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Celebrating the Nonprofit Difference

(I share authorship with Gavin Fenn-Smith on this one. A shout out to all the wonderful nonprofit leaders.)

For the past decade, there has been a push to get nonprofit organizations to look and operate more like for-profit corporations.  The reasoning goes something like this.  Nonprofits are underperforming due to notoriously lax management practices, undisciplined decision making, overly emotional responses to challenges, idiosyncratic organizational structures, inadequate operational oversight…and the list goes on.  You get the point.  That is not to say that nonprofits are summarily trashed on all counts.  But as the trend towards greater accountability and measurable outcomes has risen, so too has the insistence that leaders demonstrate more effective management (sic. corporate) capabilities.

At the same time, many talented for-profit leaders who are looking for more meaningful work have flocked to nonprofits to offer their more traditional styles and skills into these organizations.  They, and the nonprofits that hire them, have high hopes that their discipline and experience will bring order to the chaos.  And in some cases, that is exactly what happens.  But the research suggests that at least half the time that dream is never realized.  Corporate types fail to convert a critical mass and leave everyone frustrated and mistrustful…most of all themselves.

This raises an obvious question.  Why do for-profit managers fail so frequently when they enter the nonprofit environment?  But we think the more intriguing question is why do these organizations resist being molded into a corporate image?

We believe the underlying premise is flawed.  The view of nonprofits as deficient is wrong.  We believe that nonprofits are fundamentally different than for-profits and those distinctions need to be understood and celebrated.  To superimpose corporate models and practices onto nonprofits simply does not fit.

Understanding the differences

 Let’s flip the usual equation of forcing corporate disciplines onto nonprofits and imagine instead a for-profit organization shaped to comply with nonprofit operating norms.  To make this a valid comparison, think of organizations with more than 50 people but less than 500.  (In the for-profit world, this includes companies that have moved past the initial startup phase but are smaller than those listed on the Fortune 1000.  For nonprofits, this includes a vast number of organizations.)

Walk into an all-staff meeting and the culture is on full display.  The leaders are not seated in a row looking out at the group but interspersed throughout.  Staff members design and run a good portion of the meeting.  There is an expectation of discussion and challenge on many of the agenda items.  For topics that require decision-making there is an invitation for lively input and a tendency towards consensus.  There are moments to share anecdotes that reinforce the mission or highlight a new idea or learning.  Nearly everyone has protected this time in their schedules so they can be engaged in the conversation.  People want to be with each other, get the scoop, acknowledge achievements and influence the thinking and decision-making.

On any given day, the Executive Director may be called upon to meet with donors, approve grant proposals, attend community meetings with key collaborators, facilitate the staff to reach consensus on a major initiative, solve problems with a field office manager and attend a policy session with the mayor.  These responsibilities are rarely delegated because this is the job description and there are a limited number of functional managers to hand off these duties.  The core skills the ED must demonstrate are passion for the mission, acute and agile interpersonal and communication skills, consensus and coalition building, persuasion and flexibility.

Organization charts are simple and used primarily to identify roles and supervisory responsibilities.  But if you observe daily work-in-action you see people at all levels doing whatever is necessary to get the work done.  There are few hard lines drawn between staff roles and activities.  At the macro level, everyone shares responsibility for achieving the mission so the norm is to pitch in if you are needed.

Some processes and systems are well developed especially if there are government compliance requirements.  But internal work processes are created only when necessary and are generally followed.  There is more attention given to the exceptions rather than the rules when it comes to abiding by routine protocols.  The filter for this is “what is best for this particular client or project”.

The physical office space is adequate and designed to be comfortable for client visitors more so than for the staff.  There are few corner offices, the conference rooms are used for meetings with external partners, visitors frequent the kitchen and there are couches everywhere.

Imagine a for-profit enterprise where the CEO bounces from one discipline to another without functional specialists to delegate the work to.  Imagine a group of employees who wouldn’t dream of missing a staff meeting because of the opportunity to meaningfully engage with colleagues.  Imagine large groups of people coming together to hash out decisions until they arrive at a consensus.  Imagine sharing heartfelt stories about the positive impact on the people you serve.  Imagine fluid and flexible roles with limited concerns about stepping on each other’s toes or stealing the spotlight.  Imagine the energetic focus being on achieving the mission rather than on profits or personal gain.  Imagine an ethos where doing the right thing is more important than following the rules.  Imagine an office space that is designed for outsiders rather than for a hierarchy of leaders and staff.

The research is quite clear.  Many for-profit managers who transition to a nonprofit encounter these norms and want to hit their heads against the wall…even when they have been forewarned.  This environment is not for everyone.  But that doesn’t mean that nonprofits should conform to a set of standards that are counter to their DNA.

 How did we get here?

