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Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Making Sense of #MeToo in the Work Place

Like you, I have been reading, listening and thinking about this #MeToo moment. I feel an urgency to bring clarity to a discussion that veers all over the map. Speaking as a former therapist who specialized in sexual abuse, a former head of HR and a consultant focused on leadership and culture, I have had more than my share of exposure to the issues of sexual misconduct and power dynamics. In recent months, I have been listening to other HR folks, leaders and feminists. I’m certain that my thinking will continue to evolve. But for now, this is where I am.

(Note: My focus here is white collar work. I am loathe to use the term “sexual harassment” because it is too imprecise and inaccurate for the range of mistreatment of women.)

White men have always been in power and that’s the way they like it. Women are relative newcomers to professional schools and jobs. The 60’s was the beginning of women entering college in larger numbers. By the mid-70’s the number of men and women in college was about equal. The numbers have steadily increased over the decades where women now outnumber men. Today, 52% of the white collar work force is female while only 14% of the CEOs are women.

We are nearly sixty years into this second wave of feminism yet work place equality and civility are in short supply. There are scores of reasons for this but I think it comes down to the basics. If you have always enjoyed the privileges and entitlements that come with power, you don’t want to share it or give it up. White men have resisted and will resist relaxing their grip on power and control. They prefer an all boys club that doesn’t have to watch their language or hands to make accommodations for women. The idea of a more heterogenous environment that assumes people of color and women are equal to men is confusing and requires a mindset shift that many men simply did not grow up with.

White men felt their work space had been invaded and for many decades they went about their business much as they always had. Occasionally there were lawsuits or investigations but mostly there weren’t any consequences to men behaving badly. Women and people of color have always understood this dynamic. This power differential is the primary reason they haven’t spoken up en masse until recently. Not from fears of retribution but because of real retribution towards the victims, not the offenders.

Not all behaviors are created equal. Because women have not had a voice until recently, all misconduct is being lumped together. We need to make distinctions immediately. Forget the employee handbooks. Here is a continuum to consider.

  • Dismissive. Ignoring input and contributions, talking over women, rendering women invisible.
  • Disrespectful. Demeaning or lewd comments, treating women as less than men, objectification.
  • Aggressive/Intrusive. Unwanted touching, verbal threats, asserting physical or positional power, no regard for physical boundaries, bullying.
  • Abuse of Power/Position. When a woman reports mistreatment she is passed over for promotions, fired from a job, becomes a pariah, blackballed, slandered.
  • Violence. Rape, physical abuse, forced sexual contact.

To be clear, victims of any of these actions can be traumatized. Consequences of verbal misconduct are not as severe as physical or violent ones. I say this from years of contact with survivors. But the only person to assess the damage is the recipient. Not the offender, not HR, not the society.

As we try to figure out what to do with all these stories, I believe two things. We must honor everyone who speaks up. And we must work towards eradicating all of these behaviors in the work place. Each of these categories contributes to an environment where women are not valued.

How should we mete out consequences? I don’t believe our corporate policies and legal system have caught up to the reality of the mistreatment of women and minorities in the work place. If not all behavior is a nail, then we should figure out what tools to build other than hammers.

We need third party specialists that are contracted by companies but do not work for the company to address employee complaints. Take these discussions out of HR or the legal department. This third party entity is staffed with experts who can conduct thorough interviews and investigations, provide legal guidance and/or referrals, offer counseling assistance or referrals and be the victim’s advocate with the corporation. It would gather ongoing data about individuals to discover repeat offenders and guide the discussions about potential solutions. This organization would oversee the process from start to resolution.

With a safer process in place, victims are more likely to come forward in a timely fashion. The criteria for punishment are determined by criminal guidelines, HR policies and patterns of behavior. For example, three women report that a VP constantly comments on their physical appearance in ways that feel uncomfortable. The VP’s boss and the third party professional meet with this man, tell him what the investigation revealed, offer him assistance in changing his behavior within two months and then reassess. If there are no further complaints for 12 months, there will be no additional consequence. If he does not comply, he will be fired. If the offense is more physically or verbally damaging, then firing immediately is reasonable.

If the process is a cleaner one, the punishments can fit the crimes. Right now it is a mess.

