Untangling the knots

By Jill Viens // Fifth Space Fellow and Tenacious Trio Team Member


April 21st: our first demo day in the Fifth Space. What an incredible experience! Seeing what the 6 other groups have found in their research, the tools they’ve developed, and the talents they’ve been able to tap into. I feel very privileged to be part of something that brings together a group of such diverse and passionate individuals. It’s rare to find so many people with so much vision and drive in one place.

My feelings about this whole process, my teams particular problem statement, working with InWithForward one extra day per week, the effect on my every day job, effect on my home life, the varied interactions with people from different positions within each agency, the newfound self awareness, etc are a pretty big jumbled mess at the moment. The best way I can think to describe it are as if all of my emotions and experiences over the last several weeks are one giant, unkempt ball of yarn. It’s knotted and tangled; there is no clear beginning or end to the mess and the more I pull at one particular piece the more knotted and tangled another piece becomes.

Looking at this ball of yarn, it seems impossible that I will ever be able to sort through the knots and see the yarn as a single piece that while lengthy, will unravel in a neat and orderly way. At the moment, this is the biggest challenge for me. I hope that with time I will be able to recognize without doubt what I have learned and can feel as though I’ve accomplished something worthwhile. There is already a hint of it brewing in the corner of my brain, I just need to find an effective way to sort through the tangled mess first. Explaining the work we’ve done in the Fifth Space so far at the Demo Day was a good first step towards making sense out of this work.

Presenting our newly refined problem statement to a new group of people was an interesting experience. Each of us in the Tenacious Trio had to figure out our own way of explaining the data and the direction we are headed in while still reflecting the broader ideals of our work as a group. Our “problem” statement focuses on direct service staff and when we first formulated our statement it focused on motivation as being an area of interest. We initially made a big assumption that staff were feeling complacent and lacking motivation. As we began our research, reaching out to and speaking with people from across the agencies it became clear that our assumptions around lacking motivation were inaccurate and grossly generalized. Lacking motivation wasn’t a problem at all, the staff we encountered have been highly motivated to work for the needs of the individuals they support.

The more people we spoke with the more our problem organically began to shift to focus more on a need for support and appreciation for the work staff are doing. When we sat down as a group to discuss our findings from observations and interviews, we discovered that there was a group of people who had been experiencing distressing events at work related to relationships with their peers and relationships with supervisors. While not everyone we spoke to had identified this as a concern or challenge, this particular group of people posed the most interesting questions:

  1. What are the key differences between people who cope with distressing experiences using intrinsic coping mechanisms (accepting some responsibility for what they have control over, feelings, thoughts, etc) versus an extrinsic coping mechanism (blaming others, the environment, etc )?
  2. And how does the perception of distressing experiences in the work place effect the way people do their work?

We don’t yet have an answer for these questions and we have discovered a few unexpected pieces of information by presenting our current research findings. For some, the idea that other people have also experienced professional trauma is eye opening. These experiences do not appear to be a series of isolated incidents that only happen on rare occasions; most people, at some point in their professional lives have had experiences in the work place that they have perceived as being distressing and disturbing. These experiences range from negative interactions with individuals and families being supported to interactions between staff and managers. We have also discovered that the idea that staff could be experiencing heightened levels of distress without adequate support have stirred something deeply unsettling for the people in charge of our organizations.

It was through these conversations with people that I realize we have unwittingly selected a very difficult problem to “solve.” It will not be simple and it will not be as easy as creating a new program and calling it a day. It’s not clear at this point what this change will look like, but we have managed to throw a spotlight on a problem that has not been acknowledged from the bottom-up in such an open and public way before. I anticipate that there will be some difficult conversations ahead for us, but I feel deeply resolute in the assurance that we are on to something profoundly worthwhile.

I’m a bit of a quote junky and came across this piece to ponder:

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

~ M. Scott Peck ~