Florence Hazrat reports on “How to Make Organisations Flourish”

Florence Hazrat photo
As part of the conference “The Stifling Hand of Control: How Can We Enable Organisations to Flourish?”, the session How to Make Organisations Flourish explored alternative ways of structuring organisations, and offering a more congenial environment for a healthy work/life balance. The panel was refreshingly diverse, including Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, Ronan Harrington, Director of Futures at a city law firm and founder of Alter Ego, as well as Leslie Brissett, co-director and researcher at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.

Individual talks kick-started the session in which speakers identified reasons for why some organisations thrive, including clarity of purpose and consistency of core values. It is beneficial when workers obtain independence in shaping their roles according to how they believe they will best contribute to the system. This trusting and empowering approach translates itself as an administrative structure which is booth loose and tight at certain intersections, one enabling the other. This intelligent calibration of control and delegation of power means finding the “sweet spot”, the measure appropriate to current circumstances.

Related to this point are issues of atmosphere at the workplace which needs to be more compassionate: speakers defended the creation of a no-blame space to express one’s anxiety and vulnerability regardless of rank. This, they believe, will help braver decision making, but is all too often neglected and ridiculed in the corporate world. In order to stay dynamic, it is key to leave space for progressive ideas: is it possible, for instance, to allow for a more flexible organisation of work which takes into account the individual’s pressures of life outside the office? Can we boost productivity by engaging with the personal well-being of staff?

Within this framework, the speakers also explored what we mean when we speak about “flourishing”: flourishing, it emerged, is establishing and maintaining an environment where workers and leaders can be ‘fully human’ and ‘whole’, that is, responsible agents who are comfortable to voice their anxiety, stress, or struggle to cope with life inside and outside the workplace. This environment is dynamic enough to react to economic, political, and social changes without destroying the organisation beyond recognition.

The themes touched on in this panel resonated throughout the conference, and were followed up in the lively workshops at the end of the second day. I was greatly inspired by the conference as a whole, and its courage to go against the grain of present strategies stifling control in political and charitable organisations. Personally and professionally, I will attempt to trust more in the autonomy of my students, colleagues, and friends, creating relationships where self-directed learning, working, and thinking can happen. The session above spoke to me in particular as it suggested alternative forms of working and being which are not only imperative for a flexible, ethically responsible organisation, but also for the individual’s fulfillment of their potential in and through society. That we need to establish pockets of possibility rather than tackling an unlikely and self-destructive whole-sale change of an institution will above all stay with me: Cumberland Lodge provides precisely such a pocket in which radical and traditional ideas encounter each other in a free and safe environment.

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Our ‘Divided Brain’ and Society – Adelina Gavrila reports on the opening day of “The Stifling Hand of Control: How Can We Enable Organisations to Flourish?”

Adelina Gavrila 440x440

The opening lecture by the renowned psychiatrist and writer Dr Iain McGilchrist formed the backbone of the conference “The Stifling Hand of Control: How Can We Enable Organisations to Flourish?”. This talk transcended various disciplinary boundaries, offering insights into a range of scientific, philosophical, historical and cultural issues. Using his expertise in natural science and humanities, his lecture looked at the relation between our two brain hemispheres, not just as an interesting neurological problem but also as a crucial factor shaping our culture.

Dr McGilchrist presented the argument that the division of the brain into hemispheres has a profound effect on human behavior, impacting on culture and society. Apart from controlling every type of function in the body from reason to emotions, the two hemispheres produce two different worlds with two different realities. While the left hemisphere understands explicit, abstract meaning, the right hemisphere understands contextual, implicit meaning. Therefore, the right hemisphere perceives the world more holistically, more directly and in context, while the left hemisphere lacks in depth and attention.

Despite all differences it seems that the two hemispheres do not fail to co-operate but rather that there is a power struggle between them, in particular with the left hemisphere dominating over the right. The left thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. However, this unwarranted optimism means the left may overvalue its own ability and even be unable to discern and admit the existence of any concerns outside its own enclave. On the other hand, the right usually knows what left is doing, but suffers from being under its stifling control. How did the left manage this power? It is possibly though its ability to use language. Since the right hemisphere lacks language, it doesn’t have a voice to respond and cannot construct the same arguments.

So what is the effect of this imbalance on society? Dr McGilchrist argues that it is the left hemisphere’s obsession with reducing everything to mechanistic details that is robbing modern society of the ability to understand and appreciate deeper human values. This explains many aspects of the contemporary Western culture, which has become more mechanistic, fragmented, generalized and decontextualized. In this paradoxical world, we are exposed to more information but we have less ability to use it and to understand it. We battle constantly between adversity and fulfillment, restraint and freedom, between the knowledge of the parts and wisdom about the whole.

Ultimately, the stifling control of the left hemisphere over the right affects our behavior, our society, our legal systems and bureaucracies. Quoting Kant he concludes that “concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”, which is why in life we need the contributions of both hemispheres, although for different purposes.

Time to Squash The Beef? A public discussion

Photo_Claire Agius (smaller)

Many of us have a curious relationship with meat. More than any other food item, meat makes a meal. It is the centerpiece of a Sunday lunch or dinner with the family. Serving a prime cut is a sure sign of a generous host. Meat is manly.

Some of these views about meat are arguably a carry over from times when it was difficult or expensive for the average household to obtain meat. Now that meat is (too?) reasonably priced, many of us can afford to feature large quantities of meat as part of our diets. And so we do — our consumption of animal products has increased by 100% from 1970 to 2013. If we continue this trend, there will be a further 60% increase by 2030 (see this resource from the Research Program On Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security).

