Low-Value Traps

Recent reports on global disengagement and lack of wellness suggest that people across the globe have persistent “low-value” experiences–they spend all day gaining little value from their efforts, feeling like they contribute little value to their organizations and communities, and experience little sustainable value in the material things they purchase.

If this is such a widespread and common phenomenon, why have people not figured this out?  It seems like the sufferers of this include the poor and the rich, those with little formal education and those with lots, and those in the global south and the global north.  It seems that they are caught in a “low-value trap.”  A low-value trap is when the experience of low value in a specific social system persists over time, where people feel “trapped” in long-term experiences of low value, of not getting much or contributing much for a lot of time and resource spent.

The authors of a recent book on the science and practice of resilient social-environmental systems  suggest a nice metaphor for this trap.  “Imagine a crater at the top of [a] mountain…The ‘trap’ would be water stuck in the crater, unable to get over its walls and thereby take advantage of the multiple development paths represented by the descending valleys” (Pursuing Sustainability, 2016, Princeton Univ Press, p 66).  For a more mathematical treatment of these crater traps, see “local minima.”  The point is that, within the crater, it is very hard to get out, because in the crater you tend not to have access to the very resources that you need to climb the walls, so most efforts to climb the walls only result in falling back to the bottom of the crater.

The very resources one needs to experience high value, in what one gives to and receives from human interactions, do not seem to be available in the low-value trap.  We need support, recognition, and the ability to make a unique contribution, yet these resources are usually not available in the low-value trap.  Are we stuck, then, or is there a way out?  The emerging science of agreements fields suggests there is a way out.  A way that is both simple and hard.  We simply need to see the agreements that we have unconsciously accepted, making them conscious and choosing whether and how we enter them.  This is hard, because we human beings seem to be designed to continuously and consistently fall asleep to these socially embedded agreements.  Over the past decade, in our work with organizations, networks, and leaders in over a dozen countries, we have developed a prototype, a 4-step process for seeing, choosing, and enacting these agreements, getting out of the “low-value trap.”  While hard to see at first, especially when you have spent years experiencing the low-value trap, you do have the resources needed to get out of the trap.  It is a choice.

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