What about incidents that happened years ago? Legally, not much can happen. It is more fruitful to look for long term patterns of behavior that may still be taking place. If someone comes forward to describe that Mr. D cornered her in the copy room repeatedly a decade ago, ask her if this is still going on today. Ask her if she knows if others have been treated the same way. Ask her how Mr. D treats her today. Ask her what impact this had on her performance. Direct her to lodge a complaint with the outside third party so they can gather relevant data. It may turn out that Mr. D’s behavior has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Or it may turn out that other women have come forward more recently. Or it may be that he no longer corners women but constantly asks them to go out for drinks after work. If Mr. D still behaves badly, then an investigation proceeds. If there is not other evidence, the company can let the woman know that the policies and processes have been revised and she needs to come forward if anything happens again and it will be dealt with differently.

We can’t apply today’s responses to yesterday’s behaviors. If we could, then there are a few lawsuits I’d like to initiate!

Where do we go from here? I read so much about the need for a culture change. I’ve spent half of my career immersed in this topic. I just don’t hold out hope that a) culture change is possible and b) it will solve the problem. I’m not even sure I know what people mean by culture change in this context. Culture change occurs very slowly over time by willing participants. I just don’t see the necessary willingness to move mountains to make women equal in the work place (let alone society).

Ultimately, this is a man’s problem to solve. Women and people of color are the victims. We can’t keep stating the obvious about what is wrong. We can’t be the ones to keep twisting ourselves into pretzels to accommodate the white male power needs. We can keep telling our stories. We can band together. We can lead differently when we get those opportunities.

We need CEOs with a flawless moral compass who don’t stand for the mistreatment or inequality of women. When the men who run our companies promote women and people of color and set a high bar for civil behavior, others will follow.

Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

“He’s our rainmaker.” “He’s the guy that knows the industry inside out.” “He might leave and go to a competitor.” “I’m certain this is an isolated incident.” “His classes are still the most over enrolled on campus.””He doesn’t mean anything by it.” “Hey, it happened at the holiday party and everyone was drinking.” “He’s the CEO. Our hands are tied.”

This is just a short list of remarks made to me when I raised questions about a male employee harassing, molesting or abusing women. No surprises here. Ask any woman and you will hear multiple stories about painful encounters in the workplace. I’ve got quite a few doozies myself. With all the revelations in the past couple weeks, I am disheartened that there are so few solutions being offered. I sense a combination of: it’s always been this way and nothing will change the situation and until men start to act more civilized we can expect more of the same. In my darkest moments, I believe all of the above.

But then I began to think about all the incidents where the right thing happened. As a woman in a position of power as a consultant and a corporate executive, I actually have some good stories to tell. Just like averted terrorist threats, the public doesn’t know about the proper removal of bad actors. The CIA and HR can’t speak openly about what didn’t happen. In hopes that you well intentioned folks reading this blog are looking for some sane guidance, here are some powerful examples of things gone right.

A senior leader turned to me in confidence to reveal that she was being stalked by a male peer. As a consultant, I was a safe and private outside resource. This man was married, she was not. She had willingly entered a brief affair with him but then chose to end it. For six months this man threatened and followed her, making her constantly fearful and anxious. She was seeking therapy and medication to cope. She was reluctant to go to HR because a) she had previously been in a consensual relationship with this man and b) the HR executive was a weak player and unlikely to do anything about it. Both the man and woman were highly respected and valuable to the company. After several conversations with this woman, she agreed to let me speak to the CEO who we both trusted a great deal.

I called the CEO and told him very directly what was happening. Without hesitation, he called in the HR exec and told him to remove the man from the company immediately. There was some strongly worded language about potential criminal charges if he ever bothered this woman again. The man left (with some self righteous indignation) and the woman remained safe thereafter. Her career continued to thrive at the company.

Some time later I asked the CEO why he spun into action so immediately and definitively. “Because it was the right thing to do,” was all he offered. He didn’t doubt the woman’s story and he felt no moral dilemma or squishiness. He did add, “Even though this guy was leading the charge to bring the company into groundbreaking territory, I won’t have someone with such flawed character in this company.”

