Sins of Our Fathers

This country was founded on the belief that all men are created equal. At the time, this meant only white men.

Indigenous people were seen as savages, exploited for their knowledge and resources, and then annihilated. Black people were viewed as sub-human, exploited for their labor, and enslaved as property. Women were considered inferior, incapable and exploited to care and support the men. Disabled people were regarded as flawed, evil and deserving of their fate.  Homosexuals were believed to be immoral and condemned by God. Waves of immigrants arriving to the country were too often despised and resented by people who are themselves descendants of immigrants.

Around all of these beliefs our country was established, grew and for many prospered. All of our institutions—government, finance, manufacturing, infrastructure, law, commerce—were developed and built with these misguided beliefs imbedded. 

We have been on a journey since our founding to write the original wrongs of our founding fathers. We can point to milestones in the journey—the end of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights and immigrant rights—and are eternally grateful to those who had the courage to question the status quo and fight to make the promise of our founders more real.

The journey to right the wrongs is not over. Today’s generations are tasked with cleaning up the institutional and structural inequities baked into everything we are and do every day. Those of us who benefit from existing systems cannot easily see the work that remains. We must listen to those who can see the inequities, and work as hard as our predecessors to fix what is broken and right what is wrong to live up to the ideals, not biases, of our founders.  

We can rise to the challenge. We have access to all the institutions that hold the long shadows of —isms that are imbedded in the policies, procedures, laws, practices, products, workings and culture of the organizations that employ us and serve us. We need to see everything anew, looking at everything—our work, our associations, our politics, our purchases, our recreation—to find the long buried biases disguised as “just the way it is” or “has always been.” We need to find and correct inequities, not only for those who are impacted today but for future generations of Americans who deserve to realize their dreams too.

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Cults and Culture

One of the greatest human needs is to belong, to feel connected to others, to be part of a group that understands and welcomes us.

Every group, whether a family, a community, a sports team or a workplace, has a culture, which includes the rules we must follow to enter or remain in the group. 

Some group cultures are open and welcoming, while others are closed to a select few. Some tolerate or celebrate differences while others require strict adherence to a set of beliefs and behaviors. Some groups we are born into and others we choose. Some are bestowed and others are sought. All are significant parts of our lives.

Cultures become cults when they become too closed, too strict and see those outside the group as enemies. Cults often center around charismatic leaders. They are structured to drive out differences, demanding that individual thoughts, values and judgements be replaced by the leaders’ positions and decisions.

It is easy to be judgmental of cults if you have never felt entrapped by one. The sense of belonging, especially if everyone in your world belongs, overtakes everything else, and in extreme cases, can tragically become more important than life itself.

I experienced the slippery slope some years ago when I was part of a religious community that  consistently told me not to trust my own thoughts, feelings and sense of right, as these were all “playgrounds of the devil.” I was told to trust only the leaders who could interpret the will of God for me. Ironically, what saved me was being a lesbian which was strictly forbidden to belong. I had a choice, be me or belong. I chose me.

When I walked away from this cult-like community, I lost my friends, my social connections and even my faith. Over time, I found new friends and new communities. I also discovered that by learning to trust my own thoughts, feelings and deepest stirrings, my faith was reignited. Turns out, my connection to God, others and all that is good is not outside of me but within me.

I was lucky that I had supportive people outside of the community. My (now) wife, Deb, who also was a woman of faith, implored me, “Trust your gut” and “God gave you a brain; use it!” Without her support, and that of my family, I could easily have become one of “those people” who abandon their values to follow leaders who violate them. It is a small step to abandon your values after you have already abandoned so many parts of yourself.

If we truly believe in individual rights and freedom from oppression, we need to foster group cultures that welcome differences, fresh ideas and creative expressions. We need to create bigger circles of community that invite dialogue across our differences, looking for common values to bind us together rather than be drawn to groups that demand strict adherence to group beliefs and drive us apart.  

One thing that gives me hope in these contentious times is that so many people, even those with whom I disagree most, seem genuinely motivated by their love of our country. Though we may disagree on what that means, we can find common ground in our love for this nation. Let us pray we don’t destroy it in our zeal to conform to our group’s demands.

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Division

The division that rocks our nation appears to be political and cultural. People following different leaders, listening to different sources of truth and accusing the other of lies. Everyone wants to be included. Everyone wants to be affirmed. Everyone wants to feel empowered. Everyone wants their version of the USA. 

People fill the streets demanding justice for black and brown people. People protest democratic institutions they feel have betrayed them. People violently storming Capitals to tear down the government. 

I was taught that we are the greatest nation on earth. What the founders got wrong, later generations fixed. Slavery was wrong; the civil war fixed it. Denying citizenship to women was wrong; the 19th amendment fixed it. Jim Crow was wrong; the Civil Rights movement fixed it. Denying LGBT marriage was wrong; the Supreme Court fixed it.

