Trust in U.S. institutions is at all time lows in 2023. 26% of people have faith in 9 major U.S. institutions in 2023, down from about 40% in 2003 – says Gallup, who has been measuring this since 1979. Small Businesses and the Military have the greatest confidence with 65% and 60% respectively while congress and big business are at the low end with fewer than 20% of people claiming they have “a great deal of confidence” in those institutions. Large Technology Companies are not much better, at 26% confidence.
What is going on here? Is it our recent political polarization? The COVID-19 pandemic which drove us into our homes and isolated us? Is it the rapid pace of social and technological change that is undermining people’s confidence?
A former collegue and friend Tobias Mayer shared a post by Jenny Sinclair for an organization called Together for the Common Good. It points to the same decline of western civilization from a Catholic perspective with Capitalism’s rise of individualism, the commodification of the human body. In her case, she calls for spiritual and civic renewal – recognizing the sanctity of human life. While I am not sure with all the conclusions of her post (abortion and euthanasia in particular), the characterization of the attack on our humanity and the culture of death caused me to see some recent trends in a new light.
I’m inclined to believe that the longer term trends towards isolation and individualism, carefully described in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam in 2000, may be the caused primarily by technological driven change. While he explores multiple factors contributing to a decline in civic participation — suburbanization, long commute times and women joining the workforce — the main cause Putnam claims was technology individualizing people’s leisure time. At that time it was television and the Internet, although he admits early chat rooms and groups could accelerate community. Since he published that book in 2000, we have now have social media, virtual reality and artificial intelligence competing for life in face to face civil society.
A one bright spot Putnam noted in 2000 was that Americans tend to spend a lot of time in professional associations. For me personally, living in the Bay Area, I recall a vibrant pre-pandemic patchwork of meetups including Bay ALN meetup and the Engineering Leadership Special Interest Groups, multiple agile meetups. It was a source of personal connection and meaning for me, in addition to helping my career generally. During the pandemic I attended very few of these. Why is that?
When I did I tended to do so half heartedly, often multi-tasking with my camera off. I wonder why they were so much less engaging. Was it the effort I had to spend to commute to the meetup, the social pressure to stay focused on what was in front of me, or the chance encounters of new friends and old acquaintances that made these more engaging for me?
Meetup claims their own internal data shows the fastest-growing groups host both “IRL and Online Events”. While they admit that meeting online is much more convenient (As a host you don’t have to book a space, your participants don’t have to commute, and your speaker can be from anywhere) they recognize the loss of face to face interactions.
Most companies have also adopted this kind of hybrid approach to their work culture. Attend between 4-12 days a month in the office. Plan and build connections. Then crank widgets the rest of the time. For most workers, the benefits to flexibility, not to mention those with young children or aging parents, outweigh the cost of face to face interactions.
For my own mental health, I need the social aspect of the “third place”. Leaving my home, having to put on nicer clothes, going to the office, the small talk fills some kind of need that remote work does not. Maybe it has to do with me being an ambivert. I need the interaction.
Others are different and can live for many months without that stuff. A few colleagues of mine are this way. My recently passed father in law Robert Fujimura said he thrived during the pandemic because he was an introvert. And yet, even for these introverts, they claim some socialization in person helped them get more done faster. And yet many now call what we are experiencing a “Epidemic of Loneliness“. Even for my father in law, I can’t help but wonder if his memory decline was associated with his isolation – and being a widower from his wife – introvert scientist though he was.
Could our evolution as a species have something to do with this?
Jonathan Haidt, and evolutionary psychologist claims in part three of A Righteous Mind that humans are “90% chimpanzee, 10% bee”. Chimpanzees are mostly selfish, compete with one another for sex, food and status. Bees, (and termites and wasps) are the most group oriented animals in nature, and divide up their labor, will die to protect the hive.
Haidt claims that humans have become successful in terms of overall biomass compared to chimpanzees because of what he calls our ultrasociality – our ability to live in very large groups that have some internal structure and can benefit from the division of labor. We are willing to cooperate with one another, divide up tasks to achieve common goals (more than living in a flock or a herd). Whether it’s to hunt, gather, raise children or raid your neighbors village, prehistorical humans were better at coordinating than chimps because we have a capacity for what he calls shared intentionality. 
Why does this matter? Not only for our own health and sanity individually, we need to work together to achieve our shared goals. For instance – winning a football game, building a new product, creating a successful startup, or battling climate change – all require us to work together. Most of our lives are spent in corporations, however, these corporations might not be getting the most they can from us.
Inside institutions, Gallup measured only two in 10 U.S. employees feel connected to their company culture. Those who are connected to their companies mission are 3.7x more likely to be engaged, 5x more likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work, and 68% less likely to feel burned out a work very often or always, and 55% less likely to be looking for new job opportunities. The phenomenon of quiet quitting, and the great resignation had CEO’s worried over the last three years. Enough for engineering executives to be worried enough for companies like McKinsey to author papers to prey on this anxiety with articles like: Yes, you can measure developer productivity and Kent Beck’s response suggesting this is a bad idea.
