By Chelsea Elkins, Simple Intentions Program & Marketing Manager
The term ‘vicious cycle’ has always peaked my linguistic interest, both attracting and repelling me. I find more and more that there is a callous reality to the phrase that exists in my day to day world. It reflects a biological concept I learned in high school – a social translation of positive feedback. To pull straight from the textbook (since I got a C in that class), this process is characterized by “the enhancement or amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process that gives rise to it”. In other words, it’s a system or cycle that intensifies by creating a stimulus which triggers an effect that causes more stimulus which triggers a greater effect and so on.
In biology, positive and negative don’t translate to good and bad. Positive feedback just means that a cycle continues to grow by feeding and stimulating itself until it reaches its peak. An example in nature is the process of childbirth: a laboring mother releases the hormone oxytocin which stimulates contractions which causes more oxytocin to be released until the baby is born.
Recently, I can’t help but apply the concept of positive feedback to social systems around me. When cycles, whether internal thought patterns, workplace practices or societal systems, feed on themselves, enhancing and amplifying in the process, it can make a good thing better and a bad thing worse.
Our lives are surrounded by systems and cycles, some that benefit society and others that do not. The latter I’ll label as unhealthy positive feedback and takes the form of damaging systems or detrimental cycles in our world. Some recent acclaimed examples in American media include the still embedded justice systems that promote sex and gender discrimination that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks to in her book, My Own Words, as well as Academy Award nominated documentary 13TH which addresses systemic racism through mass incarceration. On a smaller scale, a workplace example that comes to mind is the system of rewarding employees who work long hours. This reward system often encourages employees to work longer hours and more frequently, which offers more rewards, etc…
How then do we break out of a cycle that’s not serving us personally or that isn’t serving a certain group or society as a whole? This question can feel daunting on the best of days. A sense of helplessness may swell at the thought of how to incite change in an unhealthy system, especially when it has been in place for a long time. Luckily, the first step is relatively simple.
I believe, truly, that the first and I’d argue most important step towards changing a cycle is to simply be aware. Really, just that. When we cultivate awareness around what unhealthy cycles or systems are around us, we start to shine a light on them, however dim that light might feel at first. This may be as simple as keeping up with current events, reading the written works of someone who inspires you, or asking your hard-working co-worker how she’s feeling with the never ending long hours. Collect data on the impact of the system in question – who does it negatively impact? Who does it positively impact? Do the benefits outweigh the cons? There’s no action to take – simply become aware of what cycles are around you and if they benefit or harm you, and if they benefit or harm others.
Once a basic awareness foundation is laid, the next step is to expand it. Go beyond the effect of the cycle and determine what your part is in the system or cycle in question. Acknowledge, without judgement, the ways in which you might feed the cycle. Did you give a shout out to your co-worker who’s been working 12 hour days at your last meeting? Explore all corners openly and honestly – and recognize that the cycle may very well be needed right now. Perhaps this is the busiest time of the year and long work days are currently needed. Just maintain awareness. If 6 months go by and the norm is still a 60-hour work week for your team, it’s time to reassess if this is a system that is still serving you and is still serving the whole.
To stress a point, creating awareness does not mean to blame (others or self). The purpose here is to become acutely (maybe uncomfortably) aware of what the cycle is, who the cycle impacts, and how we personally fit in the cycle. With that knowledge in place, we can make an informed decision on how to proceed to the next step. This step is still simple but at last requires some action: simply, to make a choice. It’s time to choose to either continue moving with the cycle or to make a new choice, even if small, that may help disrupt it. Perhaps in the next team meeting, you still give your co-worker a shout out for her hard work – and then start a discussion around team capacity and how to create sustainable success going forward. The smallest of choices may inspire others to do the same, creating its own positive feedback system – one whose results are more desirable.
Positive feedback in nature is extremely important and many of our social systems are incredibly needed. But it is up to us to determine when an internal thought cycle is damaging. When a workplace system is no longer sustainable. When an ingrained societal cycle is, well, vicious. And when it is not. It is up to us to first cultivate our awareness and shine a light on an unhealthy system. Something as small as that may start its own domino effect – and eventually break the cycle.