Recent events followed by broader and deeper understanding of our brokenness defy this narrative. We are far from fixed. 

Our brokenness is not just political and cultural, it is fundamentally racial. The systems and institutions we inherited have hardened the biases of our past, and we continue following the same patterns. Black and brown people have always known this. White people like me have been slower to see it, and our realizations have just begun. We may not want to be racists but we all operate within, and many of us benefit from, systems in which racism is so deep it just feels normal.

We are shaken by the truth of brutality and injustice. We are fearful about what it would mean if we became the country we tell our children we are. 

The people who stormed the capital represent but a tip of a deep iceberg that we all sustain. If we despise their blatant racism and violence, we must look at our complicity and participation in sustaining what lurks beneath the surface.

We are in the midst of a reckoning. Will we reach toward our founder’s ideals or retain their biases and bigotries?

I still believe that our founders, flawed though they were, created a brilliant system of self-government. I still believe in equality, freedom and justice for all. I worry that the sins of our past and present that fuel our divisions, will destroy rather than fix the very system of government that could save us from each other.

God help us.

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Let’s Reorganize!

It seems whatever ails us at work, the management solution is often “Let’s reorganize!” (I myself have been guilty of this all too frequent conclusion.) These two simple words often result in weeks (or months) of speculation and anxiety, followed by weeks (or months) of chaos and frustration, followed by years of resentment because everything that used to work broke when we reorganized.  

I have been through a several reorganizations, most did not go well and a couple did.  The difference between them was that the successful reorgs were focused on the actual work.

It seems absurd to say that most reorganizations I have observed or been a part of have not been about the work.  Instead, they have been focused exclusively on management’s goals or consultant’s recommendations without any involvement from the people who do the day-to-day work.

Reorgs that are strictly focused on management goals have lots of words like, productivity, efficiency, effectiveness, alignment, quality improvement and customer satisfaction.  These are all good goals that can only be achieved if they are grounded in the actual work that needs to be done.

Reorgs fail when they are done to staff.  Re-orgs succeed when they are done with staff who bring a different, practical and work-focused perspective to the conversation. Unfortunately, it is against management culture in many organizations to engage staff in reorg discussions because it is assumed that managers (or consultants) know best. They may know a lot but they don’t know everything, especially the details of the work.

Here’s how successful reorganizations go:

  1. Management (or sometimes staff or supervisors) has a notion that reorganizing might be beneficial.  Managers discuss the idea amongst themselves but don’t make any decisions except whether to bring more people into the conversation.
  2. If it still makes sense, management shares the idea with supervisors to get their perspective.  Supervisors engage staff to ask for their input on the idea of reorganizing.  Ideally, there is a whole organization meeting to share the vision and goals with everyone, asking if it makes sense.  There are many different ways for staff to provide feedback and share their ideas for consideration. 
  3. If there is general agreement that reorganizing might make sense, a workgroup with representatives from all levels is formed to start to model the new ways of working.  The workgroup studies the work and researches best practices and talks to other similar organizations about their experiences.  They may develop several options for consideration.
  4. Management reviews the recommendations and shares them with all staff, inviting more feedback.  
  5. Management proposes some preliminary plans and vets them with staff and supervisors, always asking if it makes sense, inviting feedback and participation.
  6. Management ultimately decides whether to go forward and how, and sets up an advisory  group of all levels to provide feedback along the way.
  7. Throughout the entire process, there is complete transparency on management decisions, considerations and ample opportunity for staff to provide feedback and express concerns.

By investing so much up front, the implementation of the reorganization goes more smoothly.  Because staff were involved, there is less chaos, less resistance, and less breaking of what works, and maybe even more efficiency, alignment and better customer service!  Though everyone may not be happy with every decision, all feel included and informed every step of the way, which promotes a culture of collaboration with the new structure.

If you study the work, the work itself will tell you how best to organize to support it.  The people who do the work are the voices of the work.  Listen to them. 

For more radical ideas on how to make work better, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or on Amazon.

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Night Demons

The season calls not for a blog, but a poem. Here is one I wrote several years ago that seems fitting for these times.

Night Demons
by Denise Moreland

During the day they lurk in the shadows
Driven to the edges by light, activity and conversation.
I may get a glimpse of them during a quiet moment
Which immediately vanishes as my focus shifts.

They leave me alone when I first go to bed.
Preparation routines, reflections of the day, nightly prayers
And sheer exhaustion overcome me with fatigue
Keeping them at bay for a few more hours.

Then it happens.
My partner shifts, the cat meows or the bathroom beckons
Awakening me abruptly.
And my night demons come alive.

They take over my mind
Churning my anxieties, fears, regrets and ideas
Over and over as I toss and I turn
And beg to be released.

Night demons are relentless
They are fed and grow bigger by darkness, stillness
And the ticking of the clock in another room
Which I never noticed was so loud.