Why aren’t nonprofit practices viewed as the role model and adopted by for-profits?  Why aren’t these differences seen more positively?  Why is there so much emphasis on nonprofits being run more like businesses?

This whole thrust came about as nonprofits were asked to measure and demonstrate the results of their work.  This unearthed a deficit in many organizations.  They didn’t know how to track, measure and analyze their activities so they needed to learn a whole new set of skills.  As it happens, those skills are deeply instilled in many corporate settings.  Looking more closely, nonprofit leaders appeared to be lacking a host of other accepted management practices.  Decision-making seemed cumbersome and overly consensus-based, roles were unclear and overlapping, systems and processes were loose and idiosyncratic.  In short, nonprofits were seen as lacking basic management practices and many nonprofit leaders were shipped off to classes or received mentoring to develop more “businesslike” disciplines.

That’s all fine and good.  We agree that many of these leaders need to manage their organizations more proficiently and some of the missing pieces are these very skill sets.  But we believe this movement has been overly zealous and may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  There has been precious little conversation about the more unique requirements for successfully leading a nonprofit.

By imposing traditional (albeit effective) corporate structures and management norms on nonprofits, well-intentioned interventions run the risk of missing the mark. Applying standard practices without an appreciation for the inherent complexity of leading these organizations is short sighted and incomplete.

A third way

Let’s reframe the dialogue.  Rather than retrofitting nonprofits to look and operate more like for-profits, let’s appreciate the distinctive leadership requirements.  Once that is understood then it is clear which corporate management habits fit, and which do not.

Understanding the context of a nonprofit is essential.  The mission is to create social change through services, research or advocacy.  The nature of the work is more “on the front lines”, connected to many constituents, focused on change, embedded in a network of interested parties and emotionally charged.  The leadership responsibilities and challenges unfold within this complex web of relationships, politics, partnerships and ever-changing landscape.  These leaders spend more time out of the office engaging others in the cause than they do inside managing the staff and operations.  For them, the organization is the springboard for impact, not the end result.

In this environment, these leaders must exhibit exceptional emotional intelligence, finely tuned relationship skills, a propensity towards collaboration and consensus building, a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, an understanding of how all the disparate parts interconnect, an ability to cross multiple boundaries and the flexibility to shape-shift continuously to take care of whatever is needed.  Nonprofit leaders are in the business of change and the instincts and capabilities they bring to their causes are of a different nature.

To be clear, you won’t find most of these competencies and skills listed on a traditional leadership model or on a professional development course curriculum.  This constellation of requirements is unique to the nonprofit reality and critical to their success.  Let’s feature these.  Let’s provide learning experiences to enhance or teach these.  Let’s encourage for-profit folks to take a lesson or two, exporting some fresh ideas into the corporate arena.

Similarly, the internal structures, roles and operations of nonprofits create a different type of culture that also factor into their success.  Here again there is more fluidity, less formality and more attunement to emotions and relationships.  There is greater emphasis on robust discussions, shared decision-making, collaboration and nurturing an esprit de corps.  Although you might witness some of these behaviors in for-profit settings it would be more anecdotal rather than the predominant culture.

We agree that nonprofits would operate more smoothly if the leaders were proficient in standard management practices.  Disciplined standardization of systems and processes, improved monitoring of progress and results and sharpened clarity around roles and responsibilities would have a positive impact on productivity.  That said, it would still play out differently than you see in a typical for-profit organization because of the cultural differences.

Rather than viewing these nonprofit leadership and management behaviors as problematic we see these as strengths.  In fact, many for-profits have spent thousands of dollars on fancy programs trying to create some of these very habits in their staffs with mixed and limited results.  So maybe there is a great deal to value here.

If you blend these unique and admirable skills, behaviors and norms with some well-honed management practices then you have a dynamic and winning combination.  More routine operations can free staff up to focus more intently on the work and bring simplicity into the leader’s day.

Where do we go from here?

Over the coming decade, we will need tens of thousands of new and well prepared nonprofit executives.  The operative word being prepared.  This suggests an imperative for a vigorous focus on talent development in terms of financial backing and creating the most effective learning experiences.

Capital aggregation holds some promise for a more sustainable and strategic funding approach.  A group of funders pool their resources to target a larger group of grantees over a longer period.  Progress is monitored and the expectation is that outcomes and impact will improve without the constant worry about money.  It is too soon to know if this is working but we suspect it will.  Why not target these investments on talent development?

Partnerships and coalitions need to be forged to build the nonprofit talent pipeline much like these funding associations.  We suggest investing in leadership aggregation where one or more significant donors target their grants on a group of leaders within a specific sector or region or community.  The concentrated resources over several years would develop a cadre of prepared leaders to fill the gaps.  If you pull together both financial and talent assets this could go a long way in closing the widening nonprofit leadership gap.