So, if connection and cooperation is important, but fragile and hard to creat – it’s useful to understand how we can trigger what Haidt calls the “hive switch”. His hypothesis is that if you create the right environment, you are able create “synchrony – a spirit of all for one and one for all – where you are truly working for the good of the group, and not just for their own advancement within the group.”
How do you create this environment? Haidt himself shares that singing together, marching together, dancing together and even taking hallucinogenic drugs together can stimulate the conditions for a “Hive Switch”.
While you probably won’t be having raves at work anytime soon — unless you are Michael Scott, and you create an espresso fueled disco party — there are some steps he suggests to build shared intentionality.
- Increase similarity, not diversity. If you want to make a human hive, make everyone feel like a family. Don’t call attention to racial and ethnic differences – make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating shared values and common identity.
- Exploit synchrony – people who move together and say “we are one, one team”. The example is company exercises in the morning at Toyota, rituals like “the Haka for the All Blacks” or my own personal favorite, and actual daily standup meeting (where you are standing in a circle around a kanban board).
- Create healthy competition between groups, not individuals. Intramural sports competitions, or between group rivalries.
I don’t necessarily understand all his recommendations. I’ll try to treat number 1 and 3, which I have the most challenge with individually.
- It seems strange to avoid increasing diversity in 2023 when we are finally addressing systemic racism and lack of gender diversity in tech companies where I work. Helping people feel they belong to your church, company, nation or family for who they are, seems to have all kinds of benefits for individuals as this intervention on belonging shows.
- For friends I have in under-represented groups – this kind of lack of a feeling of belonging has led to them disengaging and wanting to quit. That seems wrong ethically – it’s unfair to individual. It also doesn’t make much business sense to employe someone then not get the most from that individual.
- It could be Haidt meant to amplify our “similarity” or human-ness, rather than our differences. This would seem to be consistent with his later work in “The Coddling of the American Mind”, where he wrote about what he calls the common-humanity ethic – referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, the marriage equality act of 2012 and others, contrasted from the great untruth of “Life is a battle between good people and evil people”. I will choose to interpret it this more charitable way vs the negative way of reducing diversity to gain productive and healthy teams.
I’m not sure what healthy competition looks like in practice. Is this like the Olympic games? Done in the spirit of our common humanity? Softball leagues are good, but interdepartmental rivalry seems fraught.
In this case I look to Deming who claimed in the New Economics that competition will eventually cause a human system to be destroyed. As he says:
Left to themselves in the Western world, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centers, and thus destroy the system. The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. We cannot afford the destructive effect of competition.Deming, W. Edwards. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, third edition (p. 36). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
Instead, he claims, we need a greater level of cooperation between groups – people, companies, even between nations to enable greater prosperity. This is the case for organizations that have enabled a focus on partnerships, an ecosystem strategy, where we work together for mutual benefit.
The system must be managed, and managed toward an aim. His suggested aim is
The aim proposed here for any organization is for everybody to gain—stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, community, the environment—over the long term.Deming, W. Edwards. The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, third edition (p. 36). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
In other words, win-win-win.
This is why I agree that amplifying our shared humanity with words like family reduces the effects of a kind of self-orientation. Self orientation erodes trust, as people believe your vision or purpose is self seeking.
In David Maister’s famous “trust equation” from his book A Trusted Advisor, the denominator that eroded trust for consultants most was the orientation towards the self. It outweighs the benefits of competence, intimacy, and reliability.
There are deep cultural assumptions in the US around competition. In US management, we believe we need to measure and manage people individually to get high performance. This harmful assumption, destroys our ability to work together and help one another. So who cares about that, as long as I’m getting mine?
In a world where we need more cooperation to get things done, and our trust and connection to our organizations purpose is more and more eroded, amplifying our common humanity, across races, generations, genders, religions, political parties, whether urban or rural helps us solve problems together. Assuming it’s for the right kind of purpose (like solving our climate crisis, a global pandemic, urban decline or fentanyl addiction) vs the wrong kind (a dangerous populism, xenophobic nationalism or destructive war), I’m all aboard.
Maybe the feature of humanity that makes it cohesive and cooperative is one that can be harnessed for good or ill, and it’s up to us to make sure we are serving a mission that is pure.
Personally, I’ve found my greatest motivation when I’m working toward a common goal with others, amongst a group that cares about me as a person. I did this during the COVID pandemic with a non profit contact tracing group, doing Salesforce pro bono work, or at my son’s scout troop.
This is more towards the notion of transformational leadership where individuals set aside their selfish interests and work toward a common vision, giving them autonomy on how to achieve those goals. I enjoy working on a team that is trying to achieve a noble mission greater than my own career advancement. Even if it’s the survival of the company.
For me, this is why I do what I do. Creating this kind of experience for others gives me purpose because it creates more joy, purpose and connection for others. Whether it’s in my Scout Troop, my Church, my company or family. It doesn’t have to be in person, but having in person interactions for me makes that feeling of belonging so much easier. Espresso anyone?
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (pp. 234-235). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 258). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.