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Involvement and Detachment

How detachment from your community blocks your success at leading innovations, and what to do about it.
  1. Introduction
  2. Objectivity versus Detachment
  3. The Draw of Detachment
  4. Two Faces of Science and Technology
  5. Resolving the Dilemma
  6. Author
  7. Footnotes
art collage of male and female technology workers

Our age values abstraction, the characterization of large populations with statistics, properties, and rights. This is natural for governments, which are preoccupied with defining and dispensing services efficiently across large populations. Global connectivity enables data collection from everyone and distillation of trends in large groups, revealing large-scale phenomena that were not visible in prior times. For example, COVID is treated as a large-scale phenomenon of infection, hospitalization, and herd immunity through vaccination. In contrast, when the Spanish Flu epidemic began in 1918, there were no centers for disease control, no health oversight agencies, no daily communications about the spread of the disease, no ability to exercise large-scale controls. The ability to view large-scale phenomena through the lens of distilled data is strong force for abstraction. Unfortunately, abstraction is also a force for detachment, the loss of connection with fellow human beings.

In my work, I coach graduate students on their innovation projects. Many get stuck, unable to get their communities to engage with them. An invisible force seems to thwart them from achieving their innovation goals. This was puzzling because they seemed to be doing the right things: looking for concerns, crafting good envisioning stories, and making offers. Then I discovered a distinction that revealed the invisible force. It is the distinction between the moods of involvement and detachment.

I call them moods because they are hidden dispositions that orient how we engage with our communities. Because we do not notice them, we cannot see how detachment stifles engagement and involvement empowers it. By becoming aware of these moods, we can put the distinction to work in our own professional life.

Detachment orients us to be an outside observer of our community. When we undertake to find an innovation that resolves a community issue, it is easy to take the stance of an outside expert who can see the problem that the community cannot see because of their immersion in it. A big problem with this orientation is that we substitute our belief about what they need for whatever concerns they are experiencing. In our certainty that our solution will work we become impatient with their uncertainty about whether anything will work. Our outsider solution looks to them like an algorithm rather than a compassionate understanding of their situation. They do not trust us and pull away from engaging with us.

Involvement, the opposite of detachment, orients us to a deep listening to our community's concerns, even when community members are unable to put them clearly into words. We are curious about their practices, their histories, their daily activities. We are concerned about their well-being. We offer ourselves as a compatriot in their issues, aiming to serve them with a new practice that will dispel their problem. We are not an outsider, we are a fellow member of their community. They come to trust us and want to engage with us.

It is worth discussing the roots of detachment so that we can see why we are drawn into it more than we would like. Then we can see what basic practices will support our involvement.

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Objectivity versus Detachment

We often say that some professions, such as science or the law, require objectivity, an ability to look dispassionately at a phenomenon and the evidence for and against it. This kind of objectivity is an ability to manage your prejudices and biases; it is often seen as a good thing even if it is difficult to attain. But there is another side to objectivity. We view people and their actions as objects—resources that can be efficiently controlled by a set of prescribed rules. Let's call these "anti-bias objectivity" and "control objectivity." Control objectivity can support detachment and anti-bias objectivity can support involvement.

Bureaucracies are vaunted examples of detached organizations that excel at control objectivity. Bureaucracies are needed to provide services that governments have promised to their people. They treat everyone the same and grant no waivers or exceptions to the rules. They are designed to be efficient automation machines, dispassionately dispensing services. Many people are dissatisfied with bureaucracies, which have no compassion for individual circumstances, make frequent mistakes, and provide no customer service to correct mistakes or enact reforms. Bureaucracies are highly detached practitioners of control objectivity.

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The Draw of Detachment

Our age is also one of great reverence for science. The ideal of science is the unbiased and unemotional observer seeking to objectively understand what is going on and predict what will go on in the future. This form of observer is "outside" the phenomenon, looking in. Even though detachment is also outside, detachment includes a sense of knowing the answer whereas objectivity is looking for an answer. In science, objectivity is important for the scientific method, the ability to be a standard observer who finds explanatory patterns that can be reproduced by others. Data is a powerful tool for objective abstraction.

Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher, called this sort of detached objectivity a "technological way of being" because it sees the whole world as objects that can be investigated, manipulated, predicted, and controlled by technology. This worldview can lead to chronic feelings of disorientation because many things in the world cannot be manipulated, predicted, or controlled.

Involvement makes no distinction between "inside" and "outside." We participate fully in the practices, concerns, norms, and values of a community. We grow and nurture relationships with those in your community. We make commitments to take care of concerns in our community. We take responsibility for our commitments and the consequences of our actions. There is no way to separate our "observer" from our community: much of what we think is "inside" us is actually the manifestation of our community in our bodies. We are not the outside observer looking in; we are an integral, functioning part of our community.

The philosophy of detached objectivity traces back to the philosopher René Descartes. He lived in the time of the Thirty Years War (1618–1650), in which he and many others longed for a way out of war. He thought the way out would be to avoid getting swept up into emotional confrontations and instead resolve problems though rational discourse. The cornerstone of his philosophy is mind-body dualism—the mind is rational, the body's emotions and desires are not. Descartes held that the body is constantly dragging the mind away from rational thought through emotions and base desires. Fifty years later, the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz, known to us as the inventor of calculus, sought an algebra of discourse that would allow people to reach rational conclusions by "calculating together." Although Descartes and Leibniz disagreed on many things, they both believed that mathematicians and others trained in logical, rational thought are better positioned to find rational resolutions of otherwise emotional confrontations. This philosophy became very popular and is still respected and revered today. Mostly, we are oblivious to the beliefs of this philosophy gives us and simply accept them as truths about the world.

