Individuals and Institutions

It strikes me that one of our many societal challenges is that individuals don’t know how to work with institutions and institutions don’t know how to work with individuals.

This seems a little odd, since, after all, institutions are really just a collection of individuals.

But, having been an individual in many types of institutions, it just doesn’t seem that simple. The individuals who make up an institution can have a huge impact on institutional character, but that’s not all there is to it.

There’s something that happens when a group of people gathers together. Relationship direction, impact, and strength, are not uniform across the group. Patterns of information flow become settled and routine. Ways of thinking or avoiding become comfortable. People across the group have different goals, concerns, and complaints.

The character of the individuals matter, of course, but the character of the institution is unique.

Even the best institutions become bureaucratic, slow-moving, and are prone to failure.

As an individual, then, whether inside or outside the institution, the question becomes how to move the institution – how to change the institution.

As a citizen, an individual must be prepared to influence the institutions of government. As a member of a work or a school environment, an individual must be prepared to influence those communal institutions.

But how does a person do that?

On the other hand, a good institution should be welcoming of being influenced by individuals. A good government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. A good work place ought to want employees who are empowered to bring their best ideas forward, to co-create with together.

Arguably, the failures of our society come down to a problem of corruption in institutions. Who actually believes that government has our best interests at heart? It’s certainly hard to believe that if you’re a black man in American.

Many of our institutions are corrupt. And as individuals we should work to change that.

But corrupt institutions are so hard to move, and we are so tired.

Perhaps there is nothing we can do.

It is only a slice of a solution, but too often, I think, people don’t know how to work with institutions.

I’ve seen too many activists, of all types and at all levels, undertake actions which ultimately hurt their cause by antagonizing their target institution. Some organizations really do have good intentions.Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times when antagonizing can be a productive way to go, but when did we decide that the best way to make change was to be an a-hole about it?
It’s also important here to be clear about your end goals. Working well with an institution often means playing by that institution’s rules. If your real goal is to disrupt the system, to demonstrate a basic inequity in the way the institution does business, perhaps shutting it down is the best thing to do. Don’t play by the rules if the rules are broken.But if your goal is more practical – if you care more about implementing a policy change than changing the whole system – then perhaps you should learn the institution’s rules, and learn to play by them.On its face, this approach can be more successful – it might result in more tangible changes and outcomes. But the practical-biased among us should be careful – Don’t call a policy change a win if it comes at the cost of accepting basic inequity.


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