The Danger of Returning to Better Times

The Danger of Returning to Better Times“This company used to be known for its great customer service and its caring attitude toward its employees,” lamented Tina. “We had better benefits, greater job security, and more respect from management, and the company got really great service for its customers as a result. We need to go back to the way it was.”

We’re hearing a lot of these laments lately. Companies, governments, and all types of organizations are changing. The complaints are often about abandoned non-verbal contracts between employers and employees, about lost cultural norms, and about ethical issues emerging as the change occurred.  And the knee jerk desire is to ‘return to better times’.

We’re seeing it in our national culture as well. “Make America great again” is a call to those disgruntled by the indignities of change, and a rally to a lost place of equilibrium, safety, and prosperity.

Change can indeed bring unhealthy disruptions. When a culture changes so much that ethics takes a back seat, the change should be re-evaluated. When an entire work culture is turned on its head, especially related to how people treat each other, a serious reexamination is in order.  Indeed, even when cultures must change to fit a new reality, the question should be asked, “what can we not afford to lose in this change?”

Yet, the human reaction to return to a past that seemed better does not always serve us well. Why?

Humans have a tendency to romanticize the past. Our brains are wired to remember pleasure more than pain. So we often forget what was unpleasant about past times and over-value what was good. In short, we have an unbalanced view of past experience that can skew our perspective.

Context matters. The good old times were experienced in a different environment than today’s. Maybe there was indeed more robust job security in the past, but today’s reality is that the trend has shifted and wishing for it to rewind won’t make it happen. Decisions may have been more deliberate in your past experience, but ‘agility’ has become today’s new imperative, demanding more rapid decision-making. You can’t count on being able to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems.

Returning to the past may stifle new innovations. The danger in returning to the familiar is that you may miss opportunities to find new answers to old questions. Sacrificing risk for the comfort of the ‘better times’ limits choices, and may limit upside potential as well.

Past choices created dependencies. When the ‘better times’ were developed as a solution to a then-current problem, a set of dependencies went along with them. We will be world leaders in our field, assuming we will continue to focus on a specific untapped market (but does that market still exist?  Is it open now for our product as much as it was 10 years ago?). We will be world leaders in our field, assuming we can continue to receive favorable trade agreements with some countries. (Are those trade agreements still possible?)

Leaders are well-served to look critically at the ‘better times’ of the past, to be sure that advocating for a return of past practices actually creates advantage. Before looking to the past, be sure there’s not an alternative future that will better serve the goals you hope to achieve.  American journalist Doug Larson reminds us, “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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