Social Mobility: How your Organization can Make a Difference

Income inequality growing! Declining middle-class! More poverty! Phew! The end of Social Mobility?

W? W? W? Social Mobility

I recently advocated changing the narrative in organizations. Now for the really big picture – how do we change the narrative around the social mobility we once foolishly took for granted? To move forward from defining the problem and begin to find solutions, let’s boldly apply the Solution Focus formula of asking better questions, i.e., W? W? W?

  • What’s working?
  • What will it be like when the problem goes away (or at least, not driving our thinking)?
  • What will the first small steps towards making progress be?

Hence, W? W? W? to help us change or reframe the narrative around social mobility

  • We were postwar middle-class white kids living in the slipstream of the greatest per-capita rise in income in the history of Western civilization; we were ‘teen-agers’ – a term, coined in 1941, that was in common usage a decade later – a new, recognizable franchise. We had money, mobility, and problems all our own. – John Lahr 

Ah! The good old days. Now, per-capita income has, at best, stalled – unless you live in China! How do we reframe social mobility in ways other than unconsciously grabbing onto the coattails of the last century’s years of economic expansion?  W? W? W?

  • … most of the studies show actually the United States is worse than anybody except Britain in upward mobility, there is no audience for you. – David Frum 

That’s the bad news. Now we know this uncomfortable truth, what do we need to move forward? Not by fixing what’s broken, but by asking what we want instead using the resources we’ve got.  W? W? W?

  • The accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility.  –Michael Grove

Knowledge has never been easier to access. How do we leverage it to help people be resilient and develop adaptability to change? W? W? W?

  • As far as income goes, there are three currencies in the world; most people ignore two. The three currencies are time, income and mobility, in descending order of importance. Most people focus exclusively on income – Timothy Ferris

How do we make more efficient use of the time (see last point about knowledge) and mobility that we already have? W? W? W?

  • We must promote upward mobility, starting with solutions that speak to our broken education system, broken immigration policy, and broken safety-net programs that foster dependency instead of helping people get back on their feet – Paul Ryan 

The self-reliant citizen is a nice, safe idea for those looking down from the top of economic ladder. Instead of blaming the existing system, how do we reframe it to make it more productive and efficient? Starting with government at all levels! W? W? W?


  • Despite all our gains in technology, product innovation and world markets, most people are not thriving in the organizations they work for – Stephen Covey

Organizations are part of a larger organization called ‘society’ and the economy that holds it together. How do we help organizations recognize their role in social mobility and that it’s in their interest? For example, paying minimal wages contributes to the degradation of the consuming public’s income – the people from whom they derive profit? For example, engage employees so that they will grow (and contribute to the bottom-line). How do we help organizations reframe their competitive strategy to support social mobility? W? W? W?

More definition of the social mobility / income inequality problem from Bloomberg Business Week

More on Solution Focus

How to change the narrative in your organization

Your organization has good leadership and a sound strategy and yet…

Some teams in the organization actively campaign against change. You work with colleagues who condemn change in their status quo. Some managers still make arbitrary decisions.

All of them can tell you what’s wrong with the organization – especially about the problems with their fellow workers/managers. What to do???

  • Take them seriously, not literally. Don’t enter into their debate about what’s wrong. Think of them as experiencing loss, not resisting change.
  • Pay most attention to the folks who want change to happen – those who are already there and those that are wondering how to make the change happen.
  • Change the narrative about how people work together, how they collaborate, define their roles and take responsibility.
  • Build on the skills they already have. Not just the new skills and processes they need to learn / adapt.

In fact, surprisingly, change as little as possible!

How? Change the narrative about the problems they perceive to be facing by reframing negative gossip, siloed perspective, intolerance of other’s ideas and fear of negative consequences. These are unpleasant but soft barriers to delivering the strategy. It may not be necessary to change a lot of what they are working on or even the way they work. Instead, change the narrative about how they work together. Hard barriers, i.e., systems and processes that do need to change can be lead by a new narrative.

The real problem is undefined wins – Dan Rockwell

Move from fear-driven narrative about overcoming imagined obstacles and solving problems to creating dialogue about solutions for the things that need to get better. This is an opportunity to make the transition less intense. And remember, the change resistors will get it over time, one step at a time.

Here are questions to ask about delivering the organization’s strategy through a better narrative about how people work together, how they collaborate, define their roles and take responsibility:

What do we do well around here? How do we manage to do that?

How has our strategy helped us move forward?

When we work together collaboratively what works? On a scale of 1-10 how are we doing? What needs to get better to move us up 1-2 points on the scale? Suppose we were even more collaborative – what impact would that have on our strategy, our customers, and other stakeholders in the organization?

What works well with our current roles and responsibilities? Suppose that got even better – what would be different? How would that help our strategy, customers and stakeholders?

Don’t forget to help people put the new narrative into action:

Narrative is linear, but action has breadth and depth as well as height and is solid – Thomas Carlyle

Suppose we were to apply some of the above insights and learning to our projects in the next while – what would we see ourselves doing more of, differently, or better right away?

Suppose we were to reframe and/or create some new processes on working together – what would that look like?

A new narrative based on existing resources (vs. problems/resistance) and how to apply those resources to solutions about working together will make it much easier to introduce new systems and processes. Delivering the plan will remain a complex challenge, but people will be working together on the challenge.

More: Pushing elephants through a keyhole.


Pushing elephants through keyholes

Grumpy, disillusioned, angry, or fearful (choose one!) teams and / or stakeholders can seem like a mammoth change task.

To get them unstuck we can issue orders, develop new policy and/or a strategy with clear deliverables. We can also talk about the vision and run team-building exercises, etc. These are all good things to do.

But what if the elephant is stubborn, remains unengaged and reluctant to show that they are listening? They may be in flight, fight, or freeze mode.

How do we support them so that they may actually move forward? How do we get them unstuck and focused on the needs of the organization, not just themselves?

Change the narrative! Engage the elephant in a new dialogue.

How? Here are some approaches and steps:

Reacquaint them with their knowledge of the capabilities they already have. Help them see what’s working and what doesn’t need to change. Don’t worry if they seem, at first, unrealistic. You’re helping them see what the team brings to the process.

Remember, the goals for the required change will adjust constantly as the team begins to align with the needs of the organization. They are in a constant state of production, making sense of things their way.

You can indicate that there’s no urgency to arrive at a solution. They likely have to make some intense transitions and will only get it over time, one step at a time. This is counterintuitive, but it will speed up the process.

Our role is to help them with dissolving the problem – their way. Help them shed some useful light on the problem by asking how they manage to cope. But, don’t encourage too many more details on the problem.

Help them switch to the dormant side of their thinking, i.e., being helpful. Ask what it would be like if the problem no longer existed, i.e., what they want, and how that would be useful to the organization, other teams, etc. This helps them a) build a new back-story / identity, and b) evaluate the effect they might have on others by working on solutions.

Your job is to link the story – their narrative – together, to let them see the counter to the problem and let them transition themselves out of their fears.

Keep asking them if they’ve got any ideas about using the new learning. Frame it as a beginning. Help them notice the initiatives they might take to begin the change.

What happens if your leader wants fast action? Why not simply fire some or all of the team and replace them with new workers? Just ask yourself which approach might have the best ROI. In helping the elephant through the keyhole, the team probably has a bunch of valid, useful ideas for the organization that they were unable to express through the keyhole.

With grateful acknowledgement to Jim Duvall. More on the narrative approach to change  Innovations in Narrative Therapy