If the funding and commitment were resolved that still leaves the challenge of creating more effective learning experiences that honors the unique circumstances of nonprofits.  New programs and models need to emerge that more accurately reflect the competencies of a successful nonprofit leader.  This needs to be significantly more effective than the ordinary fare that is currently available.  Methods and approaches need to match what is known about high impact adult learning experiences.  They must be experiential, grounded in the participant’s reality, immediately applicable, few classroom style lectures and supplemented by personal reflection and peer support and guided by knowledgeable experts.

We celebrate the strengths of nonprofits and their leaders.  We don’t believe they need to change their spots and become something they are not.  But we do believe they need more appropriate and effective development experiences to improve their own impact and to build the talent of those who are on the rise.  The combination of appreciating the hybrid that they are, more sustainable funding and a new set of learning experiences will go a long way to ensure the future of these organizations.

 

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Equality

If you haven’t seen the MSNBC interview with Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, I recommend that you do so. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e98u2lI3mfk at minute 18. Watch the whole thing) He sounds like a moral and ethical leader and doesn’t use much CEO-speak (products, ROIs, etc). He spoke of business being the most potent platform for social change and his passions are focused on equality. Equal access to great education, affordable housing, paying more taxes to support the “village”, equal pay, equal representation. Trust and purpose are the foundational drivers for his beliefs and his business endeavors.

Benioff repeated a line in this interview that I read about a few years ago. When it came to his attention that men and women were not paid equally at Salesforce, he directed his staff to fix it. And they did rather quickly. His comment about this remedy was “it’s not hard”. If I had a nickel for every time a leader moaned about how hard it was to (take your pick) hire more people of color, promote more people that weren’t white men, focus on human factors as often as new products, seek staff from less traditional backgrounds etc. then I would be a wealthy woman. And yet here is one of the most prominent CEOs remarking in the most casual way, “it’s not hard”.

So, why do most leaders believe that it IS hard to create equality within their companies? I have a theory. It takes effort for someone in the majority to imagine what it must be like to be an Other, someone who is not granted power by accident of birth. Why would they see power as a zero sum game rather than something that is expansive enough to make room for all? Why so exclusive? Fear? Discomfort? Control? Lack of consciousness?

Sometimes I think it boils down to a profound lack of curiosity and knowledge. Do traditional (sic. white, male, Christian) leaders study history or different cultures or minority experiences? What is on their book shelves? What movies do they watch? What neighborhoods do they live in or go out to eat in? How do they travel? Who are their closest friends? How many languages do they speak? What are their deeply held beliefs about equality?

There is so much talk these days about how we all live inside of our bubbles. I wonder if that is especially true for those leaders who claim it is so hard to create equity in their companies. But do you know who doesn’t live inside of a bubble because they can’t? Women and people of color. Every day we walk into work which is based on white, male norms. We who are Others must become (at least) bicultural and bilingual. When we walk into work we shape shift into the predominant norms and leave the rest of our beings at home. How many leaders do the same thing? How many leaders know enough about Others to be fluent in their cultural norms? How many are curious enough to learn these new languages? Another way to think about inequality in the work place is that Others must always adapt while those in power don’t.

And just watch what happens when an Other forgets to tuck away all that other-ness at work. Angry, aggressive, emotional, uppity black, woman or other minority, they are labeled. Others have learned the rules of the game very well. But this is neither fair nor equitable. Holding so tightly to age-old practices or norms is archaic and unjust.

For those leaders who have good hearts and intentions, who want to become more receptive and expansive to differences and who fundamentally understand the value in this, I have some recommendations. None of them are hard.

  • Read things you wouldn’t usually pick up. The history that most of us were taught is so incomplete and inaccurate. Read more contemporary books on the true story. “White Rage”, “The New Jim Crow”, early feminist history, Japanese interment, anything about slavery or the holocaust, European conquests across other continents. Fill in the gaps in your education. And make sure it is by legitimate scholarly types versus conspiracy theorists.
  • Expose yourself to culture and arts from other traditions. This could be an art exhibit, ethnic food, travels or literature. Fictionalized literature is often an easy way to get a feeling for time, place and experience of different realities. Travel to a country that doesn’t speak English so you can feel the discomfort of navigating without comprehension.
  • Ask questions and deeply listen to the women in your inner circle. Ask them about how they transform to male norms, how they struggle to be fully themselves in work situations or their tales of sexual harassment and discrimination. When they tell you “it’s just part of being a woman in a man’s world”, don’t buy it. Push for a deeper conversation about the pain and anger of it all.
  • Try to comprehend that not everyone is Christian. Yes, the world is a Christian majority. But religion is not one of those things that folks can so easily shape shift around. Not everyone hums Christmas carols or goes to church on Sundays or believes in Jesus Christ. Don’t speak of Christmas as secular or the winter solstice. Don’t think those Others don’t have high moral standards. Even if they are atheists.
  • Tamp down the urge to be defensive or ‘splain how it is. I appreciate that it is sometimes uncomfortable to be lumped with all those white men who are truly oppressive even when you are one of the good guys. But unless your actions are consistently driving towards equality in your work place, then you are not helping. It really isn’t hard (pick what applies) to call out someone who makes an offensive/discriminatory remark, to realize that you haven’t interviewed any women for that open position, to advocate for someone who is different, to privately speak to other men who are misbehaving, to keep your hands to yourself, to make room for Others at the table, to be compassionate about different experiences, etc.

