Institutional Racism

I long for the stability I felt before a virus ravaged the physical and financial health of our planet.

I long for the sense of order I felt before violence erupted our cities in response to the murder of George Floyd by those charged to keep peace.

I long for the feeling of trust I once had in my government, believing most politicians held ideals of public good, even if the policies to achieve it varied. 

I now see that the stability, order and trust I felt was a privilege not experienced by people who have inadequate health care, security and opportunity, and who have been victimized by government violence for hundreds of years.

I long for my former comfort but no longer want it at the expense of those who do not have it.  I want to be part of the solution to eliminate racism.

We can all participate in reducing racism by protesting, writing, posting, sending donations, and having conversations. We can also do this as employees of “institutions” and “systems” that perpetuate institutional and systemic racism.

As employees, we are conditioned to believe our job is to do what we are told. Ours is not to question. What if we, as employees, decided to take it upon ourselves to look at our work with fresh eyes to see the institutional and structural barriers that reinforce racism?

What if we asked people most affected by racism to tell us what needs to change and actually change it? What if we asked “people of color” employee resource groups to identify the policy and cultural barriers that make them most uncomfortable, and change them? What if we empowered every employee to identify racist practices and name them so we could change them?

We don’t need to overthrow our organizations to bring a sense of justice to work. We need only become more educated, more aware and more courageous to question and speak up when things just don’t seem right.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing” (Albert Einstein). 

Let’s do something.

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Optimist and Pessimists

We have been led to believe that pessimists see half-glasses as “half-empty” while optimists see them as “half-full.” This is wrong on several levels.

First, it is backwards. Optimists, the supposed “half-full” people, do not tend to focus on what is there, but on what is not. They see in a half-empty glass the possibility of filling it. Conversely, people who tend toward pessimism, focus on the what is really there–the “half-full” part.

Second, the half-glass metaphor is about the current state, not the future. Optimism and pessimism are all about the future, not about today.

Third, the metaphor is intended to shame. If you see the glass as half-empty, shame on you. It implies that pessimists (who usually call themselves “realists”) are negative and ungrateful, which is the final flaw of the metaphor.

The underlying message is that we should all be satisfied with what we have, not what we don’t have, which serves people with full glasses who want everyone else to be satisfied with half as much.

The optimists I know are grateful for what they have but won’t settle for half-full glasses. They want everyone to have a full glass, drink it and fill it again.

The pessimists (realists) I know are also grateful for what they have. They may be less certain about a brighter future but that does not mean they are without hope. Their tempered outlook is likely based on their real life experiences.

We have also been led to believe that optimists are naive and see the world through rose-colored glasses, living in a state of denial about how bad things are. They are pollyannish and unrealistic about the future. Again, I do not agree.

The optimists I know are not naive. Like realists, they too have known pain, struggle and suffering and have forged a path through it to a better place. Indeed, their optimism may well be what saved them from despair.

When our glasses tip over, and everything we had spills away, it is difficult for everyone to find hope for the future. We need all perspectives–optimists and realists alike to find hope and forge that future.

If you tend toward optimism, dream bigger than you ever have before. See crises as opportunities to be bolder than ever about a brighter future. Then, find yourself a pessimist (realist) who can help you develop concrete plans, with risk mitigation strategies for the inevitable pitfalls along the way. But don’t accuse them of being negative or hopeless.

If you tend toward pessimism, find yourself an optimist. Ask them to show you the brighter future they see and ask them for evidence to convince you that it is possible. But, please don’t accuse them of being naive, having rose-colored glasses or settling for a glass half-full. 

We need each other. We are in this together.

For more radical thinking about myths in our culture, see my book Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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Calling All Cynics

When the systems that we work (and live) within fail us, and leaders engage in conduct which is, at best misguided, or at worst, corrupt, we have choices on how to respond. 

We can become perpetually fearful, focused on whether (or when) everything we value will collapse around us, dreading the future and feeling paralyzed in the present.

We can become apathetic, disengaging from that which makes us fearful. We can pretend that all is well when we know it is not. There are many pressures at work and in life to occupy our time and attention to distract us from thinking about the systems that form the context for our daily lives.

We can become cynical toward leaders and about the systems that fail to live up to our expectations. 

Given these choices, I’d like to make the case for cynics.

Cynics are not naive about human nature. They are skeptical about people’s motives and institutional integrity. Cynics are not afraid to speak up, often through sarcasm and rebellion, when things go awry. 

As a manager, I learned not to be afraid of cynics who reported to me. In fact, I even recruited a few. Cynics are difficult. They are critical, often negative, sometimes angry, and challenge leaders, sometimes publicly. They constantly test a leader’s sincerity and truthfulness. They do not tolerate hypocrisy or corruption in people of the structures around them.

