A social dynamic to change

Dan Price, the founder and CEO of Gravity Payments, has decided to take a pay cut and forgo a large part of the company’s profits to raise the minimum salary in his company to $70,000. He hopes this will reduce income inequality within the company and motivate employees.

As an organizational development (OD) person who believes that a better world is one where businesses are a growing part of the solution for many social ills, I have a strong interest in Price’s story. My current reading project is on social dynamics and the diffusion of ideas, so I’m also looking at the story from that angle.

Although Price talks about income inequality and worker motivation, by his own accounts the tipping point came when he went on a hike with a friend and heard her struggle with rising rent prices. Prior to the incident, income inequality had been on Price’s mind for months but nothing concrete came out of it.

Notably, the person who influenced Price was his friend, and not an employee. Could an employee have moved him? We don’t know. What we do know is that people tend to be influenced more by their friends and peers. Notably too, the encounter took place on a hike in the outdoors, and not in the office. Could the same have happened in the office? Again, we do not know. We might guess though that when Price was engaging his friend, he probably wore a different identity from the one he had in office: as a friend rather than a boss, and in a social or recreational setting rather than a work setting.

Here lies an interesting opportunity where it comes to integrating business and social interests, or some might say, resolving the tussle between the head and the heart.

Often when we look at CEOs and business leaders, it is easy to focus on their business personas and make assumptions about them. Someone who looked at Price’s salary a few months ago might have noted that it was 22 times that of his lowest paid employee, and concluded that Price was just one of those leaders who didn’t care.

Yet, we are all complex beings with many identities. Someone who comes across as a cold-hard boss at work could well be a doting parent at home, or someone with interest in some social causes. A change that cuts little ice with one identity may gain traction with a different identity, e.g., as a friend on a hike vs. as a boss in the office.

Having said that, it is not always obvious what ideas will resonate with what identities. Often, change may feel like a mountain that can never be moved. Yet, everything could change with a spark at the right moment in the right setting.

If we cannot tell for sure which ideas will resonate with which identities, how might all this be useful? Well, even if we don’t know what will work, we may be able to surmise what won’t work or is less likely to work. For example, we may surmise that if we apply fixed labels to people and box them in within certain identities, we may constrain them to act and behave within those few limited identities. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand though, if we keep ourselves open to discovering and embracing more facets about people, we stand a better chance of connecting with other identities within them.

And so, one of the keys may lie in connecting with different identities in people. And also, exploring mediums that can help this, for example, through the use of stories.

Separately, something else seems to be happening. Even though Price may have been personally swayed by his friend’s story in a non-work context, he tries to articulate what he is doing in the context of business. He talks about the change not as a charity offer to his workers but as a “capitalist solution to a social problem.” Two things happen when he does this. One, Price reinterprets the change in a way that may connect better with the business identity. Two, he potentially reaches out to some other business leaders as a peer or friend; the same message carries different weight because he is one of them.

So a change in one person can look quite different in another person. Where it comes to social change, meaning is seldom fixed or objective. It is constantly reshaped and reconstructed from one person to another. Therefore, even though some of us may wish to be able to execute change neatly and efficiently out of a playbook, what affects change can often be a rather subjective process. This is what makes change such a fascinating phenomenon :)

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