Ordering Chaos

29 Jul

People are drawn to ordering chaos. With complexity and uncertainty only increasing, the cognitive load this creates can be daunting at best and overwhelming at worst. To cope with this, human beings do what they have always done, locate a pattern, and construct a narrative to support this pattern; and then either act or do nothing. This ordering of chaos can sometimes work and sometimes fail catastrophically.

In a previous article I outlined the concept of the spiral- a method of risk assessment in response to perceived threats which goes out of control. The result of the spiral is that more and more events become framed as threats, and so life becomes increasingly viewed as carrying more and more risks. This process moves both individuals and organisations from a broad frame of reference to a very narrow one. In the case of the spiral, a narrow frame becomes a static defensive position. It may feel safer initially, but it’s only a matter of time before things get overrun-adaption becomes impossible.

The other side of the spiral is trust without limit, a type of anchor in a chaotic world. This can take the form of faith in procedures, a model, a favourite consultant or a colleague- the object of faith has delivered consistently in the past so we can trust that situation to carry on into the future.

The problem with unlimited trust is that it relies on a certain level of stability to be effective, for example- Expert X knew this field inside out in 2012, the field has changed considerably in two years, has the expert X changed accordingly?

Giddens (2008) argued that trust is a method of “cocooning” oneself against risk, or in other words, trust is a means of ordering a chaos- a cognitive anchor, a means of steadying yourself in volatile and uncertain waters. Trust creates expectations, and with change on the increase, we need to pay closer attention to the basis of this trust-if the domain has changed, has the source of trust changed with it?

I’ve recently been doing some research into fast paced high stress clinical environments. The field work has suggested that trusting a colleague’s expertise and tacit judgement is crucial to the delivery of care outcomes. This works well most of the time, but things slow down when a new or temporary member of staff enters the decision making chain. They (the new staff) are often taught formally, but the skills which seem to be crucial are empathy and situational awareness- an acute insight into when and in what circumstances you can trust certain judgements. In short, clinical excellence requires an ability to adapt judgement to differing contexts-trust is good but it requires an awareness of its limits.

The rule of thumb here is that without trust it would very difficult to escape limbo, seeing only threats. However, with a high pace of change, knowing the limits and context of trust is more crucial than ever.

Giddens, Anthony (2008) Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge

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