The trance of scarcity: How we heal culture

Organizations must embrace compassion and help their leaders recognize the role of scarcity thinking at work.

Were you one of the many who hit the stores early in the panic of the 2020 pandemic, wiping shelves clean of toilet paper? In reality, there really wasn’t a shortage of anything other than the one created through our collective fear of running out. But that kind of fear can drive our behavior and choices toward hoarding and being overly protective of our resources to the point that we hide them, refusing to share what we perceive to be our only edge in a competitive world. 

Organizations spend millions each year on developing emotional intelligence (EQ) and agility in their leaders — for good reason.  In their 2019 report, the Institute for Health and Human Potential found that 80 percent of the defining characteristics of exceptional and unexceptional leaders were emotional intelligence behaviors. According to research, 95 percent of people think they are self-aware, but only 15 percent actually are. 

Qualities and characteristics like self-awareness, empathy, compassion, vulnerability, trust and stability are desirable for a positive and safe work culture where people trust enough to be authentic, try new ideas and not be punished for failing. Investing in emotional intelligence training can yield a return of as much as 1484 percent

Additionally, up to 50 percent of employees quit because of a bad manager. The 2019 report concludes that turnover can be significantly reduced by EQ training. Leaders who invest in learning about their self-awareness and social awareness and who demonstrate empathy and compassion are linked to higher-profiting companies. 

In carrying out this kind of training with managers and leaders from various fields, I’ve noticed a pattern. Those who seem to struggle with what most of us would call low EQ and agility, tend to have a common denominator: a scarcity mindset. 

When our survival is assured – that is, we have plenty of the necessities, such as food, clothing, shelter and means of bringing in ample income to continue – we have the mental bandwidth to consider others and their needs, cultivate compassion, empathy and self-awareness. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes to mind, yet let’s not invite the academic debate about if we move through his stages strictly linearly. For thousands of years, our human culture contributed to a collective mindset that many have become ensnared by: a trance of scarcity. This easily builds upon itself daily with current economic and political rhetoric using an emotional hot button to influence buying patterns, votes and donations. 

When we know we have plenty, we are willing to share, assist others and consider their needs and contribute to meeting them. In that world, kindness and compassion matter. In a survival world, when we are fearful that there might not be enough or we might lose our advantage, we begin to withhold resources and information. We hoard our holdings; we criticize anyone who doesn’t buy into our fear of not having enough. We don’t see the value of so-called soft skills like emotional intelligence because we don’t evaluate anything that doesn’t translate directly to dollars as worthy of our attention.

The irony, at least for organizational culture, is that cultivating a culture of high emotional intelligence and agility pays for itself many times over in attracting and retaining high-quality talent, clientele and customers.

This is a deeply rooted, challenging to change, subconscious mindset, much like a trance. We churn out unconscious thoughts constantly, many driven by what we’ve been taught from those with scarcity mindsets of their own. Research shows gestating infants are affected by these fears in their mothers and other family members to the degree that it shows differences in how their brains are structured and function. Fear of shrinking resources has been a given for so long that it is a part of our shared human consciousness.

Interestingly, most don’t talk openly about this in work or social settings. Money is possibly the most taboo subject in our culture. Most learn early on not to ask about the cost of things or someone’s salary. We see countless messages focused on how dire our economic system is, reminding us in multiple ways how precarious our personal financial system may be. 

“Have you saved enough for retirement?” frequently scrolls past on all social media feeds. Those ads and posts can make a compelling case for a “Chicken Little” scenario, and many of us have colleagues, clients, family and friends who have become hooked on that theme. 

How do we help ourselves break out of the trance of scarcity and reconnect with our humanity? How do we help leaders and organizations elevate the importance of leading with compassion, empathy and understanding? And what if our shared experience of a world that works for most of us hangs in the balance? 

Sometimes those immersed in fear-based thinking don’t want to break out of the hold the mindset has them in. Sometimes people ignore warning signals until there is an emergency where they have no choice. In the current moment, we have a nation divided against itself, higher suicide rates than the Great Depression and the Great Resignation. It’s hard to imagine a more urgent time for helping people free themselves from the trance of scarcity and invest in learning how to lead with compassion and empathy. 

How do we do that?

One of the first steps to shift to a more abundant mindset is to start thinking about what we do have access to, and what is working well. A daily gratitude practice can bring great value. Taking a few moments each day to remember a few things that are going well or that we might take for granted, can shift the direction of our thinking.

A second step would be to surround yourself with people who are positive and energizing and reduce time with those who are the “Chicken Littles” in our world. To avoid expanding neural networks of fear and lack, limit the time you listen to or interact with people who subscribe to that philosophy. Being in that environment on a regular basis can change the chemistry and function of your brain.

As challenging as it might be, abandon the win-lose business model and move into the win-win model. In a strictly competitive environment only one person wins; we used to see this as a model for boosting sales, by pitting employees against each other. In a collaborative environment there is more than one winner; we help each other win. Ask questions such as, “How can we reconfigure this so it’s a win for all parties?”

We can also train our minds to see the opportunities in front of us that we have habitually overlooked. If we are so focused on what we believe to be true, we can easily miss seeing significant opportunities – even gorillas – completely.

When two people are speaking with me at once, each wanting to share something, I cannot focus on both and have anything coherent come out of it. So I ask them both to pause and speak one at a time so that they are truly heard. We are responsible for making a conscious choice about where we place our focus. We can redirect our thought to what is working, what is going well and what we are inspired by. 

As leaders, we can also gently redirect those we recognize immersed in scarcity thinking to a more productive line of conversation. Negativity is a social turnoff and can quickly spread through a team or office, demoralizing everyone. Model the best way to redirect those conversation detailers as soon as they crop up. The acronym of THINK can be a helpful reminder of how to direct our words: 

  • Is this true?
  • Is the helpful?
  • Is this inspiring?
  • Is this necessary?
  • Is this kind?

How might we see more clearly the fear behind the hostility of the person at work who is certain things are falling apart? How do we hold compassion and listen to those holding on to their privilege with a death grip? These are the challenges of our time. As those tasked with educating and supporting learning in organizations, we must recognize the role of scarcity thinking in ourselves and those we serve. More organizations should add resources to help their employees shift away from fear, practice emotional intelligence and agility and embrace the value of qualities like empathy, compassion and understanding.