Many of us might be able to financially afford to eat more meat. Increasingly, however, we are being asked to consider whether our health and our environment can afford our taste for meat.

The Cambridge Food Security Forum asked the Cambridge community to consider this issue at Squash the Beef, a public discussion held at the wonderful Espresso Library.

Professor Tim Benton, the UK Champion for Global Food Security and Professor of Population Ecology at Leeds, started the evening by setting out the impact of meat consumption on the environment. The facts are quite extraordinary. For me, the most striking is that, at current rates of consumption, by 2045 agriculture will take up the entire budget of carbon dioxide emissions that we can afford to emit if we want to avoid large global temperature rises. Put another way, we will not be able to afford to have emissions from manufacturing or transportation.

Clearly something has to give. Some options come to mind after hearing from Tim that we typically overeat protein by two to three times and that intensively grown beef results in emissions roughly an order of magnitude higher than other meats. (The numbers can get confusing because animals are raised in such different environments. Sometimes lamb is the biggest culprit when it comes to carbon dioxide emissions.)

But that is not to say that meat needs to be eliminated from diets entirely. Tim Hayward, a food writer and broadcaster, led an interesting discussion on this point. Tim sees a continued role for meat in our diets. He thinks that by engaging with where meat comes from — how the meat gets from field to plate — and by eating higher quality meat less often we can move to more sustainable meat consumption. He also spoke of how he has confidence in selecting parts of an animal that are usually considered undesirable offcuts and cooking those up into something delicious — the nose–to–tail principle.

The final speaker for the evening was Alice Kabala. Alice is a food blogger at Thoughtful Forkfuls and a chef at CAMYOGA in Cambridge. She spoke about her own decision to turn to a plant-based diet and how it is possible to obtain enough protein and critical nutrients from vegetable sources (of course, acknowledging that B12 is lacking and needs to be supplemented). It was a refreshing discussion of how it is possible to have a nutritious and varied diet without consuming meat.

Coming away from the evening, I was excited by the level of awareness and interest in this important issue. I really like that the discussion around meat consumption is becoming more focused on environmental impact. Partially because we are all tired of the inconsistent messages about the dietary impact of eating this and that (although there does at least seem to be consensus that processed meats are not good for us). And partially because focusing on the environment really does highlight that this is not a matter of personal choice. How can it be when meat consumption has such a large global impact in the form of contributing to climate change?

The message of the evening was not that everyone should switch to a plant-based diet. Indeed, one of the important messages was that avoiding meat consumption is a luxury that some people do not have — for some communities, fish and meat provide a critical, local protein source. But for those of us in more economically developed countries like the United Kingdom, I do not think there are any grounds for shirking the need to, at least partially, squash the beef.

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This event was made possible by the generous support of Cumberland Lodge, the Cambridge Strategic Initiative on Global Food Security and Quorn.

If you are interested in learning more about how we might go about achieving a sustainable food system, follow Cambridge Food Security Forum on Twitter @CamFSF. At the Forum, we are interested in food and the complex interplay of culture, politics, economics and science that determines whether everyone has access to a safe, sufficient and stable supply of nutritious food.

Laura Nadine Schuhmacher Reports on the Mental Health and Well-Being Conference

Laura Schuhmacher Photo New

Well-being was the focus of the first day of the conference: How can well-being be defined, measured and used to positively influence mental health?

Mental health presents a great challenge to the everyday life in the UK. Not only does poor mental health carry a large economic cost as one of the biggest causes of disability, there are also currently huge gaps in service, and most sufferers of poor mental health do not have access to evidence-based interventions. Furthermore, mental health is widely stigmatised and discriminated against even by health service providers.

One area that clearly stood out from the discussions of the day was prevention. Studies have shown that interventions during adolescence have a great positive affect on mental health later on. Predictors of poor mental health are for example teen pregnancy and substance abuse. One provider of such interventions could be schools: Mental health education, empathy and mindfulness training can create mental skills that prevent mental illness in later life.

There is no clear definition of the term well-being, which leads to difficulties in studying as well as providing help. The Rose hypothesis of mental health suggests that improving the well-being of the majority of people on the mental health spectrum (Fig. 1), currently experiencing moderate mental health or languishing, could shift the overall curve to the right for the whole population. This would be more effective and easier to implement than targeting the group at the far left end of the spectrum (who already suffer from mental illness) and thereby well-being could be preventive of mental disorders. At the moment, there is a lack of peer-reviewed research into the relationship of mental health and well-being, thus it is not clear if well-being can positively influence mental health as suggested by Rose’s hypothesis.

Rose Hypothesis

Figure 1: Mental Health Specture. Graph shows percentage of population with different mental health states. Rose’s hypothesis suggests that targeting the centre rather than the small group to the far left end of the spectrum could provide a better outcome for the total population.

Another interesting graph discussed during the meeting was the dual axis model of mental health (Fig. 2), which suggests that mental illness (disorder) and mental health (well-being in this case) are two different axis and as such do not necessarily predict each other.

Dual Axis Model

Figure 2: The Dual Axis Model of Mental Health suggests that well-being (“mental health”) and mental illness are not related linearly and therefore must be treated as separate (though related) issues.

Additionally, one needs to take into account that in this graph, the mental illness axis might as well be exchanged for “physical illness”, or any other predictor of well-being as can be seen on the graph in figure 3. It is important not to forget that psychological well-being, ie mental health, is only one influencing factor. For this reason, it is important to work towards de-stigmatising mental health in the population and get to a point where for example a period of depression is treated the same as a broken bone. Only then can we as a society provide adequate help to the sufferers of mental illness and improve the overall wellbeing of the country significantly.

Well-Being Wheel

Figure 3: Schematic illustration of factors influencing well-being.