Humans are an endangered species – Margaret Wheatley interview

Margaret Wheatley profile photo

Expect some stark warnings when Margaret Wheatley addresses the Australia New Zealand Third Sector Research conference in Otautahi this coming November. Ahead of her arrival, Stephen Blyth spoke with the writer and leadership consultant.
If you wake up and wonder where things are heading in this crazy world, you will find a kindred spirit in Margaret J Wheatley.
In her 40 year career as a writer and management consultant she’s been doing some very deep thinking about human nature, culture, power and leadership.  Building on her earlier exploration of what it takes to persevere, Wheatley released in 2013 a challenging volume “So Far from Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World”.
It’s obvious Wheatley reckons we are in a predicament.
“We’re become the most endangered species on the planet because we’re the least adaptive”, Wheatley says.
“It’s called survival of a species! That’s what is going on right now – we’re not acting as every other species on the planet acts, which is to take in information, make a decision about it and adapt.”
There are lots of reasons for this. Critical among these, and relevant to anyone with an interest in community-based research, is a failure to give enough weight to learning.
“When humans don’t take time to learn, then life very quickly becomes meaningless. We don’t see patterns, we don’t reason, we don’t use our higher human capacities. So life becomes very burdensome.
For Wheatley this not only means we repeat the mistakes of the past, but people keep doing the same thing over again. She cites the aphorism attributed to Einstein: insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result. Alarmingly, Wheatley sees humans doing the same thing infinitely, ad infinitum.
“About the only things that shifts, is that we don’t think the process we’re using is wrong, we just do it faster and with more mean spiritedness. We’re not questioning at a fundamental level what would be a different process, what would be a different way of thinking about this problem”, explains Wheatley.
Faced with these pressures many people experience exhaustion, illnesses, and cynicism. As a survival tactic people are withdrawing.
“It’s the pressure of being overwhelmed by too much to do, that actually keeps people from even being in relationship with others. That’s the one thing I see now is, when I asked people how they’re doing, they used to say they’re busy, then they started saying “Oh, I’m busy, busy, busy”, and now they’re saying things like “I’m crazy busy” or “insanely busy”.
This can occur in workplaces where managers and leaders don’t create an environment where people can express their deeper human qualities. In fact, Wheatley says that sometimes those in charge ignore they’ve actually got people working for them.
“I now actually say to leaders, you have to make a choice about how you’re using your power and influence: are you just going to continue to go along and lead to this increasing degradation of human capacity by over-policing, over-regulating, over-monitoring, as a command and control leadership style. Are you going to do that? Because if you do that, you’ve gone unconscious basically,” says Wheatley.
Even those working for good causes are not immune to these dynamics. The ways we structure our work can get in the way of the things we most want to achieve.
“What we’re living through right now, is the forms we have chosen to organise good work, are now the actual impediments.”
Something that really alarms Wheatley is how trends playing out within organisations are expressed more widely in society.
“There is so much aggression, so much fear, it seems obvious to me that leaders use fear of the other, the stranger, as a tactic for gaining control over people. You know, that works, it really does,” argues Wheatley.
This leads to a situation where we become more self-protective and less caring for others as the fear is ramped up.
Yet amidst all this seeming negativity, Wheatley is not intending to increase our despair. Wheatley argues that calmly, clearly describing how we see the world is essential if we are to truly get to grips with it. Otherwise we are in danger of deluding ourselves.
If this appears harsh, but it’s not intended to be. Wheatley continues to offer pragmatic, well targeted questions which she encourages people to sit with others to probe and examine. Her advice: acknowledge any fears, and suppressed questions, then talk.
“It’s very hard to do it in isolation, it can be quite frightening. Yet, if we think together then we have created what we need, which is being together as the great resource, for then dealing what is,” Wheatley advises.
The author is at pains to remind us despite much of the world living within increasingly individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture, this is contrary to human nature.
“While it isn’t always discernible now-a-days, we are innately generous, not self-serving, we innately want to learn, we want to care for each other, we want to be in good relationships. We all seek happiness, and we all seek a feeling of value to our lives – why are we alive?
These are qualities Wheatley firmly believes we all share, not matter what our current situation.
Even though it is common to hear people talk of being overwhelmed and insanely busy, with our better qualities being submerged, Wheatley says they’re not lost. People are grateful when given opportunity to express these.
“If you want to evoke the better qualities of human nature, you have to create the conditions for thinking, for reflection, for working together, for generosity to come forth,” Wheatley suggests.
There is a vital role for leaders in creating the conditions by which we can do this. She’s long called for creating “islands of sanity”.
“And as a solution for life in organisations, reclaiming time to think, which I speak about all the time now, is such a healthy, robust [thing to do]. It gives you so many capacities. It is a simple act but one that takes a lot of prioritising and a lot of courage to do it. But once you get people thinking again in the workplace, it solves a myriad of problems.
A concept Wheatley turns to in her most recent work is that of “warriors for human spirit”.
“I use the term warrior in a counter western-culture way. It comes from the Tibetan word for warrior, as one who is brave. But the bravery isn’t about going into battle with weapons, but the bravery is about choosing a different kind of weapon,” Wheatley explains.
“This is both our compassion, our generosity of spirit, our belief that the human spirit is worth fighting for, that other people are worth struggling for, and perhaps the greatest challenge of all, is trying to refrain from acting aggressively at a time when aggression is the norm.”
Wheatley sees anyone capable of these, if we are willing to step forward. These may seem high ideals but she seems convinced this is possible based on a lifetime of observation and experience, scientific knowledge, a questioning perspective and spirituality.
Wheatley’s words of encouragement will always be there for when we are ready to embrace the challenge she has thrown down.
“If we do go forth as these warriors for the human spirit, then a lot is possible,” Wheatley says.

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