Recently, an acquaintance told me about a colleague of hers who had struggled to adjust to the transformations at their company, a tech firm. "He couldn't move forward and adapt,” she said with a sad shake of her head. “He became nostalgic for what we used to be.”
Then, remembering what I do for a living, she caught herself. “I’m sorry to make that sound like a bad thing. I know you kind of traffic in nostalgia. But in this case, it wasn't good for him."
Little did my acquaintance realize that, as a consultant specializing in applied history, I'm all too familiar with the dangers of nostalgia, perhaps more than most.
In my work helping organizations use their histories, I’m always reminded of a fundamental truth: that while a sentimental longing for the past can be comforting, it can also be corrosive. Not only does it inhibit our ability to evolve and adapt; it also impedes the kind of critical thinking that enables us to learn from and leverage past experience.
The answer, though, is not to block out the past altogether. It is to engage with the past in a more constructive manner: reconstruct it, understand it, learn from it. Such an approach treats the past not as some idealized lost world, but as the opening chapters of a dynamic, still-unfolding story, one that reveals new possibilities for the future.
Constructive versus corrosive nostalgia
Some forms of nostalgia do have value. Celebrating past achievements can boost morale among employees by giving them a sense of pride in what their organization did to survive and thrive over the long haul. Authenticating a brand by citing a record of past success can build credibility with otherwise skeptical clients and customers. And appealing to a shared heritage can make it easier to unite internal and external stakeholders alike around a common set of values.
Even nostalgia for not-quite-accurate memories of the past—which we call organizational myths—can be harmless or even helpful, especially when those myths speak to an organization’s underlying identity.
The danger comes when nostalgia glorifies values and strategies that no longer align with what the organization is becoming or aspires to be, or else blinds us to critical learnings from our past experience.
Rather than condoning or enabling this brand of nostalgia, historians are often at the forefront of combatting it.
Consider the controversy over removal of Confederate monuments. Overwhelmingly, historians have tended to favor either removing these monuments or displaying them in a museum or other setting that better explains their context. Why? Because historians know that most of these monuments are not actually artifacts of the Civil War, but relics of the postwar “Lost Cause” movement, which romanticized the antebellum South while using this skewed depiction of the past to oppose civil rights and desegregation. Indeed, devoid of context, the Confederate monuments are not a way of understanding the history of the Civil War—its causes, impacts, legacies, and lessons. They are, in fact, vessels of uncritical nostalgia that inhibit such an understanding.
A better way to engage with the past
How can leaders combat the most harmful forms of nostalgia within their own organizations?
1. Empathize with how people feel about change. It is natural for employees and customers to become nostalgic in the wake of transformative change. Even when that change is for the best, people may need space to grieve over what has been lost. Honoring their accomplishments is one way to help people move on—by showing how their contributions established the foundation for all the exciting things yet to come.
2. Seek out the root causes of nostalgia. Exploring the sources of nostalgia may reveal actionable insights. For instance, an executive may come to understand that her employees are feeling nostalgic for the intimate, close-knit sense of community that characterized the company when it was much smaller. She might then seek to re-create those bonds by establishing individual teams within the newer, larger organization.
3. Find the organization’s usable past. Ultimately, a corrosive nostalgia is best overcome by locating the elements of the past that will propel the organization forward, while retiring others that are holding it back. This demands a serious, structured analysis of the past, one that spurs employees—including those who might otherwise be prone to nostalgia—to ask probing questions about their organization and the work it has done. What actually happened? What did we learn from it (or what should we learn from it)? And what does all of this say about where we go from here?
A walk down memory lane is more than a pleasant distraction. Celebrating a shared heritage can help reinforce core values or brand attributes, which in turn will enable organizations to execute on their strategies. But it is the more strategic, future-focused approach to the past that holds real power.
By engaging employees in a thoughtful reflection about the past, organizations can help them come to terms with change while at the same time recognizing, valuing, and leveraging their first-hand knowledge of that history. Instead of yearning for some long-ago world that will never return, they become invested in using that past as a roadmap for the future—one that will help their organization get where it needs to go.
Arielle Gorin is a Saybrook Senior Consultant. She is currently at work on a multigenerational family history and a research study for a leading tech company.