Cynics also are almost always right. We need to listen to them. Usually, underneath cynical criticism and sarcasm is something rather remarkable—idealism. I have found that most cynics are frustrated idealists who live in the tension between what is and what could be.

Cynics may have traded optimism for pessimism and hope for anger, but they have not abandoned the ideals or the principles that guide their thinking. You cannot be a cynic if you don’t think we can and should do better. If leaders can find a way to inspire hope and optimism for a brighter future, and gain their trust, which is painstakingly slow, cynics will become our moral leaders, but only if we listen. 

If you know any cynics, instead of being frustrated by their complaining, ask them to share their ideas about how to improve the current state. Ask them about their ideals and principles and why they hold them. Listen to them and do what you can join them in their ideals and support their ideas for improvement.

For more radical ideas on how to transform organizations, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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Safety First

Great leaders inspire us, engage us and show us a glimpse of a better future. Great managers create structures and processes that are logical, smooth and efficient, making us feel connected to a larger purpose.

The magic that makes leaders and managers great, however, goes beyond these observable traits to something that is more visceral—they make us feel safe, seen and valued.

Organizational leaders often underestimate the power of safety, which is why so few achieve greatness, despite their brilliance and skills. They fail to grasp Abraham Maslow’s truth that after physiological needs, the need to feel safe is essential before people behave in ways  that resemble commitment, collaboration or creativity. Employees will always “play it safe,” being tentative, risk adverse and keeping to themselves if they do not feel safe.

Safety is more than minimizing the risk of physical harm, which is the focus of most workplace safety programs. To feel safe enough to let down our guard, we need to know we will not be psychologically, emotionally or financially harmed if we make mistakes or are even perceived as having made mistakes. Fear of punishment, a symptom of not feeling safe, is the greatest threat to engagement and productivity in the workplace, especially in this age of increased focus on employee accountability.

Great leaders and managers create a sense of safety by welcoming challenges and embracing diversity of styles, methods, ideas and expressions rather than judging them. Great leaders and managers don’t punish people for making honest mistakes. They do not wield their immense power over people but set it aside, treating employees as equal human beings to the greatest extent possible.

Great leaders and managers are aware that everything they do is amplified by the power of their position. They are careful not to appear threatening and they manage their emotions professionally, even when they are frustrated or angry, so as not to foster fear in the people they manage. One single outburst of anger or judgment hurled at an employee can forever destroy a sense of safety for the whole organization.

If you are a leader or manager, do you make the people around you feel safe? Do they fear you or do they trust that you will not harm them? If you are an employee, how safe do you feel to tell the truth, do your best work enjoy a sense of fulfillment? Can you increase your safety by talking to your supervisor or manager about how you feel? If not, think about what else you can do to achieve more safety at work and in your life. Your life matters. You have the right to feel safe.

For more radical ideas about how to create healthy, safe and productive work environments, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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Darkness and Light

In this season of increased darkness, we are drawn to reflect on the interplay between darkness and light. We celebrate the solstice and many seasonal holidays as our hemisphere shifts once again toward the sun, bringing more light to our future. 

Someone once told me that in stories and metaphors cultural bias can be most hidden and most prevalent. In our metaphors of light and darkness, I was told, we hold a strong cultural bias toward light and against darkness, which can have the unintended effect of reinforcing racism. As a “light” skinned person, I had never even considered how dark/light metaphors might be perceived by people with darker skin than my own. Now, I see all over our culture, especially at this time of year, our favor for light over darkness.

We are taught since childhood that darkness is evil and light is good. In darkness lurks danger. In light there is safety. The long night of suffering gives way to the the healing of the day. Night is filled with fear and anxiety. The light of day is full of hope and possibilities.

What if we abandoned dualistic thinking of good versus bad, and reimagined the darkness to be good, as good as the light? 

In darkness, we sleep, we heal, we are refreshed and rejuvenated. Darkness brings us a sense of calm, peace and quiet. In the stillness of darkness, we are safe. We are secure. We are free from distractions and can become centered in our being. In the midst of darkness life is created, formed, nurtured and birthed. 

Could we grow to love darkness as much as light? Can we embrace all that is, rather than pitting differences against each other? Can we be inclusive in our actions as well as our metaphors? Yes!  Let’s!

Happy Winter, the season of darkness. May you find in your center a sense of calm, quiet, safety and peace.

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Accountability

We live in a fashion-driven culture that impacts every sector of our lives. What was trending last year (or yesterday!) is soon considered passé. Fashion changes are most noticeable in clothing, technology, language, music, and, for me, glasses. Just when I think I have finally caught up with the spectacle trend, it has changed again, leaving my face perpetually dated.

