The psychology of making things happen


We have often addressed in this blog the question of bottom-up versus top down initiatives. The latest has been Barry Cooper’s excellent piece about getting to well-being in a no growth world.

One of the big issues in devising policy and in stimulating action is that it all has to be done within the expectations created by the current system. In other words, people judge ‘well-being’ according to whether their life meets their expectations rather than in some abstract or supposedly ‘objective’ manner. Those expectations are set through people’s experiences within the current system – something that cannot be wished away.

For instance, when we talk about well-being in a no growth economy, we need to take into account that people have an expectation of growth and see their well-being as dependent on it. No-growth in itself is therefore something that fails to meet expectations and negatively impacts well-being.

We also live in a welfare state and the important need to provide a safety net may, in some circumstances, also lead to a passivity trap; for example if rehabilitation from an illness and greater active participation in society were to lead to removal of benefits in an area where there are no or only low paid and insecure jobs.

It is hard to generate a sense of well-being in such circumstances. And we seem to have rejected the idea of workfare as an approach.

A question that has always puzzled me about the top-down versus bottom-up debate is this – where should the locus of initiative be? Let me explain.

For things to happen and conditions to improve, somebody, or some body, has to take the initiative to make things happen. Where should that locus of initiative lie? Is the at the city mayor level? At local authority level? In individual communities? With individuals themselves? Which of these levels count as bottom-up versus top-down?

In depressed areas, it is unlikely that individuals can create a sufficient initiative to make progress. If for no other reason that they have to fight the existing system which will, eventually, grind them down.

We therefore have to find a way of determining which level of governance can act as the focal point for initiatives to take off. To create the motivation, stimulate the action, navigate through the current system, and co-ordinate activities.

And how do we get co-operation rather than competition? In many depressed areas, different local councils are too busy competing with each other for scarce resources to find a way in which co-operation might be more helpful to them than competition.

And the smaller the area of each authority, the more of them there are and the more competition rather than co-operation might be stimulated. That, of course, is one reason put forward in defence of centralizing everything. But we know that that approach doesn’t work.

There has been much hope of late that city mayors are ‘the solution.’ Maybe they are. That, of course, leaves out rural areas that also have to be dealt with. And, if city mayors are a good solution, why have some communities refused to have them? What is driving that behaviour?

So, in talking about bottom-up development, we cannot avoid the question about where the locus of initiative should lie to count as bottom-up, but still have enough co-ordinating power to make things happen.

If we could agree on that and see every other level as essentially being there to provide the necessary expertise and resources to enable change to happen, then we may have some chance of moving forward.

Most people reading and writing these and other pieces are people who have a strong sense of personal drive and initiative. In psychological terms, they have a strong internal locus of control. In other words, they believe that what happens in their lives is primarily driven by their own actions and choices. But many people do not have that psychological profile. They feel that their lives are controlled primarily by external forces. In depressed areas, that feeling of external control becomes enhanced and a sense of helplessness prevails.

When I owned a business, we had a psychologist come in to do some seminars. One of them was about locus of control. It came as a surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have, that people in senior positions tended to have a strong internal locus of control while those in more administrative or support roles tended to have an external locus of control.

In talking about bottom-up initiatives, we should not make the mistake of thinking that everyone out there is like us.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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