. There is nothing wrong with exiting a detrimental environment – one in which you are not contributing positively towards. Exiting requires action, and whilst it may be detrimental for the organization to lose you and your skill set, you both stand to lose if you choose Neglect rather than Exit. In Exiting, the situation changes by default because you are no longer in the midst of a dissatisfying environment.
The last choice, perhaps the most difficult is Voice. Voice requires action. It requires you to speak your mind in the right way to the right people at the right time. It requires courage and often persistence. It will likely be met with push-back but can be the only active way in which you can change your situation of dissatisfaction and in doing so benefit the organization. To “Voice” effectively you need emotional intelligence, you need to be able to read the situation and your own emotions to ensure your message is communicated successfully. In Voice, you shift the status quo and in doing so you shift the situation.
But it is not easy. Especially when you are the single voice.
Voice is made more difficult when you are the single representative within the team or organization because so often we rely on the collective affirmation of others before or while raising our own voice. This is why the research by McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace (2019) is so helpful. This research highlights the systemic damage that results in organizational settings where women are the single representation in senior boards and management forums. Their research suggests that 20% of women in the workplace reported that they were the only women in the room. The danger of single representation is not limited to gender. It extends to race, age, language, culture and even sexuality.
Here is a quick self reflection experiment to give meaning to this concept –
I want you to think about when last YOU were ‘the only’ person, in any way, in the room.
Note: In South Africa, there is a chance that as a white male, this situation has never happened to you. In which case – this is a bit of a shocking “AhhHa” moment – especially if you are the leader of a team or organization. If so – actively try place yourself in a context where you are the single representative as a sort of diversity social experiment.
- You probably would have noticed that you were the single representative almost immediately because as human beings we are unconsciously attuned to finding a sense of belonging using external features like skin color or gender.
- You probably would have felt uncomfortable, even out of place, very quickly.
- You probably would have noticed yourself speaking less, if at all.
- You probably would have felt more harshly or acutely judged when you did voice an opinion.
- You may have felt like you weren’t taken seriously. You may have wondered why you were in the meeting in the first place.
- You may have been more critical of the meeting and the outcomes of the meeting (although you won’t voice this until you are in an environment in which you feel more comfortable).
The challenge for leaders is the need to look around your meeting forums and observe who may feel like the single representative in any way in those spaces.
Ask yourself, how do I as the leader remain aware of this? How do I ask their opinion more so? How do I draw out their voice more? How do I affirm when they do speak and better still – How do I work actively to build more diverse teams to make sure they are not the single representative going forward? Lastly, what practices or policies exist in my team or organization that make it hard for people to voice their concerns?
Failure to attend to these questions will result in your top talent feeling that they have no Voice and are left with only one option – Exit.
The beauty of Grants framework is in its simplicity. When we apply a contextual lens of the challenges of what it means to adopt Voice to change a situation, we realize the complexity therein. So, what current stagnation are you experiencing in your work, team, personal or leadership role? How can this model be of assistance to you?
Tamryn Batcheller-Adams is an independent consultant, who partners with TomorrowToday, working with businesses and individuals to bring the best out of themselves and their teams. Using her background in psychology, she utilizes tools and frameworks to work with organizations in team development, inter-group conflict resolution and personal/ professional growth. She is also a counselling psychologist in private practice in Kenilworth, Cape Town, interested in early development and therapy with children and adolescents. Chat to us if you’d like to find out how Tamryn can assist your team to be better prepared for the future.