Innovation and Conversations About Status

One bit of professional reading for my current position has stuck with me for a few weeks. It was a couple of blog posts about change, and specifically, about the notion that people who resist change can have genuine concerns that need to be addressed.

Which is, of course, objectively true. And yet, unsettling as well; it came from someone who I’ve long considered a strong proponent of innovation and change and all that. But that’s not the real issue.

The real issue (and it took several days of mulling for me to realize it) is that the post start from the supposition that this type of conversation is about what the conversation’s words are about.

In short: A lot of conversations about new stuff are not so much about the new stuff, but about the relative status of the participants in the conversation.

It’s hard to know how extensive this phenomenon is. I only know about it from observation in my own experiences. And I can’t offer much evidence apart from those experiences. But looking back at those experiences with the perspective of several years… It’s the only explanation that I can imagine, for example, for debating in 2005 about whether the internet is something worthwhile for a magazine to tap.

It is, incidentally. I think that was evident well before 2005. But plenty of arguments against it were made, and they wound up successful. It took 4 more years before we had a functioning web site. And none of those arguments proved remotely legitimate.

Another examplette, one that’s even wobblier: A few years ago, my employer had a president who made quite a bad stir by making some rather disparaging comments about the “blog people.” Fast forward to the present day, and said president was spotted commenting away on one of those blog people’s blogs.

Now, the president is a senior member of the profession, and the blog he was haunting is also written by a senior member. So I suspect (admittedly, completely without evidence to back this up) that there are generational factors at work: When the president was attacking the blog people, was he actually attacking the existence of blogs, or was he just declaring how valuable and relevant he was? And when he granted his seal of approval to his contemporary’s blog, was he recognizing the value of blogs, or just saying “You’re a person I consider valid.”

It’s unfair, of course, to claim to know the thoughts of others. And yet, I’m convinced that this type of thing happens in the workplace.

So how do you determine what’s about work and what’s about social status? That’s a tricky question, and I don’t have an answer. Some of it involves the work environment; some places catalyze status-based discussions in a way that others don’t. But I don’t have a foolproof plan for identifying specific instances.

What do you think? Share your ideas in the comments.

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