Soothsaying at Points of Light

I had the honor and pleasure earlier this week of speaking to a largely corporate audience at the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service in Houston, Texas. I was slated to speak on the future of corporate volunteering programs, which range from short service activities during lunch breaks to focused community engagement aligned with corporate strategy to giving employees paid time off to volunteer for causes of their own choosing.

Attending several sessions before my own speech, I noted what I considered an excessive focus on impact—making it, measuring it, communicating it. So in my speech, I started by pointing out that I’m actually on record saying that I think our focus on impact goes too far. Assertions of impact are often just ego projections that falsely assume that the most meaningful actions we could take in response to social challenges would yield measurable results over a short period of time. I added that “impact” is a construct of Newtonian determinism, so in a complex-adaptive human system are we even sure that impact should be the goal?

I told the audience that if I’m not so focused on impact, then it seemed like I needed to say where I thought the focus should be. For me, I think it comes down to healing. Impact is the difference you make in the outside world. Healing is the difference you make inside yourself.

I presented them with data from the Adverse Childhood Experience Study conducted in the late 1990s by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC. Researchers asked around 17,000 American adults, during their routine comprehensive physical exams, if they had had any of several types of adverse experiences (e.g., abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction) during their childhoods.

The survey’s results are quite striking. For example, more than one in four of the adults surveyed had been physically abused as children. One in four had grown up in households with substance abuse, and one in five in households with mental illness. Just under a quarter had experienced parental separation or divorce. A quarter of the women surveyed had been sexually abused as a child. Around 65% had endured at least one of the adverse childhood experiences measured by the study, and 40% had endured two or more.

I told the audience that the population described in this study is also the population that works at their companies. While many companies expect their employees to leave their personal lives at the door, these issues sneak into the workplace nonetheless.

One place they may show up is in the Gallup employee engagement survey, which consistently finds that only 30% of employees are engaged at work, 50% would rather be anywhere else, and around 20% are actively trying to undermine their employers.

In the future, then, it will be crucial for companies to create the space where employees can heal these wounds, and corporate volunteering programs can be part of this process. They could, for example, be better integrated with team building activities, executive coaching, and employee assistance programs, as well as with new practices now being developed by leading-edge employers to help their employees bring their “whole selves” to work (some of which are documented in a great book by Frederic Laloux called Reinventing Organizations.)

As companies strive to be more innovative they will realize that they cannot access their employees’ most creative ideas if they’re not open to all the other stuff that’s whirling around in their subconscious minds. For innovative companies, helping employees heal their own emotional wounds will become an essential business competency.

In Houston I stayed with a good friend of mine whose kids were studying for a test on the Trojan War. When my friend told his 12 year-old son what I did for a living, his son asked if I was a soothsayer. As I reflected on my speech after the fact, I decided that I might actually prefer the title soothsayer to futurist. “Sooth” is derived from the Latin verb “to be,” so while a futurist is someone who says how it might be, a soothsayer is literally someone who tells it like it is.