The Price We Pay for Stability

December 1, 2001

In this issue:

Newsbrief: Walking in Their Moccasins
Editorial: The Price We Pay for Stability, by John Renesch
Newsbrief: Anita Roddick Website
Newsbrief: NPR’s “Marketplace” to Air Show on Spirit and Business
Next Month: “Frankenwork:” Confusing People and Machines


Walking in Their Moccasins

The November 2001 issue of Personal Excellence magazine – published by Executive Excellence Publishing – features an article by John and his good friend Alan Parisse entitled “Walking in Their Moccasins” about the value of using personal coaches who have previously held the position of the executives they are serving; Alan is a full-time professional speaker based in Colorado.


Systems of all sorts resist change. That is not new to anyone who’s wanted to make even small changes in a large organization, or who’s tried to make larger changes in a small system. A colleague recently proposed that you cannot really change systems; you can only “disturb” them.

For the sake of this article, I’m describing a system as a group of social relationships that are used to acting and reacting a certain way – a web of sets which can include traditions, habits, values, practices, unspoken agreements, role playing and many other dynamics. A relationship with a friend or loved one is a system, especially if it has existed for some time. A family is a system. A company is a system. Communities (large and small) are systems. Industries and cultures are systems.

The age of the system can affect how much resistance it offers to any attempts to change it. The same can be true of systems that are really large – like widely held corporations and national or ethnic cultures.

While different systems are intended for different purposes, there is one attribute they all share: all systems seek stability. They do not want to be destabilized. A system will seek stability before anything else – even before doing what it is supposed to do.

We’ve all seen this in action. A company will refuse to change something that will make it better simply because it cannot accept the changes that will be necessary to make the improvement. A married couple refuses to change the way they relate since they are used to things being a certain way – familiar, known and predictable, even if painful or unsatisfying.

In simple terms, it is a matter of comfort. There’s an unspoken agreement – a “contract” of sorts which the parties abide by – which allows them all to remain within their comfort zones, even if it is painful to maintain the status quo. There is loyalty to the “familiar discomfort” which is more preferable to the “unfamiliar discomfort.”

This dynamic – this trade off – is at the core of all dysfunctional systems. We see it in the abused spouse who refuses to file a complaint or leave his/her partner. We see it with the alcoholic family. Co-dependency plays a role here too.

In a business system, the “familiar discomfort” is seen as preferable to anything unfamiliar for a set of similar reasons. It is known and stable. It is the new comfort zone, the one we have become accustomed to. Even if the existing system is erratic and oscillates, it does so within familiar ranges for which there is a tolerance. So the resigned logic is: “At least we know how to deal with this; if we change, who knows how things will work?”

But this new comfort – this familiar discomfort – comes at a dear price, besides the pain we cause ourselves. When we resign ourselves to sticking with the status quo, despite its dysfunctionality, we sell a piece of ourselves. We sell out that part of us that knows we are not stretching ourselves, that we are playing it safe and sacrificing passion, possibility, and vision for better things. We sell our capacity for any other joyful and creative endeavor, whether it be a romance or a company, a school system or a political party, a family or a sports team.

The price we pay is that we are deprived of knowing real success. We rob ourselves of excellence in whatever we are attempting. We steal the joy from our hearts that comes with being fully-engaged, with vigor and lots of energy. We sentence ourselves to mediocrity.

All for the sake of a perverse desire for comfort and familiarity.

I recall learning about an experiment on amebas in the 1970s. Under laboratory conditions the technicians stimulated the amebas constantly, keeping them agitated, simulating continuous discomfort. All the amebas died. No big surprise.

Then they sought just the right temperature and maintained that setting – simulating total comfort. So they lived forever right? No. Big surprise! Again, all the amebas died. Then the experimenters alternated between discomfort and comfort, so the amebas received a mixture of constant stimulation and a tepid environment. They discovered that life went on and the amebas exhibited what could be called “healthy” behavior. So, while constant discomfort can kill, so can constant comfort!

The price we pay for new levels of comfort – the “familiar discomfort” – is that we are killing ourselves. By remaining in the tepid water of our familiarities – be they friendships, marriages, companies, and industries – we are committing suicide, beginning by killing our spirit, then by killing our souls, and finally killing our bodies.

This is a dear price to pay for stability.

And make no bones about it, systems consist of people and every one of us is a part of dozens (if not hundreds) of systems (family, culture, education, industry, political affiliation, race, and many, many more). Thus, while the systems we belong to have enormous influence over us, we are part of those systems. In fact, we had a hand in creating them – something we tend to forget. We give them legitimacy. Any power they have over us is power we are giving to them. By becoming more aware of this, we can start making different choices so that we do not blindly succumb to these forces. New choices may mean new discomforts – unfamiliar discomfort – but it beats selling one’s soul.


Author note: The conclusion of this piece provides a good segue to next month’s topic, what author/consultant Sally Helgesen calls “frankenwork” in her latest book, Thriving in 24/7.

Anita Roddick Website

Anita Roddick has created her own website, separate from The Body Show which she and her husband Gordon started in 1976. The site offers a free newsletter written by Anita plus offers many of her thoughts and philosophies.

NPR’s “Marketplace” to Air Show on Spirit and Business

John is to be interviewed by NPR’s “Marketplace” show for a special radio program on spirit in the workplace, which may become a regular series, according to the show’s producer Judy Martin. The show is scheduled to be broadcast the week before the Christmas holiday. Check local listings for scheduled air times.
About John Renesch

Better Future NEWS is prepared monthly by John Renesch, a San Francisco writer, futurist, and consultant/executive coach. John served as Editor-in-Chief of The New Leaders business newsletter from 1990 to 1997 and has created a dozen business anthologies on progressive business subjects, including consciousness, intuition and leadership. These books include New Traditions in Business, Learning Organizations and The New Bottom Line. His latest book is Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing.

John is also an international keynote SPEAKER, having addressed audiences in Tokyo, Seoul, London, Brussels, Budapest as well as many cities throughout the U.S. For a list of all the SERVICES John offers, go to Services.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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