Positive Disengagement

Disengagement gets a bad rap. People in HR hate it, and consultants line up to offer fixes. I think there is a positive side to it.

As we believed we were coming out of lockdown, and were being encouraged to go out more, fly more and return to the office, the amount of time people I know had to reflect, individually and together, around what is really going on diminished.

That precious white space started to disappear as people attended face to face meetings, or commuted, or went out. The analgaesia of meetings increased, whilst the food of conversations decreased.

I think there are two sorts of disengagement – the passive sort, where what we do just does not give us the stimulus or recognition we want and feel we deserve, and the active sort, where we deliberately stand back and observe. This latter type is often promoted as mindfulness or meditation, which, while valuable, is only part of the productive disengagement story.

We cannot determine the character or nature of a system within itself, and attempts to do so will produce confusion and disorder.

John Boyd, 1976. “Patterns of winning and losing”

Often, it is difficult to see how what we are doing fits in to the idea we have of our lives when we are busy doing the things that need doing today. Being busy is a habit, and not always a good one.

I have a very clear memory of a time many years ago, when as a buyer of cakes and desserts for a major retailer, my train home was delayed by leaves on the line. In that moment, putting down what I was working on, I asked myself where this fitted into my life – was my major contribution whilst here going to be supplying unhealthy, frivolous, factory-made products to people who couldn’t be bothered to make them for themselves? The answer was clear, and I acted accordingly. At this time of year, I often make a nod of appreciation to fallen leaves.

Disengagement is most productively done in good company – people who know us and appreciate us for who we are. Quiet, unhurried conversations about what matters, whether over a drink or over Zoom, can put things wonderfully into perspective. They are worth making time for.

As we are all encouraged to re-engage with the workplace, we would do well to make sure we have the pace to productively disengage, to look at what we are doing and where it is taking us.

We might not like the answer, but at least we will be honest with ourselves.

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