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Two Faces of Science and Technology

Though we are told that detachment is an ideal of science, a closer look reveals that scientists live in a highly involved world. In his book Science in Action (Harvard 1987), the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour distinguished between "ready-made science" and "science in the making." Ready-made science is the settled laws and theories of science that anyone can use and fully trust without having to understand all the details behind them. For example, Einstein's formula E=mc2 came from Relativity Theory and has been extensively validated in experiments by highly trained physicists. Anyone can use the formula at any time and trust it fully without knowing the math or experiments behind it.

In contrast, science-in-the-making is a messy and chaotic process of hypothesis building, testing, controversies, and recruiting allies. The scientific literature records many heated battles between scientists as they struggled to understand what the truth is. Over time, a controversial hypothesis can evolve into a trusted law as more and more experiments validate the claim, and the doubters fall away.

Involvement makes no distinction between "inside" and "outside."

Latour depicts this dual nature of science with an image of the two-faced Roman God, Janus. One face, seasoned and creased with lines of wisdom, looks back over all that has happened and tells us what is true and repeatable. The other face, youthful and brash, looks forward and tries to make sense of the unknown ahead. These opposing faces embody inverted interpretations of the world. To illustrate the differences, Latour contrasts ready-made with in-the-making with aphorisms such as "When things are true, they hold" versus "When things hold, they start becoming true;" and "Science is stronger than the multitude of opinions" versus "Decide which opinions are worthy of consideration." The detached, ready-made views are all statements of certainty, whereas the involved, in-the-making view are about uncertainty. Detachment seems to be a poor stance for making headway with the uncertainties that scientists are called to resolve. The most successful scientists embrace their immersive involvement in science-in-the-making in order to achieve the detachment of ready-made science. This conclusion is not limited to science: detachment seems to be a poor stance for making headway with uncertainties and yet characterizes the solutions that emerge.

In this way, Latour artfully answers the question: How can science be detached and involved, methodical and chaotic, at the same time? Even though they co-exist, the two views are in constant tension, the one pulling against the other. Both are necessary, but not easy to navigate.

Do you see a resemblance between this account of science and your work of solving problems with your clients? To make headway, you must be fully involved in the community and the concerns you are taking care of. You constantly face uncertainty, doubt, and resistance. When your work is finished, you enjoy pride in a job well done. You can sit back, detached, and say the work was good. Detachment is good for reflection, involvement navigating the uncertainty. You move back and forth between involvement and detachment.

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Resolving the Dilemma

Detachment and involvement are both useful stances, depending on the situation. A detached mood is appropriate for scientific investigations, law enforcement, bureaucracy management, and jury trials. An involved mood is appropriate for making headway in science and engineering, design, community work, and leadership. Yet our history of detachment exerts a strong pull, often so strong that we cannot become involved even though we want to. How can we open ourselves to greater involvement?

The kernel is service and care. Ron Kaufman, known worldwide for his teachings on uplifting service, has proposed a useful insight. He defines service as action that brings value to someone. He defines care as a concern for someone's future well-being. These two ideas blend together when the value of service is the well-being of others. He summarizes the blend as "service is care in action." This applies directly to our professional work. We are at our best when we make our expertise available to take care of the well-being of others.

Thus, in answer to the question at the start of this column, it is right to care about our communities and be drawn into involvement with them. Then our offers organize our actions to be of service to our communities.

We hold service and care as the ideal of innovation leadership. Some innovations do not meet this ideal because care is missing. An oft-cited example is the practice of Internet companies of selling personal data of their customers to maximize revenue.

A core practice for service and care is empathetic listening. This is an ability to listen for deep, unarticulated concerns of people we have conversations with. Can we ferret out their concerns? Do we have a curiosity about them and what skills and talents they bring? Do we seek to learn their history? Their interests? What provokes them? What they care most about? How the world looks from their perspective? When we can give voice to what they care about, our offers are attractive.

Beware that our background breeding in detachment can sidetrack us in listening empathetically. One way this can happen is to treat listening as a technique rather than a sensibility and skill. For example, "active listening" is a technique where we repeat back what we thought the other person said so they can validate that we "got it." Unfortunately, this puts us in the mindset of a tape recorder and distracts us from listening to concerns concealed behind the words spoken. A second way detachment can sidetrack us is its familiarity. When we are in the habit of being detached, talking to people about their concerns may seem like heavy work. To avoid the work, we turn to intuition and logic to deduce what they are concerned about. We imagine what the other person ought to care about, substituting our "concern for them" for their actual concern. It often turns out that the concerns we imagine are not the ones they really care about—and no wonder our offers fall on deaf ears.

Thus, detachment can draw us into a condition that might be called "self-service is self-care in action," which is not what involvement is about.

The bottom line is this. To open yourself to true involvement, engage in many conversations with your community, listening behind their words for what they care about. Give voice to their concerns. Make offers that improve their well-being relative to their concerns. Fulfill your offers. Do not let your imagination, honed by years of detachment, substitute your ideas for their concerns. Be involved!

    I thank Dorothy Denning, Elisa Caeli, Ron Kaufman, John King, and Todd Lyons for conversations and insights on this topic.

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