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Drift is the term used for when we become unfocused, when we lose sight of what we are doing or what we are trying to achieve. Ever gone upstairs and, when you get to the top of the staircase, you have no idea why you went upstairs; your mind is blank? That’s drift. Ever been on the way to a meeting, got distracted then found yourself wondering where it was you were going? That’s drift.

But there are more serious versions of drift. For example, an important meeting can get bogged down in detail and lose track of what was supposed to be discussed. A worker can lose sight of what they are trying to achieve or what their role is. The result can be, at the least, wasted time and energy or much more serious in terms of important, perhaps crucial, things not getting done.

Drift can happen in any circumstances, but I have been able to identify three main types of drift that can so easily arise:

  • Bureaucratic drift This is where administrative requirements and procedures take over and become the most important thing. Instead of admin systems being there to support the main work of the organisation, it can easily become the case that the cart gets placed before the horse. What I mean by this is that bureaucracy becomes the main focus. For example, I have come across situations where supervision sessions have become reduced to a process of simply completing the supervision recording form. Instead of a professional process of helping the worker to be the best worker they can be, it is reduced to a series of questions being asked and the answers written down. The bureaucratic requirement has been met, but the actual benefits of supervision have been lost.
  • Pressure drift A second type of drift arises when people are under a lot of pressure. They find themselves rushing around, not taking time to think, plan or focus. Unfortunately, this tends to create a vicious circle. People under this level of pressure are likely to make more mistakes, act rashly and, importantly, lose the plot – lose the focus of what they are supposed to be doing. That then adds to the pressure levels, and so it goes on.
  • Culture drift This can be, in part at least, a result of the first two types of drift. It refers to when a culture develops where it becomes the norm to lose focus. This can be, for example, where there is a lot of unresolved conflict in a team, so the main focus becomes managing the conflict, or at least trying to avoid it. Similarly, a culture of low morale characterised by negativity and defeatism can distract people – and demoralise them – to such an extent that the main focus of the work gets lost.

So, what can be done? Well, from an individual point of view, an important step is in the direction of critically reflective practice. Drift occurs when people switch off and allow themselves to become distracted. They stop concentrating and thereby lose focus. A more mindful, reflective approach can therefore make a very positive difference. It can create a virtuous circle in which a clear focus makes us more effective, which improves morale, and which then helps us to focus and concentrate.

From an organisational point of view, this is where leadership has a role to play. Effective leaders should be able to shape a culture where reflective practice is the norm and where team members are supported in keeping a clear head and a clear focus. Drift is very costly in various ways, and so an individual and collective approach to tackling it is likely to prove most effective.

One Comment

  • Jane Braun says:

    This is exactly what I have experienced working within the humanitarian field for a tiny NGO in Greece. I was eventually dismissed for trying to use solution focussed practice and for pointing out how hierarchical the organisation had become, with rules and codes hindering any forward progress. I thought I was going mad, but your article explains clearly what was happening. Sadly NGOs are not regulated so this type of scenario seems to happen all too often.

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