Just because people are clapping, doesn’t mean they agree.
A few years ago, I did a mini speaking tour in Eastern Europe – one of my absolute favorite places to be in the world. The warm and thoughtful people, excellent food (especially for a dedicated carnivore), and the rich history of art, culture, and philosophy made for yet another inspiring trip to the East. I couldn’t help but imagine that my Slovakian grandmother was walking beside me as I made my way around region…
While visiting a particularly beautiful mid-sized town in the countryside, I got the full guided tour from a local host. At one point, we reached a large open square. Once in the center of the square, my host paused and turned to me. His English was quite good, but limited. He was obviously searching for the words to explain where we were.
“It is the… How do you say?”
“Marketplace?”, I offered.
“No.”, he said definitively.
“Town square?”, I gambled once again.
“No. No.”, he said thoughtfully and obviously searching for the right words.
Now puzzled, I simply waited.
“It is the… clapping place.”, he said smiling with satisfaction that he had found the right descriptor.
Clapping place? What on earth is a clapping place? He went on to explain.
During the communist dictatorship, this square was used as a place to make speeches and pronounce edicts. He pointed out the large brutalist concrete building at one end of the square. That, he explained, was once the Party headquarters for the region.
At appointed times, the townspeople would be expected to gather in the square for a variety of purposes. The occasion might be a speech, pronouncement, or any number of mandatory “celebrations”.
At these events there was only one expectation. You were to clap loudly and enthusiastically – no matter the speaker or subject at hand.
It was then that I realized my host was not explaining a local landmark to me. He was sharing a historical trauma – the kind of particular psychological and social harm that inevitably accompanies communist and socialist dictatorships.
Scarcity of resources, show trials, purges, unjust detention and imprisonment, and legalized bullying of varying sorts are no doubt the most obvious forms of control. However, the lingering impacts of a society rife with informants, tightly controlled information and media, orchestrated gaslighting, and social manipulation often have even longer lasting effects.
Friends and colleagues from the former East Germany, USSR, and various Soviet satellites have inevitably shared that the infusion of ideology, falsity, and mistrust into all of one’s relationships are some of the most painful memories of these regimes – often with ramifications that are passed down to later generations.
During these times, a dinner conversation with friends and family could be just as dangerous as speaking out in public. One always had to be cautious and watch what one said. A system of perverse incentives ensured that you could be denounced at any time, perhaps even by those closest to you. This combination of direct threats and indirect manipulation is what ultimately defined the full matrix of control.
It’s one thing to stand in line for necessities or be hit with a baton. It’s quite another to be made to stand and clap for it.
Interestingly, it was a beautiful sunny day. Other parts of the town were bustling with families out for a stroll, tourists, and merchants. However, this square was largely empty. It was as if the entire area still bore some kind of social radioactivity. It was a bad place with bad memories.
For those who did not live this history, it might be tempting write this off as a colorful anecdote from another era, not relevant to us today. But consider: Are there places in your life or organization that in some way function as (or are in the process of becoming) “clapping places”?
A clapping place is anywhere that mimics a space for engagement, but in reality is designed to produce compliance.
I doubt that many the Party officials that mounted the balcony at the end of the square were under any illusions that the clapping indicated true enthusiasm for their rule and ideas. That wasn’t the point. The point was to demonstrate that the town could be made to clap, and clap you shall. It was an exercise in coercion, not engagement.
After all, it is far easier to claim to speak and act for “the people” when you systemically squash the voice and will of persons.
In such a system, some will even begin to value a clapping place for the potential “benefits” it can offer. Other than simple coercion, there are many reasons to clap in a setting that values compliance over engagement. For instance:
You might simply clap in hope for a tangible reward.
You might clap vigorously in order to appear more enthusiastic, more of a true believer, in comparison to others – to curry favor with the powers-that-be and get a leg up on others by exposing their lack of fervor for the cause de jour.
You might also clap simply because it is what everyone else is doing. Perhaps the most the powerful social force is the drive to belong, conform, and avoid the threat of being shorn from the group. Blend in, keep your head down, and simply do what’s expected.
And that last point is ultimately the goal, or at least the final effect, of a clapping place. Do as you’re told. Let a special select few make the real decisions and decide what’s best for you.
So, what’s the lesson here for organizational leaders today?
First, make space for what people really think - even when it is challenging to you personally or contrary to the zeitgeist of the day. All leaders crave validation on some level and if you’re not careful, those around you will sense this and deliver it – perhaps in abundance.
You might even eventually be tempted to believe that all that clapping and enthusiasm is real, when in fact all you have done is create an environment that incentivizes compliance – one in which outward behavior has become divorced from what people really think and believe.
If this validation is further rewarded by raises, promotions, influence, and greater access to power, it will be noticed and magnified. Over time, staff and colleagues will begin to compete to deliver this validation to leadership. Then, once they are leaders themselves, they will mimic and perpetuate the very unstable system in which they have learned how to advance and control dissent.
Second, look for those places in your organization, like the town square above, that are intended to be places of real open engagement. What do you see? Who does most of the talking? How often is orthodoxy challenged? Are there ideas that have formally or informally become un-discussable or unassailable? What ideas or people are protected from critique?
When you begin to see fewer people doing most of the talking, the development of orthodoxies that cannot be challenged, and ideas or people who cannot be critiqued without one being branded a counter-revolutionary heretic and sent off to the gulag, well… you have a clapping place in the making.
In the next article, I’ll discuss how to open-up a space that is becoming just a little too goose-steppy. In the meantime, think about the above and go have a look around the little town that is your organization. You might be surprised at what you find.
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