As the head of HR, a senior leader spoke with me about one of his managers. The manager had come to my colleague to request an office change. Long story short, it was because an affair with his direct report had ended and they shared an office; it was just too uncomfortable for him. (I know, the guy is an idiot as well as a sleaze!) I was legally bound to investigate and participate in several conversations. The one I had with the manager and his boss made me wonder if I was hearing his story right. Yes, he was married. Yes, they had sex in the office. Yes, they had ended the affair. Yes, he believed she still wanted him even though he could not describe any actions or words to back that up. Yes, he wanted to move his office because it was just so very distressing for him.

I did my best to play it straight, ask all the questions I was supposed to, took my notes and thanked him for his candor. When I asked him if he understood that he could be fired for engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate he said, “That’s what my wife told me when I mentioned I told my boss about this.” (Seriously, that’s what he said.)

When I spoke with the company attorney about firing this guy, she reminded me that I had the power to just reprimand him without going so far as to let him go. She mentioned the consensual relationship, he came forward, the relationship was over, yadda yadda. I couldn’t believe how much gray area she was painting. I was only focused on protecting the woman in this story. She did not have the power. My duty was to protect her from this man regardless of what had happened in the past. With the complete support of my (male) boss, I fired the guy.

This young up and comer had a reputation in the company of being a bit of a dog. Married with two kids, he was flirtatious with the young women in the company. I didn’t know the specifics but there were lots of rumors. Shortly after his divorce (no surprises there), he was more diligently focused on his work and was in the running for a significant promotion. After much back and forth with my colleagues, it was determined that he was worthy of the new position but he needed to get his inappropriate behavior in line. Just after he was given the new job I called him into my office.

“With this promotion there are some new expectations that I want to make clear to you. You are now representing the company inside and outside of these walls. I suggest you go out and buy a couple nice suits and start to look the part.” He was taken aback but was also aware that I was deadly serious so he suppressed his smirk. “It is an open secret that you have engaged in multiple inappropriate relationships or behaviors with women in this company. That is never going to happen again. You put the company at tremendous risk if you do. Not to mention the harm you impose on these women and the unsafe work environment it creates. If you so much as look improperly at any woman, you will be out of here faster than you can imagine. Are we clear?” His face was red, his jaw slacked open and all his bluster was deflated. He said he understood the gravity of the situation and would abide by the rules. And he did.

What all these incidents have in common are:

  • Unequivocal moral leadership. There is no waffling about right or wrong. A man in a more senior position made advances or threatened women in lesser roles. This is unethical and illegal. Period.
  • The woman is the victim. Even in the case of previously consensual relationships, once the woman ended it she was still in danger. Once it was “no”, she had a right and expectation of safety.
  • Male and female bosses can do the right thing. Sure, it would be great if there were more women leaders who we assume would do a better job of protecting the well being of female employees. I have no idea if that assumption is true. Most bosses are still men and they are capable of being stand up guys.
  • Speaking up goes a long way in effecting change. Without knowing the particulars, when the staff sees a male leader suddenly exit, they understand that this company takes a hard line. This reinforces a culture of greater respect and safety.
  • The bad penny only gets so many chances. I know what happened to all these men (and so many others) when they were called out on their shit and removed from their companies. Some were hired someplace else in spite of some sketchy recommendations. In a short period of time, these men acted badly at the new place and were removed quickly. Even without disclosure up front, these men showed up as exactly who they were. For all their rising stars, they all went down in flames.

Those of us in leadership roles have a duty to listen, believe and take appropriate action. To look askance for the sake of the business or for what harm will come to some predatory man or because boys will be boys…only demonstrates how unfit we are to be in a position of power.

As I was concluding a long term coaching engagement with an executive who was hired away to a new company, we were reflecting on his development journey. He is one of the good guys and I thoroughly enjoyed our work together. In parting he shared this: “When we began, I was a mess. I was in a world of hurt from my divorce, angry at the world and behaving so erratically. I didn’t like who I had become. When I told you that I was ready to date again, you reminded me that I was a man with immense power in the organization and that, under no circumstances, should I date anyone in the company. I don’t think I would have understood that so clearly if you hadn’t said it.”

Again, this is one of the good guys who had successfully groomed his female successor. Speaking up to prevent anything from happening once or again goes a long way towards change.

