What is it about queues that brings out the best and the worst in human nature? We’ve all been there. You’re hot and sweaty in an over-crowded airport terminal edging forward in a human snake that stretches into the distance. Glancing at your watch, and sensing your blood pressure rising, you watch as up-front an elderly couple sneak into the queue from the side and claim an illegitimate advantage. ‘I bet they’re Italians’? mutters someone just ahead and there is a grumble of agreement from all around as public shame and humiliation are heaped upon the unsuspecting brigands.
As an executive coach I am always on the alert for simple analogies and metaphors for the FACTS coaching model and the queue-jumping example triggered an association with the ‘S’ of FACTS; systems thinking. After all, queues are human systems; collective expressions designed to serve the wider good yet requiring all involved to submit to a shared set of values and norms. Sub-optimisation occurs when one component of a system seeks to optimise its own outcomes at the expense of the broader goal. When we are tempted to queue-jump we create sub-optimisation by shortening our own queueing time whilst simultaneously lengthening that of everyone behind us.
We can also experience the systems thinking concept of leverage points when in such situations. The tension builds until eventually someone snaps, marching forward to remonstrate with the queue-jumpers and triggering a full-blown, cross-border row. It is as if the disgruntled collective nominates a spokesperson who steps forward and takes it upon themselves to speak on behalf of the system. The system has located its leverage point and mobilised it for action. Many people caught up in such mob experiences look back later at their extreme behaviour that now seems out of character in the cold light of day.
Queues reveal to us both the potential and the hazards of human systems. The positive potential is shown by our ability to self-organise, commit to shared goals and recognise the trade-off between individual and collective interests, short and long-term impacts. The hazards are revealed by the fragility of the trust that binds most human systems, the forever-present temptation to sub-optimise and the risk that leverage points become triggers for panic and emotional contagion.
So what is the role of the leader in this systems-thinking world? A leader committed to the systems thinking mind-set acknowledges the potential of human systems and finds a means to channel systemic power positively on behalf of the collective good. In so doing, they may sacrifice their own short-term material interests. In contrast, a traditional leader seeks permanently to sub-optimise outcomes for themselves and their exclusive band of followers. Sub-optimisation remains the norm for we exist in a materialistic, ‘us and them’ paradigm. Yet still something deep within us resists drawing the conclusion that this is all we can aspire to be. Otherwise, why would we queue so often and so patiently?