I was so heartened to hear Benioff’s remarks and to notice how matter of fact he was in his tone. He has a big megaphone and is doing what he can to do good in the world and in his company. Equality is at the core of the issues he wants to tackle. It is refreshing to finally hear someone say the opposite of “it’s complicated” which means “leave it alone.” Back in my earlier protesting days we had a chant. “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I’ll add to that, “and it’s not hard.”

 

Teams Work Best When Members Feel Connected

Try as I might, I don’t understand how a group of 12 individuals can come together and work productively and collectively if each one is a separate island. If my thoughts/agenda/reactions are the most important, I assume that the other 11 people feel the same way. I can’t imagine how you bridge all that isolation to truly collaborate.

Unfortunately, most companies encourage a more individualistic approach to work. Goals, assessments, rewards and promotions are almost exclusively rated on how well one person performs. Sometimes there are team goals that must be achieved but even those aren’t scored collectively. All emphasis is on how well I do my job; not how well WE get great results together.

Yet these same companies insist on team work as the major venue for getting work done. I don’t know about you, but if I’m being scored as an individual, I’m going to have a hard time not thinking about that when I work with my project team. I will be looking at those other members and hoping they don’t screw up my standing! That causes me to bounce back and forth between being the good team member I’m expected to be and looking out for my own best interests. The system is set up to separate us when team work requires that we reach out to connect.

At our most basic level, we humans are wired to connect and care about others. That is what gives us meaning and purpose. It is also what creates health and well being. The more isolated we are, the less vital, productive, creative and healthy we are. Most of us know this on some level and we yearn for it. Our work lives create significant dislocation from each other, making it hard to fathom how we can do our best work.

Despite decades of research that suggests companies need to change structures and reward systems to make collaboration more possible, there has been very little progress on that front. So how do we connect with our team mates and colleagues in spite of the organizational disciplines?

Whether you are a senior executive, team leader or team member, try these things.

Approach others with kindness, respect and generosity. When I treat you with positive regard, you are more likely to relax and make a connection with me. I may/may not pick you as a chum outside of work, but we have some shared goals and needs while we are at work and one of those is to be treated respectfully. And if I am generous with my time and resources, you may return those favors. Like begets like.

Understand that we humans have more in common than not. We all walk into work each day wanting to be our best selves and anything others can do to support that effort will be appreciated. We don’t want to be lonely, we don’t want to take the weight of the world on our shoulders alone, we need help, we have self doubts, we need comic relief, we need a receptive ear, we need interactions. Of course, I won’t admit that to you but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Listen deeply to learn new things from those who are different than yourself. I’m certain I’m the smartest person in the room and that the team will do great as long as they follow me. Translation: I’m scared that you may be more creative or smarter or more knowledgeable or more interesting than I am. When we are scared, our egos take over and we stop listening. We completely miss the incredible gems others are sharing because that loud voice inside our heads is shouting “me, me, me!!” Take a breath, sit back and soak in other voices for a change.

Err on the side of the collective rather than the individual. Even when I don’t have lots of faith in this team of people, I need to do my part to create bridges between us. I need to invite others into the conversation. I need to ask more questions, drill down with open curiosity. I need to say please and thank you. I need to ask for and offer help. I need to let my guard down and express uncertainty or vulnerability or share a whacky idea. I need to set the example of what it looks like to make meaningful connections. And for lord’s sake, I need to stop tooting my own horn!

Become a more three dimensional, full person. It seems we leave most of our true nature at the door before we enter work. This is the saddest part of all. We become cardboard cut-outs of the roles we are expected to play and see how many points we can rack up on the board. Much like buying that brand new dream car, it feels good for a minute but it doesn’t make you feel whole or give you meaning. It just says “I alone won”. Work encourages us to be lone wolves. Our emotions, our spirits, our relatedness, our purpose, our creative juices all stay home in bed while we go through the motions. The more we bring our whole selves to work, the more we will work collaboratively. Because that is our natural state.

This all sounds rather simple, I know, but any one of these suggestions is a huge act of courage. These are not the perspectives or behaviors that are rewarded or encouraged in most companies. Emotions? Not here! Relationships that are not purely transactional or a friendly beer? Unthinkable! Putting We before I? Not if you want that promotion! Organizations are not the healthiest environments for human beings yet teams require us to bring more of our human beingness to the office. Tough challenge but so worth it.