How To Stay Clean In A Toxic Environment

Your boss is a nut case. Or your team is dysfunctional. Or your department is at the bottom of the heap. You can smell the stench all around you. It may be easy for you to point to others and their deficiencies but eventually people in the company will assume you are guilty by association. Is it possible to remain above the fray? If so, how can you emerge untouched by the dirt?

Amy joined the marketing department while it was still in transition. It was widely known that the group was broken, dysfunctional and avoided as much as possible. Samir was brought in as CMO with the mandate to fix the team and the function as soon as possible. Amy was one of his first new hires. He told her that the department was in turnaround mode and her skills and attitude would help shape the future. She was up for the challenge because she admired the company and felt that she and Samir were on the same page.

As the newbie, Amy was courted by all the splinter groups. The Back Stabbers couldn’t wait to tell Amy all kinds of crappy things about team members. The Never Ever Samir posse trash talked their boss with a vengeance. The Hallway Whisperers were hellbent on sharing every innuendo without any evidence to back it up. Amy felt dizzy from all the lobbying to join forces with one of these factions. She had moments when she was drawn to this one or that one but her shit detector told her to stay away.

Her resolve to remain detached from these cliques isolated Amy. She struggled to get the cooperation she needed to get her work done and she sensed that she was a target for the underground slams. She considered whether or not to discuss this with Samir but decided not to take that route.

Here is what Amy did instead.

  • Turned her attention to the internal customers. If the marketing function was broken she was going to demonstrate what a talented and responsive partner looked like. She worked closely with the key internal folks to understand their needs and to find clever ways to deliver on her promises. If she couldn’t get the assigned graphic designer to cooperate, she found newer and less tainted ones. If she couldn’t get all the sign offs she needed, she acted anyway and used the customer’s delight to justify her bending of the rules.
  • Made allies with less divisive team members. No matter what the reporting relationships were, Amy reached out to some hidden gems in the department. These were people who did not have a power base or loud voices so they were often ignored. Short of creating a shadow organization, Amy was able to get some remarkable work products done for the customers.
  • Established a “no trash” zone around herself. When she was with internal customers and they wanted to gossip about the marketing folks, she shut it down. When team mates wandered into her office to share the latest dust up, she shut it down. When peers around the building wanted to get the inside scoop, she shut it down. It became a no-win for people who wanted to engage Amy in the bullshit so they stopped trying.
  • Kept tight boundaries in her discussions with Samir. When he asked for feedback about the bad apples, she never offered generic impressions or hearsay. She stuck to her own experiences and described the specific behaviors she encountered. She suggested that Samir get HR involved to gather additional feedback so that people could be more open and the process could be more objective.

Taking this approach, you can probably guess how things turned out for Amy and the department. Yes, she emerged as the go-to person for the internal customers. Yes, the less visible and under-utilized team members began to rise to the surface. Yes, the evil doers were marginalized. They were forced to change their ways or be fired. Samir spent several months having one-on-one discussions with these folks (with help from HR) and two-thirds left the organization. As they were departing, new people were brought on board. And, yes, Amy was eventually promoted.

It is very tough to navigate a toxic environment. Find people who are not crazy or harmful and get the work done with them. In spite of the challenges, be the shining example. Above all, find and strictly adhere to your moral compass. You will be recognized as the exception and will become a magnet for the right stuff. Setting yourself apart from the nuts turns up the contrast on them. And that will be a good thing for you.

Repost: Everyday is Groundhog’s Day for Professionals of Color

Note: In light of the election results and many people’s anxiety, fear and rage with the results, I want to repost this blog entry from this past February. I have been hearing from many good white men who just don’t understand why women, people of color, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ folks are so worried. Those of us who fall in these categories are so used to putting on armor and being on high alert that we don’t discuss it. It just is. But now that sentiments that were once held back have now been given cultural permission to be spoken and acted upon, it is important to legitimize this fear. We must talk about it. We must help white men understand it. We must insist our companies take this more seriously. We must stop letting it just be “the way things are.”

 

You wake up each morning in the comfort of your home feeling relaxed and fully yourself. You go to your closet and select the appropriate armor for your day ahead at the office. As you drive to work you expertly tuck away big chunks of yourself. You walk into the building.

