“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
[Abstract: TLDR: Some organisations engage in renewal as an event rather than an ongoing process. In such cases, they find their organisational skillsets and capabilities are inadequate for the new reality. Often employees who excelled in a previous reality struggle in the new paradigm. In some cases, these employees become senescent. They can even act like a senescent cell and influence those around them to become toxic and malevolent.]
Did you ever wonder why men get those patches of grey in their stubble?
Senescence is the gradual deterioration of living organisms. The word stems from the Latin senescens, the present participle of senescere (“to grow old”), from senere (“to be old”), from senex (“old”). So it gives us English words like senile or seniority.
In 1961, researchers Hayflick and Moorhead investigated if human cells could replicate indefinitely in a lab dish. Instead, they found that cultured human cells eventually slow their divisions and enter an irreversible dormancy. This state of arrest in cell division is called cell senescence.
Various organisms experience senescence at different rates. While a mouse is considered elderly at three years, a human is elderly at eighty (and increasingly more with every passing year). Organisms of the same species age at different rates. From brains to muscles, body parts age at various speeds. Senescent cells contribute to ageing characteristics like frailty, sarcopenia (man breasts) and grey hair.
Hair follicles age at different rates because some are exposed to more oxidative stress or inflammation, which can accelerate the process of cellular senescence. Other follicles may be better protected by a healthy diet, regular exercise, or reduced exposure to damaging environmental factors like pollution or UV radiation. To make the rate of ageing even more complex, beard hair ages quicker than the hair on our heads.
Just as cells undergo senescence and lose their ability to divide and function effectively over time, organisations experience senescence of their skills and capabilities as they age. This “organisational senescence” leads to a decline in profitability and performance. What got you there won’t keep you there!
Just as cells experience senescence at diverse rates, employees experience “skillset senescence” at different rates. Just like cells, this ageing depends on various factors. Some employees are exposed to ongoing training and development, which can protect them from business environmental factors such as technological unemployment. Others not exposed to regular upskilling find themselves exposed to the risk of replacement. Today, that risk is more prevalent than ever before. People believe writers and experts who have been saying this for years. While those of us tasked with rote and repetitive -and thus programmable – tasks will be most at risk, most will be at risk if we do not upskill.
Why Cellular Senescence?
Scientists believe that one of the reasons for senescence is to prevent the replication of cells harbouring damaged DNA. When we are younger, our cells undergo cell death or apoptosis. This function prevents cancer and limits tissue damage by stopping the propagation of faulty cells. However, as we age, removing dysfunctional cells is no longer effective. Sometimes, a senescent cell can recruit other cells to replicate malevolent characteristics. This is the danger of cancer.
Many organisations experience “silo senescence”, where a toxic leader can negatively influence an entire organisational cell. This is often because that once-effective leader resists upskilling and renewing her skills and capabilities. In some cases, she might even prevent the renewal and growth of healthy colleagues for fear that their renewal will expose her resistance.
What Can We Do?
While senescence is the inevitable fate of (almost) all multicellular organisms, it can be delayed. For example, in 1934, a study found that caloric restriction can extend lifespan by 50% in rats. Furthermore, potentially immortal organisms like Hydra have motivated further research into delaying senescence and age-related diseases. For example, a recent study on the effects of prolonged intermittent fasting showed improvements in autophagy, senescence and inflammasome activities.
Autophagy comes from the Ancient Greek autóphagos, meaning “self-devouring”. It refers to the body’s response to the stress from fasting. When we trigger autophagy, the body recycles damaged or unnecessary proteins and renews cells. The body will even use pathogens, damaged cells and plaques as fuel. Autophagy boasts anti-cancer and anti-ageing benefits.
Our bodies become complacent when we continually feed our cells with simple fuels such as sugars and carbohydrates. Our cells rely on us to fuel them, regularly storing excess calories as fat. However, when we initiate a stress response – on our terms, such as fasting or exercise – we become more resilient and activate autophagy. As a bonus with autophagy, we regenerate, reinvent and renew our cells. When I trigger autophagy through fasting, I imagine my body thinking, “Huh, he hasn’t fed us in 16-18 hours; I better go look for fuel from some other source. As a result, the body fuels itself with any stored fat, damaged proteins or whatever else it can source as fuel. I promote autophagy by using exercise, resveratrol (the nutrient found in red grape skin), green tea, coffee and curcumin.
I am sharing this to emphasise how we must be mindful of our tendency to become complacent when things are going well. This is a core message in my book “Undisruptable, a Mindset of Permanent Reinvention”. When we experiment and build stress responses and metabolic or mental agility in times of abundance, we are better placed to deal with inevitable stress when it arises. This goes for organisations as much as individuals in our careers. To promote organisational autophagy, we must embrace experimentation, jettison jaded pieces of junk corporate DNA and selectively regenerate skillsets.
Just as we can take steps to renew our cells, organisations can take steps to support the ongoing development and growth of employee skill sets. This might include offering training and development opportunities, providing regular feedback and coaching, and fostering a learning and continuous improvement culture. It can also mean experimenting with new business models and minimal viable products. By doing so, the organisation can help to ensure that its employees remain vibrant and productive contributors, even as they navigate the challenges and opportunities of an ever-changing business landscape.
Like any living organism, cells die and renew all the time. While the body deals with defective cells through apoptosis, organisations can sometimes cling to toxic people. Sometimes, they isolate these people and hope they will leave, but other times they don’t want to deal with them. Doing so causes immeasurable damage that is not immediately obvious.
Apoptosis provides a fitting metaphor for what must happen in organisations to survive continuous cycles of change. Rather than letting the entire organisation die, the corporate body’s silos, departments, and business units must regularly renew, just like a human body. Similarly, employees must proactively seek new skills while unlearning defunct ones. Like any healthy process, the end of one cycle is the beginning of another, and it is better to embrace this law than to resist it.
THANKS FOR READING