 

Compassionate Leadership Responses to Sexual Assault Allegations

I have been reluctant to use this blog to comment on issues in the public space but I feel compelled to provide some understanding and guidance for leaders and colleagues when it comes to sexual abuse survivors. Our political leaders are not setting a very good example and I believe we can do so much better in our work places.

Before I went into consulting, I was a psychotherapist who specialized in treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I studied, taught and wrote about the impact of such heinous actions on young victims. After 40 years as a professional, I can tell you with respect and reverence for these survivors, hearing their stories and facilitating their recoveries was the most meaningful work I’ve done. It is with this background that I offer some guidance.

As a leader or a peer, you are working side by side with survivors. They are represented everywhere in our population in astounding numbers. Knowing this, you need to be informed and prepared to show compassion as you navigate the specific work related issue that may cause someone to reveal their past. Survivors are constantly managing things that may trigger a painful memory; often through awkward habits, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If something has occurred at work that exposes peculiar thinking or actions, how this gets handled can make an enormous difference. The person will either feel understood or re-traumatized. Obviously, it is not your job as a leader to know the private details of your staff so you can avoid any potential land mines. But it is your job to respond respectfully when the mine explodes.

Here are a few things to know that can deepen your understanding of what an abuse survivor experiences.

Ordinary development is disrupted. Think of yourself as a second grader or a high school sophomore. Remember how you understood the world, how you interacted with peers or your family. Envision what your body looked like and how you felt about it. Think about what your interests were. Now imagine that someone more powerful came along and violated you sexually. Regardless of events that transpire next, you are forever emotionally and cognitively frozen as a 7 or 15 year old. Now picture yourself trying to fit into the normal flow of life as you turn 20 or 35 with persistent intrusive thoughts that take you back to that life altering moment. Are you the adult or that frightened child? A little bit of both.

Clever coping mechanisms will be created. Children will do whatever is necessary to survive. Each survivor can tell you precisely what “quirks” they have brought into adulthood. For one it is obsessive washing. For another it is needing multiple exits. Hyper-alertness, constant placating, hiding, detailed contingency planning. If you have colleagues who have some unusual anxieties or coping mechanisms that they tell you have been there since childhood, chances are they suffered abuse. These strategies may look childish or maladaptive in adulthood, but they were lifesavers all those years ago so they are hard to let go of.

Acting normal. Accent on acting. At the moment of the assault, any semblance of fitting into the mainstream is over. Feelings of shame, guilt, impotence and being exposed are intense and constant. Survivors feel this so strongly inside their beings that they assume it shows on the outside. Every effort is made to seem like nothing ever happened. Sure, they are newly quieter, more socially withdrawn, skittish and awkward but they go to great lengths to hide what happened. Even if those efforts are not too successful.

Living with secrets and shame. Most victims do not come forward at the moment the abuse occurs usually because of a combination of verbal threats from the attacker and a deep sense of shame. This enormous thing happened but the young person must never reveal it. To people who have not experienced abuse it is very difficult to imagine not telling someone. But to all survivors it is just the reverse; they can’t imagine the new horrors that would befall them if they did tell someone.

The quandary of how to feel safe, secure and trusting. If the abuser was known to the survivor, all sense of safety ends. Even if the abuser is not known this occurs but the double whammy of betrayal by a friend or family member or priest cannot be overstated. If these are the people in your life that you trust and one of them violates you so egregiously, where does that leave you? How can you possible regain any sense that the world is a safe place and that others won’t harm you again? As adults they may appear distant, mistrustful or not comfortably joining in.

For most, their inner strength prevails and they go on to lead productive lives. They have struggled to find a way to cope with the devastation that is still alive in their beings. You will experience them as bright, kind (if not aloof) and good workers. And occasionally, you may need to have difficult conversations with them about odd or inappropriate behavior or reactions. You will have trouble creating a consistent picture of this person.

Here is some guidance for you as a leader:

  • Be mindful of unexplained anxieties. A woman is not likely to reveal her most intimate painful experiences in a work setting (or anywhere for that matter) so you will not know explicitly that this person is a survivor. But if you observe some of the behaviors or thinking listed above or unusual levels of anxiety that don’t seem to fit the moment, compassion suggests treading lightly. If you have well trained HR professionals who have the sensitivity to deal with more challenging emotional situations, you may want to include them in discussions and problem solving.
  • Be acutely aware of power dynamics. All abuse is about power and control over the vulnerable. You are the boss who can dole out consequences and ultimatums. If you are a large man and the woman before you is smaller, beware of your impact. If your style is aggressive, dial it down. This is good advice in general (why would you abuse your position and power under any circumstances?) but more generous with a survivor.
  • Offer respect and support. Listening without minimizing or discrediting a person’s story (if shared) is baseline behavior. Words that are helpful: I can’t imagine how horrible that was for you, what a remarkable person you turned out to be, I believe you, tell me what would be helpful in this situation. Words that are not helpful: I don’t run a mental health agency, I can’t believe you still think about something that happened so long ago, It couldn’t have been so bad if you didn’t tell anyone at the time. It’s true that you don’t have to attend to people’s mental health issues but, as a leader, finding compassionate solutions to make the work place feel safe is your responsibility.