You smile and greet each person so that you appear friendly but not too friendly. You make certain that you give attention, even deference, to your white colleagues and keep some distance from other minorities. You sit in the meeting and offer your views being sure that your voice isn’t too loud or aggressive. You suck it up all day when colleagues overtly and covertly question your competence and right to be in your position. You play the part of the non-threatening person of color and express too much appreciation for every opportunity you are given. You disregard all the moments in the day that you are ignored, discounted or disrespected. You leave the office, get in your car, blast the music to drown out your ranting and walk into your home to become your full self again.

Every day people of color have to start at square one to prove themselves worthy of their jobs. They are not afforded the automatic respect and trust that white people do. It doesn’t matter that they are well educated, experienced and very good at what they do. The thin line they must walk every day is something white people cannot relate to or ever need to think about. It takes very little for a person of color to be labeled an angry black person, bitch, too expressive, affirmative action recipient, diversity quota hire, less than, not professional enough, too flamboyant, uppity, always bringing up the minority view. In other words, professionals of color must find that narrow space that makes white people comfortable. Even that is no guarantee that they will ultimately earn respect and status.

(There is no equivalency to this daily submersion of self except for women of all colors. As a white woman, though, I can tell you that I don’t have to watch my back nearly as closely as a woman of color. But I can understand a bit of what people of color experience.)

This self-shrinking raises an obvious question. What is it about white establishment men that makes them so threatened by people who are different? Why is it okay for white men to be expressive (sic. loud, frustrated, pissed off) and take up air and physical space when the same traits are judged so harshly for people of color? Sure, the obvious answers have to do with wanting power and control and the old ways are changing and safety with your own type and on and on. But I’m not satisfied with these tired responses.

Other makes all of us uncomfortable. That can set off automatic fight or flight responses. This is evident in the workplace. There is polite avoidance or hostility (often displayed as rejection or dismissal). Both choices maintain or widen the gap between groups. To choose to confront one’s own discomfort and bridge the distance by connecting with people who are different takes self awareness and courage. Sadly, there just isn’t enough of that in our companies. This goes way beyond even the best inclusion activities. I’m speaking here about forming meaningful relationships that are professionally satisfying. It’s not about going for drinks after work. It’s about seeking out the expertise, collaboration and camaraderie of people who are other during work hours.

I’m writing this because corporations usually lead movements that create social change. But companies are woefully behind on this score. Sure, there are good intentions and inclusion officers and recruiting campaigns. But the needle isn’t moving. As someone who used to be one of those officers I can tell you what the bottom line is. All the best convictions and programs don’t scratch the surface of the culture that brown professionals walk into. It would be great if there was a critical mass of minorities but they are used to being in the white world. They are adept at being chameleons. It is the lack of respect that is so pervasive is the ultimate killer of even good efforts.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make every white professional feel what a person of color feels every day at the office. I want them to feel slighted and less than. I want them to feel the pain. I want them to feel that all their hard work and blue chip educations don’t count just because their pigmentation is all that is seen. I want them to put their personalities and emotions into a tiny box for 10 hours every day. I want them to take on a persona that works for the people around them while they shrivel up inside. I want them to feel the exhaustion at the end of every day from putting up with all the crap.

I’ve got nothing clever to say about this phenomenon. Just a sincere and passionate plea to all my fellow melanin challenged colleagues. Pay attention to your less conscious judgments about people who are different than you. Fight to neutralize these learned and automatic reactions. Change your assumptions. Greet each person of color with the same respect you are granted every day for just showing up. Assume (at least) equal status, competence and capacity. Drop the unearned skepticism and open your mind. Extend your hand to get to know someone who is different than you. Be curious about his/her story. Share your own story. Form a professional bond.

And once you’ve done that with one person, don’t stop there. Because if it is only one or two people of color that you connect with you are apt to think that they are the exceptions to the rule.

For more information on GetReal help: https://getrealleadership.com/get-real-help/

The Dangers of Affirming our Well Formed Opinions

Let’s face it, we are ALL the smartest and most correct people in the room.We have become experts on a particular topic, advised senior leaders, argued circles around our peers and taken up residence as the Grand Poobah. We are so persuaded that our position is brilliant that no amount of additional input will move us. Because we are the best and smartest. Of course others tend to see us as utter assholes…especially after we proclaim “I told you so”.

