Shifting Baseline Syndrome and Work

Have you ever had someone point something out to you that you were not consciously aware of, and then you could not stop noticing that thing everywhere you looked?  For me, this happened with the concept of shifting baseline syndrome.  The idea was first introduced to me while listening to an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible.  The episode was called Wild Ones, and it detailed a live performance of Jon Mooallem’s new book, Wild Ones: A sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.  The podcast episode played parts from the live performance, and gave some insight into the ways in which human interactions with nature are now designed experiences more often than they are wild encounters.  I loved the episode so much, I purchased the book online, and once I dove into this detailed examination of human and nature interactions, our views towards nature, and the concept of shifting baseline syndrome, I began to question more of the world around me.  Shifting baseline syndrome is the idea that each generation inherits a world that is in some way different from the world that the previous generation inherited and accepted as normal when they grew up.  In the context of nature this applies when one generation grows up accepting the current state of forests, pollution in the ocean, and populations of animal or plant species as their baseline for normal.  That generation will see the state of those things change throughout their lifetime, often becoming more depleted or polluted, and will see nature as being lessened, but the following generation will accept that lessened state of nature as their new normal.  This idea crosses over beyond Mooallem’s descriptions of nature into many areas of humanity, think of Facebook, technology, and privacy concerns.  I began to look at how it affects us in our work environments, and saw that it can be a factor in the changes of our accepted practices and ideas in the same way that it is a factor with nature and conservation efforts.

Just like people and nature, companies and businesses grow and evolve over time.  As conditions change companies adopt new goals, policies, and practices that shape the workplace.  What once was normal and commonly accepted may no longer be possible at a given workplace and employees must change as their job changes.  In order to head in a new direction a new baseline for productivity, communication, or work progress may need to be established.  Changes are natural at work as every company strives to be more competitive.  If employees cannot adapt to the shifting baseline that accompanies new settings, atmospheres, and environments then they will not be successful, and by trying to maintain the old baseline or constantly comparing everything back to their original baseline they will hinder progress.

It is easy to see shifting baseline syndrome in action when new leaders take over at companies and hire new sets of employees.  A very visible and common example happens in sports, when the coaching staff of a sports team is fired and a new coaching staff is brought onboard to change the direction of the team.  The athletes on the team who are able to adapt to the new baseline of expected play, rules, and procedures will be the ones who can become stars, while those who cannot may be cut from the team.  When new employees are hired during times when new rules and regulations are introduced they will learn those rules within the workplace as normal.  The employees who were present before the new rules will be adapting to a new baseline.  As both new and senior employees adapt to the new rules or procedures, and as kinks are ironed out, they will both come to another new baseline that must be universally accepted to reduce conflict and boost productivity.

By being aware of shifting baseline syndrome you can act as a bridge between the new and the old.  Changes will occur at work, and new practices that are better and more efficient will be introduced.  By learning how to adapt and accept those changes you can become a better employee, and learn how to grow in new situations.  Being a bridge to new baselines requires open communication between you, those who hold positions above you, and new employees.  By being willing to discuss your ideas, the fears or concerns you have with changes that seem to be needed (or unnecessary) you can help to make the transition from one baseline to the other a smooth affair.  Accepting new baselines and learning how to reach them makes you a more flexible employee who can be trusted with more responsibilities.