I have said it here before, corporations can set a high bar for compassionate and civilized leadership. Be one of those leaders. Don’t let the politicians or anonymous Twitter ranters shape this dialogue. You’re better than that.

Leading During Non-Ordinary Times

Leading under ordinary circumstances is a challenge. Leading during crazy times presses us into unknown and uncomfortable territory. As leaders, we don’t usually worry about the mental health of our staff, how to take an appropriate ethical position on events of the day, whether or not to shift policies on political talk at the office, how to sort out shifting government positions that impact our businesses, how to keep staff focused in times of overwhelming uncertainty and the list goes on.

Should leaders even be concerned about any of this? Is there a distinct line that can be drawn between what happens within the business environment and the rest of what is going on in the world? Should organizations focus more keenly on the distress of their people?

There is no right answer. But consider this: employees are showing up for work with unusual energy that is effecting how well they can perform. Some people feel depleted and disheartened by the events of the day. Some feel ready for battle about world issues with adrenaline pumping. Some feel invisible or judged because of their personal views. It is no longer clear cut what is acceptable language or behavior in the workplace and many are on edge and shutting down. Others feel less censored and get a thrill when testing the limits of the new norms.

So, how can we lead effectively during these roller coaster times where decorum has broken down and stability is a thing of the past? How can leaders provide some sanity?

State the obvious. Whether you use internal communication boards or all staff meetings to deliver key messages, leaders can acknowledge this moment of confusion and distress. “We are in the midst of extraordinary times when our leaders/country/world are challenging our institutions, the world order and civil discourse. Most of our reactions happen outside of work but it is unrealistic to think that we leave our emotions at the door before we walk in here every day. I appreciate the challenge of managing this stress. As much as possible, let’s try to be our best selves with our co-workers.”

Exhibit your own humanity and compassion. Leading by example has never been more necessary. If you model compassion and understanding, others will follow. If you listen and take genuine interest in others, you set the standard. If you show heart and concern for others, the mood can permeate. If your normal style is one of command and control, being fully in charge of most things and leaving others to be in the role of adherents, now may be a good time to develop beyond that stance. Fewer employees are receptive to this autocratic style these days.

Deliver a message of connection and collective efforts. Reiterate the importance of teamwork, hold face to face meetings, encourage asking for help, reward collaborations, train people in more sophisticated methods of respectfully disagreeing to achieve a shared objective and support efforts for community volunteering. The human to human connection is the most powerful antidote to today’s insanity.

Remind people to take good care of themselves. Companies do not need to bend over backwards to provide extraordinary resources for self care or stress relief. But they can communicate the value of practicing healthy habits. Employee Assistance Programs, on site yoga classes, nutrition workshops or a good referral network for other services are helpful to have on hand. Human Resources can facilitate this without making it their core function.

Determine if or how your organization wants to respond publicly. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, has taken very public stances on critical social and policy issues. Other CEOs have followed. Sometimes the staff is pushing for a CEO to take a public position. Sometimes employees have left companies that didn’t align with their values. You need to decide where you and your organization stand on various issues. Again, there is no right answer.

Corporate and nonprofit leaders have a rich history of leading the way on critical issues of the day. (Think: some diversity efforts, charitable foundations, opposing specific policies.) They can shape the culture and force government entities to shift directions. (Think: gay and transgender rights.) Employees are looking for sanity and humanity in their leaders today. Be that person!

Where Has Our Humanity Gone?

(These are thoughts weighing heavy on my mind lately. A bit of a departure from my usual posts.)

For all of history, the harm that human beings have done to each other is astounding. Some would say it is in our DNA and that is partly correct. The other part of our essential make up is that we crave connection above all else. We want to be cared for, recognized, listened to and loved.

Yet our history is littered with wars and genocides and lynching and slavery and all kinds of unimaginable damage to our fellow humans. If our most basic drive is to be connected to other beings why, then, is aggression, rejection and hatred so dominant?

Tribalism, yes. Confirmation bias, yes. Imagined threats, yes. But this is a description of outcomes rather than an explanation of what is at the core. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I have a couple observations.