Management has fashion trends too. For several years, employee engagement has been all the rage. Now it seems we are moving to a new focus area–accountability. How do we make people accountable? What does accountability mean? How do we measure it? Is accountability merely a euphemism for knowing who to blame when things go wrong?

On the surface, accountability is about getting work done, which we want to measure using data, another concept that is fashionable these days. For some jobs, data is easy to find; for others, it is challenging. We can spend inordinate amounts of management time trying to decide what to measure, and then try to figure out how to measure it. Key performance indicators and metrics can be useful to provide insights about productivity and progress toward work goals in order to hold employees and managers accountable for their work. But that is not the whole story on accountability.

On a deeper level, accountability is about integrity, responsibility and trust. Do people follow-through on their agreements? Do they take responsibility for mistakes and step up to solve problems? Are people trustworthy and trusted to do the right thing, even if it is not expedient or popular?

Accountability is also about having and expressing mutual respect for everyone, and about working collaboratively within and across teams. Are teams productive and functional, complementing each other’s strengths and covering for each others weaknesses, or are they in a state of drama and conflict?

To build a culture with high integrity, responsibility, trust, respect and collaboration requires individuals to make a personal commitment to the work and to each other. People must believe in the mission, goals or the value of the work, to decide that committing their time, energy and creativity is worth the investment. Commitment of this caliber is an individual choice; it cannot be forced or easily measured with data. 

In my view, too much focus on accountability can actually undermine it. Too much focus on measurable goals can create fear for employees “not making their numbers,” and can promote competition and blame where you want collaboration and cooperation. Too much emphasis on accountability can erode trust and responsibility by making it unsafe to take a risk.

In my experience, accountability is by-product of a healthy work environment, not the goal. To make a commitment to the work and each other, people need to feel safe, respected, affirmed and valued. Management would be well served to focus less on accountability and more on creating a safe and healthy work environment. For ideas on how to do this, see my book Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or Amazon.com.

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You’re Welcome!

“Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” When you have this exchange, you are probably talking with a baby-boomer or traditionalist. “You’re welcome” is a lovely response of hospitality and generosity.

“Thank you.” “No Problem.” Now, you are likely talking with a Gen-Xer. This also is a kind response, reinforcing that helping another is not a burden.

“Thank you.” “Of course.” No doubt you are talking with a millennial. This is my favorite response because I take it to mean, “Because I value you, of course I will do this for you.”

There’s also “Don’t mention it” and “It was my pleasure,” which are also fine responses but I have not been able to correlate to specific generations.

Saying “thank you,” whatever the response, is a social nicety that makes us connect at a level of grace and gratitude. I am a thanker. I thank people all day long. I thank my wife for doing laundry. I thank the neighbor for pulling up my garbage and recycle bins. I thank the people I work with for the work they do, even though they are paid to do it. A colleague of mine, thanks the people she supervises and her colleagues everyday for coming to work. When is the last time you thanked the person that cleans your bathroom at work, shopping center, doctors office?

I have been criticized a few times in my career for saying “thank you” (and “I’m sorry”) too much because, I have been told, these can be perceived as being deferential and weak. In order to be a successful career woman, I should stop saying “thank-you” and “I’m sorry” so much.

Of course, I thanked all of the people who have told me this over the years, and took their suggestions under advisement. Upon reflection, I decided they were right about “I’m sorry” but not about “thank you.” I, and so many women I know, say “I’m sorry” way too much (a topic for another time), but I am not sure that you can say “thank you” too much, any more than you can say “I love you” too much. For those old enough to remember prior to 9/11/01, we didn’t say “I love you” nearly enough—certainly not as much as we do now, which is a good thing to come out of such tragedy. 

Saying “thank you” is good for me, for my relationships and for society. It puts me in a mindset of gratitude and elicits “You’re welcome”s, “No Problem”s and “Of Course”s from the people around me, which makes me smile. 

Saying “thank you” is good for my relationships. People liked being thanked, even if what I am thanking them for they are getting paid to do. 

Communities full of thankful people is also good for society. There is so much stress in life, so much suffering and pain. A heavy dose of kindness and gratitude does much to sooth and connect.

As you go about your week, I encourage you to say “thank you” more and see if it makes a difference in your mindset, sense of joy and relationships. Also, test out my theory about the generational differences in the responses you receive. Please post what you learn here or on social media. 

…..and “thank you” in advance!!

For more information about language, culture and how to create a positive, healthy and productive work environment, see my book, Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees” at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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