Recently a colleague shared with me how a vast number of young people engaging themselves in movements exhaust themselves within a few months. They stepped in for example to address the need for climate change and end up diagnosed with burnout.
There is a similarity in how similar events unfold in organizations.
Starting a movement usually is the result of a felt injustice or a sense that a major problem is not being addressed properly. The origin of many of the movements appearing on social media is popular outrage. It starts with people sharing their opinion on social media, finding peers, and continuously seeking to make their point visible. In the attention economy, this is validated by likes and achieved by raising one’s voice even further than others. Often, by showing even more outrage than others.
As the movement gets started, the focus is on sharing the outrage and making it visible to the world. The objective becomes to let go of the experienced frustration and push others into acting.
In principle, there is sound logic in it, as the individual will not be able to solve the cause they are outraged about. They thus seek to stimulate those who have the power to act to move the cause forward.
However, maybe especially after the pandemic, people have lost trust and desire to see an immediate change to be comforted in the rightfulness and success of their engagement. They have lost the ability to give change time to happen.
At the same time, the problems they see are so big, that people settle into panic. It is a belief that their survival is at stake and that they will not be cared for by those who are responsible to do so. It is the sense that if change doesn’t happen now, chaos will result. The crisis of the last years added to the sense that chaos already is there.
In this state, people continue to focus on outrage to cover up their fear and have a sense of bringing change about that will solve the problem. However, as they are focused on their emotions more than on the task they are engaged in, they fail to invest themselves in an objective. They are invested in avoiding the sense of helplessness that exists when such a big cause as climate change needs to be addressed. It is almost unimaginable, for everyone, to imagine how the problem can be solved when the neighbors are not invested in the same cause or are less interested than oneself.
Movements can be an important instrument in caring for a cause. But they need an objective that allows people to settle on an achievement or the end of their movement.
If those engaged continuously feel disappointed about their impact, their sense of helplessness and outrage can only grow.
When asking people to engage in a cause, may it be in an organization, in the community, or at a global level, we can celebrate the fact that they are engaged. And, as we have seen with Greta Thunberg, people can seek to make heroes out of them.
It’s leaving aside that people want to achieve results and want to contribute to their communities. It’s transforming awareness into a result independently from the change this awareness creates and most often doesn’t bring about.
It is celebrating the show instead of the impact.