We have always lived within hierarchies; in our villages, our families, our offices, our societies and our world. This means that some are at the top and some are in the middle and some are at the bottom. For those at the top, if the middles and bottoms stay in their places there is order. Not to mention that they receive the spoils from this arrangement. But if those in the lower rungs either break into the upper echelon or drop down in status, there are problems. Discontent surfaces if the ruling group gets infiltrated by “nouveau uppities” who don’t belong and the lowest class swells in size and protests their unexpected fate. The order has been upset and must be dealt with to get things back to the way they are supposed to be.

So, the Have’s look at those who succeeded against all odds with suspicion. What are you doing here? Who let you in? Did someone or some program show you undue favor? Whose seat are you taking up who belongs here? Oh, you must be an exception to the rule. And for those that break through, they never fit in. They always feel like “other” because they don’t have the right body parts or skin tone to be accepted into the club.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

Likewise, the Have Not’s (the longstanding ones and the new ones) find they cannot sustain themselves. The opportunities, education, open doors, programs and institutions don’t exist or are designed to keep them out. At best, the societal efforts to make systems fairer are underfunded and encounter extraordinary resistance. “Fair” is not something that motivates the ruling class. Maintaining the order as historically defined is their goal. The pie is small and there is not enough for everyone, they seem to imply.

Resentment ensues on both sides.

This resentment, born from the futility of working hard and the counter valence of protecting the gates, has generated cruel thoughts, words and deeds against humanity. Some on a large scale but most very mano-a-mano. And it’s not just threats to the natural order that fuels the hostility. Much is amplified by imagined fears, lies and the ability to deliver those messages anonymously. Thank you internet. In this hateful morass, people can’t even discern what is worth paying attention to because what matters most is not being shouted over the airwaves. If there is data or news about people being connected in caring ways, it gets lost in the nasty noise and lasts for a nanosecond.

We are encouraged to embrace each other with love and listen to those we disagree with. Not bad advice but it isn’t changing the ethos or the systems. We may have kind connections that sustain us in our small universes but it doesn’t allow us to move up the ladder or ignore the aggression at the office or feed our families. We used to say, “all we need is love” which the hippie in me still believes. But there is no “love-in movement” today. Instead there are horrible things being said and done to our fellow humans that are anything but loving.

It seems that every moment is pregnant with negative possibilities. Someone looks at you sideways. Someone ignores your presence. Someone votes differently than you do. Someone worships differently or not at all. These encounters can unleash vicious tirades that have only one resolution: see things my way or I will continue to attack and marginalize you. We can’t even have simple exchanges without them blowing up. We are anticipating an attack and our adrenaline prepares us for the fight.

Then there is real and significant harm and human suffering. Rape, discrimination, gaslighting, poverty, war. In a humane world, there would be empathy for the victims and actions to right the wrongs. Instead, sufferers are abandoned or not believed or told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When brave souls come forward to tell their stories there is an outpouring of hostility and defensiveness. It seems these horrors don’t match some narrative that is part of the “natural order”. Compassion is for sissies.

It feels like someone has thrown accelerant on petty grievances to ignite the battle of “who has it worst”. A bad, yet offensive, joke is a 10 on the scale of indignities worthy of expulsion from the human race. So, where does gun violence or a global financial crisis rank on the 10-point scale? And why hasn’t anyone been expelled? Lots of handwringing and op-ed pieces and everything stays according to the “natural order”. The top people are still in charge and the middles and bottoms feel further demoralized and invisible.

I keep searching for answers and deeper understanding. I have days when I hold tight to my optimism only to plunge into a week of hopelessness. I want to believe in our better angels. And I naively think there is some silver bullet answer that will pull us all out of this deteriorating mess.

But I’m not quite that naïve. In my work, I guide leaders to have more questions than answers. So here are my questions.

  • Why are humans so frightened of each other?
  • Why do humans hold onto stereotypes and caricatures of people who are different than our own tribe? Why do we substitute “stories” about others for actual real life experiences?
  • Don’t humans understand that we are made of the same skin, bones, muscles and blood even if we look different? Why do we not see our similarities?
  • Why do humans prefer the company of people who look, sound, act and earn the same?
  • What is so awful or threatening about people who look, sound, act or earn differently? Aren’t we curious to learn about people and places beyond our life experiences?
  • Why do those at the top want to control everyone and everything else? What do they fear would happen if there was more access to the top?
  • Why do humans look at those with difficult circumstances and blame the people rather than the situation? Why don’t our hearts ache for all the injustices that cause suffering?
  • Why don’t humans understand that where we are born and to whom is random?
  • Why are humans in the public square (IRL or virtual) so vicious? What feels so good about making others feel so badly?
  • Are all these nasty interactions because we fundamentally feel terrible about ourselves? If so, how did that happen during the self-esteem-Olympics decades?
  • Why is being kind and assuming positive intention so much harder than being cruel and assuming the worst?

