There are inner rings in the places we work and the voluntary groups we immerse ourselves in – small groups, with influence and power. They can mesmerize us with their rituals and practices, as they parade into the boardroom or come laughing out of the leader’s office. They can haunt us or taunt us, not through anything they intend, but because of something within ourselves.
In many startups, the people who come together initially form that inner ring. Everyone feels vital and powerful. However, as the organization become bigger and bigger, a new inner ring will assert itself, and many of those present at the start will suddenly feel less important — outsiders, perhaps even outcasts.
In 1944, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series as well as a professor of medieval and Renaissance English, gave the Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in which he challenged the notion that sex is the strongest of human drives and instead argued for the desire to join the inner ring.
“This desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action,” he wrote. “Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.”
Many of us belong to inner rings. We probably have not thought about its impact on others. And if we have, our attitude might be of scorn, since the inner ring is not a beach party but a place of dedicated hard work; others should just deal with their envy or lust.
But thinking about this subtle interplay, and how to invite others to feel less apart from the inner ring, might make sense if you want more support for your efforts. Slowing down and talking to others is a simple act, even if it is hard to do. For those of us outside the inner ring — and we are probably part of some inner rings and outside others in our organizations — we should deal with our feelings. Or, if it’s so disconcerting, move physically so the inner group’s presence is less obvious, even if that means switching to another department or organization.
Lewis warned that inner rings can be hazardous for us: “A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.” Indeed, he goes further: “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” Ouch!
In regard to whether or not you will one day attain the inner ring that haunts you, Lewis was more jaundiced, because he was dealing with your psyche: “As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”
This is, of course, about power and ambition. It’s about making a mark, helping to improve your organization. You probably don’t want to be in the inner ring for status and prestige or to lollygag but to be able to make things happen in a better way. The inner ring is just a gateway for those noble impulses. It pays, of course, to examine those desires, to ensure they are noble, however.
I referred to power and ambition, motives that are not always positive. Indeed, you may believe some of the current inner ring are only out for themselves. Are you more selfless? But as well, will your ambition just lead to frustration since, even if you become an insider, “until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain”?
Jess Whittlestone, a writer and researcher whose blog brought the Lewis speech to my attention, writes, “It seriously worries me how much of the time most of us spend chasing things like achievement, status, recognition — and how little we spend thinking about what we actually value: What we would find rewarding in a job, what kinds of people make us feel good.” So think about the inner ring but, mostly, think about yourself.
· When a crisis occurs, the media goes to the usual PR suspects, who knowingly feed back the same advice, some of it suspect. Always at the top of the list is the need for a quick response. Sometimes that’s true.
But it’s also important to understand the situation and sometimes that can’t be done wisely in one news cycle (as the Ontario Tories learned after the allegation against Patrick Brown arose, when caucus members felt the world would collapse if they didn’t respond in the same news cycle). In companies, of course, if you wait, the market will drop, perhaps precipitously. Does anybody think Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg are fixated on short-term stock prices? So why not wait?
· Another lesson from Facebook: If your business model has an element that violates fundamental beliefs of your patrons and you can’t easily change it, you will hit rocky moments. Does that apply to your organization?
· Bigger is thought to be better but consultant Scott Gerber says on the Harvard Business Review blog you should keep your own inner circle small, with a carefully curated group of people who you admire and respect and with whom you share common beliefs and values. You need to be ruthlessly selective, because everyone in your inner circle also has an inner circle with which you will ultimately be connected, and those people will have an inner circle, and on and on.