I am not what I think I am.
I am not what you think I am.
I am what I think you think I am.
Got that? It’s called “the looking glass self” theory.
Briefly, people construct their identity based on not what they think they are, not what other people think they are as they can’t know that, but on what they think others think of them. That’s actually longer than those first 3 sentences and more confusing, so I advise you read that hyperlink above to lazy bloggers friend explaining much better.
So what’s this got to do with systems thinking then?
Everything is connected. When a service is designed in such a way that people receive a service passively with the expert (social worker, planner, police) in charge, they see themselves as passive consumers. They see they are being treated as passive consumers of a service that should be helping them, so they become passive consumers.
There’s a nice description of this in Delivering Public Services That Work (Vol 2), “Chapter 9 Understanding Demand” by Richard Davis. He talks about how being seen as a “consumer” or “customer” reduces people to passively “consuming” such complex services as special needs childcare.
There was a memorable example of this during a systems intervention in Housing Benefits. A man (I almost typed ‘customer’, it is too easy) sits down at the desk where the benefits assessor looks at her screen and sees that the man is flagged as a violent customer. He has has arguments with staff before and this means she is warned as to “what he is like”.
The man is terse, on edge, ready to argue. He is fitting in exactly with his role.
The benefits assessor would be expected to use words like “With respect Sir”, frostily and with little respect. Perhaps ready to leap upon any minor swearing with “I will not tolerate any offensive language, any further swearing and I will ask you to leave.” She would be fitting in with her role by seeing in the chippy face of the man opposite that he is expecting another obstructive bureaucrat.
You’ll have been here before if you’ve ever argued with an official.
However, this is a systems intervention. The benefits assessor, she looks at his records, sees he has been repeatedly coming into the customer service office to have his case looked at. Why does he keep coming back? She looks at his case, speaks to the angry man asking him questions, she works out what is the issue and solves it for him. She is working on the problem that he has with him. Now he isn’t an angry violent man. He is grateful and happy. At last! Someone has listened to him and helped him. The disgraceful thing is that a service he had received had been poor and made him react with frustration as any human would. This labelled him, literally.
The system did this to him, just as the system does this to staff working in it too. People in and receiving a service from a system, are defined by it whether it is good or bad.
NB this post is called as it is, as I saw this documentary about Victoria Pendleton and it was rivetting, and there seemed to be a fair bit of this. I’m no psychologist, but I’ll diagnose just the same. This is not a post about Victoria Pendleton, but have a read of this and see if you can spot any scripty behaviour. Or better still, next time you are in a queue, watch you act like cattle. Or when stopped by a policeman start feeling guilty as he looks at you suspiciously.