'If only' versus 'as if' mentality

First published on the NHS Do OD blog.

The world of work we live in is increasingly turbulent and chaotic and many of our leaders are burdened by this complexity and may not always know how to react to the challenges. As a result, many of us feel confused and frustrated and wish someone would give us clear directions and tell us how to work effectively in these conditions. As Bion from Tavistock pointed out, when our need of dependence on our leader is not met, a growing sense of frustration, disillusionment and anxiety tends to arise. This in turn will provide fertile ground for the growth of what I call the 'if only' mentality.

The 'if only' mentality expresses a deep yearning that 'if only' certain conditions existed in this environment, would I then be able to do X, Y and Z.

These thoughts always start with sincere desires, for example: I am eager to do my best; I want to make a difference; I know what my leaders want. However, they are followed by: 'if only...'

  • the environment I work in is a bit safer
  • I am given permission to do this, or my boss empowers me to
  • my colleagues will collaborate 
  • I am not so overburdened by non-essential work
  • we are told with greater clarity about the direction in which we are going
  • the culture is more conducive to allowing us to think and dream
  • this place is not so hierarchical.

The list can go on and on.   

I recently watched 250 public servants doing a future search conference. The sentiment expressed about the future was dominated by 'if only' statements and I felt saddened that the workforce had chosen to imprison themselves by this mentality.

'If only' thinking comes from a very limiting mental model, in which we need the world (and people within it) to move towards us to create the conditions under which we can be successful and only if those conditions are supplied can we offer our best, be successful and be satisfied. In this thinking, we let the environment dominate and drive our behaviour and we don't have the power to make choices and behave otherwise. Such thinking, over time, will not only sub-optimise our performance but also have a negative impact on our morale and motivation. 

What is the alternative mentality? It is the dominating environment mindset that is embodied in thoughts such as: 'I know that in this fast-moving and turbulent work, the chance that the world would move towards me and offer me all the conditions I need to survive and thrive are limited and I will not use this as an excuse to sub-optimize my performance. Instead, I will act 'as if' I have been given the power to improve the quality of public services our government is offering to the citizens. I will act 'as if' my colleagues welcome me to initiate collaboration across ministries to fix sticky issues and I will act 'as if' my leader will be happy if my team delivers one of his/her agenda items.

The 'as if' mentality requires individuals to focus on:

  • the greater good - the collective agenda for which we all have a mandate
  • how to express our values through our work
  • dreams and desires we want to aim for 
  • our need to become more potent and innovative in our ways of solving problems and achieving results
  • the many possibilities of leveraging improvements to services
  • achieving a higher level of impact in order to make a difference in the lives of those we serve.

To behave 'as if' requires us to stop over-obsessing with safety, and limiting self-perceptions. When we act in this way we can make positive improvements to benefit clients and customers, raise their respect for the organisation, improve working conditions for ourselves and others.  

Maybe in time we won't need a special change programme, because the transformation of the organisation will be happening continuously as every one of you reading this blog will be acting 'as if' you have the power to make things better day by day. We all need to own our performance output and be people who will bring improvement and change to our work. By doing so, I can guarantee you will experience an increasing sense of being awesome. Being cool is easy, being awesome takes practice.