Written by
Laurie Cohen

09 Oct 2016

Context and career

09 Oct 2016 • by Laurie Cohen

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers you’ll be familiar with the idea that success is frequently less a question of intelligence and ambition and more a story of birth, antecedence, situation, circumstance and opportunity. This is a message every HR professional would do well to bear in mind.

Reflecting on his own trajectory, Gladwell cites “history’s gifts”. “This is not a book about tall trees,” he says. “It is a book about forests... The culture we belong to and the legitimacies passed on by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.”

Great thinkers throughout the ages have explored similar themes in contemplating the broader relationship between human thought and the context in which it arises. One observation that notably chimes with key aspects of Outliers comes from Karl Mannheim, a founding father of classical sociology, in his seminal essay The Sociological Problem of Generations, written between the World Wars.

“Early impressions tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world,” argues Mannheim. “All later experiences then tend to receive their meaning from this original set, whether they appear as that set’s verification or fulfilment or its negation and antithesis.”

How might we sum up the above in less overtly academic terms? We could fall back on a well-worn phrase and say that we’re all products of our environments; or, perhaps better still, we could follow Gladwell and say that we’re built from the outside in rather than from the inside out.

We never really forget our roots

There are major implications for the workplace if, as suggested, we go through life forever significantly influenced by our formative experiences. It doesn’t automatically follow that we’re innately incapable of change, but the reality is that context is vital to each and every one of us. The profound ways in which people’s backgrounds impact on their work and, importantly, their career development were highlighted in a study I recently carried out with Professor Joanne Duberley, of the University of Birmingham.

We interviewed a number of senior managers who worked together for more than two decades in a local authority’s social services department. Aside from the longevity of their working relationships, three factors made them unusual and compelling from a research standpoint:

  • They were all of similar age, having been born between the mid-1940s and the mid-1950s.
  • They all quit work in 2010 or 2011, mainly taking advantage of early-retirement packages at the height of the sweeping cuts that affected all local authorities in the wake of the global financial crisis.
  • They all continued to meet up years after leaving the authority.

Here was a beautiful and indisputable illustration of Gladwell’s “forest” analogy. At the risk of oversimplification, we might sum up the group’s shared history and career trajectory as follows:

  • Having been raised amid the idealism of the 1960s, they decided to become social workers in the belief that they could “make a difference”.
  • They thrived during the ensuing years, when the public sector was seen as a “force for change”.
  • They were less comfortable during the Thatcher era, which brought a move towards managerialism and a gulf between their own values and those of the wider social services profession.
  • After the financial crisis they increasingly struggled to tolerate what they saw as a determination to dismantle the state and erode the public services they had spent their working lives building.

On one level this all sounds terribly political – or at least decidedly sociopolitical. And in a way – reasonably enough, given the setting for this example – it is.

But the fundamental point is that the worldview forged during the 1960s and 1970s – whether political, ideological or otherwise – remained central to the group’s perceptions of everything that occurred subsequently. It was still guiding them 40 years later. Sometimes the “original set” was verified or confirmed, as posited by Mannheim; and sometimes there was negation or antithesis.

Only true diversity brings success

So what does all this mean from an HR perspective? First and foremost, on an individual level, it shows that people bring a lot more to their careers than just their engagement with the task.

By extension, it also shows that organisations don’t exist in a vacuum. Ideologically, politically, even philosophically, they aren’t isolated from everything external. They can never be miraculously removed from all that’s not in the here and now.

The fact is that a workforce succeeds only when every element of it feels welcome and motivated; and for that to happen an organisation has to accommodate a wealth of perspectives, approaches, mindsets and “natural views of the world”. It’s a question of flexibility, tolerance, awareness and understanding.

Ultimately, as Gladwell said, it’s all about forests. Never forget that every tree retains its roots; and always try to consider what might happen – and what an organisation might just lose – when those roots are damaged, transplanted or even dug up and cast aside.