Moving past all the insecurities and ego problems this self righteous and closed stance implies, I’m especially interested in why we all have a tendency to fall into this defense (present company included). Interested and concerned because if you have six people on your team and everyone believes they have the right answer there is trouble ahead. The conversation will become combative, loud and unproductive and poor decisions will be made.

First, some research. Psychology and social psychology are filled with theories and experiments that all point to the same conclusion: Once a person has a strongly held belief no amount of data to the contrary, new information or persuasive arguments will change his/her mind. That powerful idea is woven into the fabric of many other beliefs or one’s self definition and it is just too threatening to untangle or change it. (Look up cognitive dissonance, belief perseverance or backfire effect.) The only proven method for changing someone’s mind requires some positive self affirmations before a private conversation. Trying to change people’s minds in a public forum won’t work. Way too threatening.

So think of your team of six. Imagine that four of you fervently believe you have The Right Answer. The other two feel less convinced of their own positions on this issue. While the gang of four duke it out, the other two find this a waste of time. As the leader you try to facilitate a more open dialogue to find a middle ground. As the decibels increase you jump in to shut it all down by declaring The Decision. Discussion over. If hope springs eternal in your heart, you will leave the meeting believing that everyone will do as you instructed. But I know you are not that naive.

Let’s focus on self awareness. Given that most of us will play the part of the asshole from time to time, it is important to acknowledge a few truths.

  • We invest heavily in our public persona. By the time we are successful professionals we have a well crafted narrative. We let others know what prestigious schools we attended, what stellar companies we used to work for, what esteemed roles we held and our string of success stories. To back up that story we display some bravado because modesty won’t get you ahead. Being able to argue a strong position and persuade others is all a part of the profile. And it must be reinforced constantly.
  • Ideas that are different than our own are experienced as a challenge. I express Point A. You express Point B. I immediately react to convince you and others that Point B can’t possibly be right because it contradicts my better Point A. I don’t even take a breath long enough to really hear what you have said, let alone entertain it. To hold my own strong opinion at the same time that you express the exact opposite is tremendously uncomfortable. I’m all instinct and very little thought.
  • It takes a lot of work to change our minds. To open up to other points of view requires some mental and emotional gymnastics. I have to suspend my own thinking, listen fully to what you are saying, sift through what resonates and what doesn’t, integrate that new thought into my long term perspective and then figure out how to use this new hybrid idea. Phew! It’s much easier to just be mentally lazy.
  • We might look weak or wishy washy if we open up to new ideas. Somewhere along the way the notion that changing one’s mind was not a sign of strong leadership. Decisive, carefully thought through, determined, persuasive…these are admirable traits. Open mindedness, flexibility and agility are considered strengths these days but there is not much resonance yet that those traits amount to potent leadership. It is still aspirational for leaders yet a requirement for staff. If leaders demonstrate these traits too frequently they are deemed confusing. The staff clambers for declarative statements and unwavering decisions from their leaders.

There are no simple solutions to this very human drama that unfolds in our teams everyday. Relaxing your strongly held positions is hard work. Helping your team to hear each other ain’t easy. Serving up multiple points of view without seeing that as a battle cry goes against habit. But doing all three of these things will create remarkably different conversations, decisions and outcomes.

Imagine yourself preparing for a critical discussion with your team. Write one sentence that states your position and then leave that note in your desk. As you do this tell yourself to let go of that opinion so you can remain open to what happens in the room. You start the meeting by asking each person to do the same thing: write down their opinion and put it aside. Use some other techniques to draw out each member’s thoughts. For example, rather than saying “I’d like to hear from everyone”, ask each person to move to a private section of the room and write three bullet points about their thoughts on the subject on a flip chart. Then ask the team to wander around the room to read the charts. Have them use markers to put stars by the lines that resonate. There will be a visual display of points of agreement to begin the discussion. This process can bypass the strident “listen to me!!” that is often the start of debates that must result in a decision. Beginning with convergence deflates some of the brashness. The conversation can proceed with greater probability of incorporating multiple additional points of view that contribute to the core consensus.

Bottom line: digging your heels in to maintain your strong opinions is self serving and leads to crappy team dynamics and decisions. Developing a practice of productively sharing ideas rather than egos is challenging but doable. As a wise person once told me: Get over yourself. Better things can happen when you do.

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