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Cultural Paradigms and Traffic Jams

Updated: May 18, 2023

When a system begins to undermine what it was originally intended to facilitate. Part 1 of 4

It happens all too often: One step forward; two steps backward. Red tape. More harm than help. Counterintuitive. Counterproductive. There is a reason we humans have come up with all kinds of descriptors for that phenomenon when a system or structure actually begins to undermine what it was originally intended to facilitate.

It happened just recently to KnowledgeWorkx’s International Director, Marco Blankenburgh:

This morning, I experienced a classic illustration of a situation that was adversely affected by a combination perhaps of Power-Fear –oriented and Innocence-Guilt –oriented mindsets. I was on the road—I had dropped my kids off at school and was headed home. My Google traffic advice indicated it should take me about 12 minutes to get home from school.

My little commute was flowing along beautifully, and it appeared that it would fulfill all of Google’s predictions—until I rolled up to one roundabout where police were present to direct the traffic.

I was stopped as the first car at my entrance to the circle, with a police officer standing directly in front of me. There were about four other officers posted at intervals so that all the entrances were amply covered.

So I sat there, first in line. I sat and sat—eventually for about 15 minutes. There was no evidence that the hold-up was going to let loose anytime soon, so I started a conversation with the police officer:

“Sir, would you be so kind as to explain to me—why are we actually waiting? Because, as you have perhaps noticed, I could’ve entered the circle safely at least five times by now.”

In an attempt to keep it light, I added jokingly,

“Of the two of us, you’re more powerful, so I know I’ll have to wait patiently till you say I can move, no matter what!”

He looked at me, nodded, and smiled ruefully. (Maybe he was enjoying this about as much as I was!) He said,

“Yes, you’re absolutely right—indeed you could’ve cleared the circle safely many, many times. But the reality is, the boss tells us, ‘This is how we’re going to do things,’ and, as a result, I have to follow what my boss tells me to do.”

He laid out for me a few rules that his boss had instructed him to implement.

“I’m very sorry, sir, but—whether it makes sense to us, or not—when it comes down to it, I must of course do what my boss tells me to do!”

Again, trying to keep it light, I said:

“Well, I can certainly appreciate that you’re obligated to carry out these instructions, but I thought one reason police officers are around is to make sure that traffic will flow more smoothly! Right now it’s not flowing at all!”

He just smiled and nodded and kept doing his job, while I smiled and kept on doing my new job (=waiting patiently until the powers-that-be finally gave me the green light!).

To me, it did seem like a classic illustration of an Innocence-Guilt –oriented thought process, where excessive legislation and structural oversight had trumped the rationale behind their intended solutions—creating more problems instead of eliminating the original problem. And an example of a Power-Fear –oriented system that was, in essence, no longer empowering [neither drivers nor officers] and no longer life-giving [to the traffic]. Instead of serving its purposes, the system undermined and hindered them—inexplicably slowing down what was meant to be sped up.

In a given situation, two seemingly conflicting or separate worldview processes can come into play like this; and the different people or forces involved can tend to reinforce, multiply or exacerbate the different aspects, so that it becomes difficult for a single participant to see the whole picture or to (literally) move forward effectively. Read Part 2 here.


Quickly becoming the global preferred choice for Inter-Cultural Intelligence development, KnowledgeWorkx promotes mutual understanding of other cultures and perspectives in the workplace, and helps teams to develop the intercultural capacity necessary to thrive in a globalized world.


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