We have lost our humanity. That precious connective tissue that allows us to know with certainty that we are all in this together and that our similarities far outstrip our differences. We are all just one county away from poverty, one country away from a war zone, one neighborhood away from gun violence, one boss away from sexual harassment, one generation away from slavery, one brother away from PTSD, one cousin away from addiction, one friend away from rape, one paycheck away from homelessness. Not even the very top folks are protected from life’s dangers. And when those bad moments occur (and they will for all of us), it is the kindness of people we know and many we don’t know that helps us survive.

So, is our reliance on the decency of our fellow travelers only valid when we personally experience hard times? That doesn’t make sense. It seems we would carry within us the warmth of that generosity and act on that during the good times when our well beings are intact. Sadly, that is not where we are today.

As humans, we have the gift of consciousness; the ability to think things through and not just act on instinct. Cruelty and denigration are choices we make. The stories will tell ourselves about why our mistreatment is justified are simply that…stories. They are not based in the ability to see, hear and understand that person sitting across from us or speaking on the TV. We must reclaim our sense of humanity so we can see, hear and understand that when we treat others so poorly that we are doing harm to ourselves. Because, after all, we are all the same and we are in this together.

 

 

 

Does Your Leadership Team Need Group Therapy?

“Let’s pull out the couch. The doctor is here!” A refrain I often hear from my team clients that isn’t exactly true. There is no couch and I’m not a doctor. But they are expressing a sentiment about what it feels like to do the tough work of examining their individual and group dynamics. It does feel a bit like therapy because they are asked to speak authentically to each other in productive ways. They are being asked to improve their bonds so this “family” can function in healthy ways so that all can thrive.

But it isn’t therapy. We just aren’t used to being coached to respectfully say what we mean, not passively or aggressively dig at each other, openly support our peers, minimize the competitive posturing and to actively create a psychologically safe work environment. It is one thing to aspire to work collectively and quite another to learn the skills and develop the self awareness to make that happen.

Lucia was hired to save a broken field office that was in danger of being shut down completely. She was selected because of her strong track record in developing high functioning leadership teams. Within a month of her tenure, she was experiencing significant buyer’s remorse. She had never sat with such a dysfunctional group of people and she was baffled about where to start.

I began to work with Lucia and her team by her fourth month. She regaled me with data points about each leader and what she had uncovered about their performance and what it was like to work with them individually or collectively. I spent 1:1 time with each team member to arrive at some initial thoughts about their separate perspectives. There was the usual finger pointing and multiple agendas but I uncovered two things I wasn’t expecting. One member seemed mentally disturbed and another seemed completely out of his element. I’m used to uneven performance on a senior team but it had been quite some time since I encountered someone who probably should not be in charge of anything, let alone other people. I had to strategize with Lucia about how to delicately and sensitively remove this person.

Once the unstable person left the team, she was no longer the lightning rod for all the woes. The member who was in charge of a function that he knew nothing about began to stick out like a sore thumb. He began to lobby for greater authority and prominence; his belief in his abilities was so strong (yet blind). Lucia successfully contained his ambitions as she worked hard to pull this team together.

In time, it was apparent that Lucia had such an odd mix of people on this team she inherited. She provided them with a very clear direction and set of principles and coached them to get on board and improve their individual and collective performance. Ultimately, she made several key decisions. She brought in a strong number two person who she had worked with in the past who could help develop the team and high performance. She decided to invest in developing one person who was too junior for his role but had potential. She replaced the under-performer for a much more qualified person. And she relied most heavily on the other team members who appreciated her leadership and were fully on board. Lucia was able to turnaround this team within 14 months and the office has been a top performer ever since.

Here are the lessons to glean from Lucia’s experience.

  • The leader needs to be clear about expectations and make some tough calls. Most leadership teams are aimless and not held to high standards. Lots of unproductive behaviors go unchecked so individuals are allowed to do whatever. Leaders must define expectations and hold people accountable.
  • Individual or team dysfunction feels unsafe. Even good and talented people will withdraw, act out or under-perform if they fear being attacked or judged. Having members in the mix who are either unhealthy or bad actors will prevent the team from becoming productive.
  • It is good news/bad news each time the leader removes or adds someone to the team. There is a sigh of relief followed by worry that they may be next when the thorn in the side leaves. Conversely, when a superstar walks into the group it feels threatening because the bar has been raised.
  • Creating healthy team dynamics is a process. It requires lots of 1:1 coaching, facilitating new ways of talking in team meetings, developing habits of giving feedback and patiently guiding everyone towards new behaviors.
  • The leader must always model the new norms. This means holding herself to the same high standards, acknowledging mis-steps, taking risks to be more open and vulnerable and using “we” more frequently than “I”.

Team development (group therapy!) is a high risk activity with extremely high yield. Imagine the leadership team working so well together that it sets the example for the rest of the organization. Imagine how productive discussions, decisions and collaborative work would be. Imagine how much less noise there would be if no one was complaining about those idiot leaders.

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