As night turns into dawn night demons lose their power.
They begin to fade around four-thirty leaving me with a hope
Of getting one or two more good hours of sleep.
Just as I finally doze off the alarm rings.

Soon I forget about the demons that held me captive only hours ago.
I become focused with the demands of the day.
Once more I convince myself that what was so compelling in the dark
Is completely irrelevant in the light.

As I go about my life there are times when I wonder
Whether my night demons 
Could be angels sent to guide me
Toward greater authenticity, wisdom and connection.

Perhaps my demons are not the thoughts and impulses
That possess me in the night
But the activities, obligations and responsibilities
That consume me in the day.
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Home Work

I am among those who are working from home. Granted, it is part-time as a consultant, which is easier than full-time. Still, I have observed some shifts in myself and others that I think are worth highlighting, especially as this feels like a longer term arrangement than we initially thought as organizations eagerly divest of office space to save costs.

First, and most importantly, most people working from home are so grateful to have a job they can do from home and may even feel a bit guilty about it. Adjusting has been challenging but minor compared to so many who are contending with job loss or having to work with a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Second, it is sometimes difficult to focus. Laundry needs doing, groceries need buying and kids need watching (or teaching!). What the neighbors are doing seems infinitely more interesting than the work. And your pets are either cuter or more annoying than ever.

Third, it’s hard find work-life balance. We have been conditioned to understand that “home work” is supplemental not primary. It’s been that way since grade school. Keeping your mind “at work” when your body is “at home” is confusing. What does it even mean to “call in sick” or “go on vacation” when you are home no matter your status and your work is staring at you, constantly demanding your attention?

Fourth, working from living rooms, basements and kitchen tables can be lonely, even for those surrounded by the commotion of others in the household doing their own thing. For many, work friends and colleagues are like family and we miss seeing them. We may even find ourselves remembering fondly the office politics and all the drama that we used to find so irritating.

Finally, the greatest challenge of all are the insecurities and self-doubt that continually flood our minds.

When you send an email and you don’t get an immediate response, you question whether they are ignoring or dismissing you. Did I send it to the right person? Have I offended someone? Did they not like the message I sent?

Video meetings are not the same as being there. For years, you have kept tape over your computer camera to avoid the video channel and now you are forced to deal with it. Immediately you are confronted with your own face on the screen which is startling. I don’t look like that in the mirror. I guess I am asymmetrical. When you finally get connected to everyone so they take up the screen, you are still left with the mini-you staring back making you self-conscious the whole time. Do I always tilt my head? Is there something in my teeth? Do I have shaving cream in my ear?

Making a presentation, especially without the ability to see the participants, is the worst. Am I making sense? Are people bored? Are they instant-messaging each other making snide remarks about me? Hello!! anyone still there?

Self-doubt and wondering how others perceive us have always been with us at work. The culture of competition and hierarchy often makes us second-guess ourselves. When we saw each other in person, though, we had more tools and opportunities to combat our doubting demons. We have lost the opportunity for casual encounters which served to keep our insecurities at bay.

When we used to go to work, we would run into each other. We would check-in to see how that stressful meeting went, and give each other encouragement throughout the day. You might even run into your supervisor and casually ask, “Did you see my email?” to which they would respond, “No, I have been so busy in meetings. I’ll take a look later today and get back to you.” Whew!

When you gave a presentation, you could see people and know if they were listening, looked confused or were nodding off, and you could adjust. You wouldn’t just be hanging out there all alone in the ether hoping your message is being understood and well-received.

Working only though the computer you lose the sense from colleagues that “we are all in this together.” The inside jokes, the knowing glances, the nods, the smiles and non-verbal support has vanished.

You cannot go to lunch or grab a coffee when you need to get perspective. Sure, you could set up a virtual lunch or coffee but that feels awkward. You don’t really want another on-line meeting. You want from your colleagues and friends all the little ways they said, “We’ve got you.”

We have to figure this out. The cords of interpersonal connection that held us together six months ago have withered to bare threads. We need to find new ways to connect informally to assure each other that “we’ve got you,” and talk each other out of our self-doubt and insecurities.

Here’s one idea–write emails that sound like 19th century letters among friends, full of kindness, civility and occasional praise for each other.

“Dear Helen, I hope you are well and enjoying the summer. Mine has been a bit stressful with the children “attending” school from home but we are surviving and grateful for the time together. I am writing in response to your inquiry about the new website. I found it to be quite pleasant and engaging. The colors and design are impressive and reflect your creativity. I do also have a few ideas for your consideration….Very Truly Yours,..”

Or, if you are not a writer, try sending a video message to your colleague from the point of view as an athletic coach. “Way to go! You are strong and have natural talent which is evident in the new website. Based on my experience and knowledge of the game, I have some suggestions for you to consider…”

Or, do a skit and enlist your kids or pets as actors. You could write a poem, sing a song or play your clarinet to convey your message. Now, I am pushing you way outside of your comfort zone! The point is, find some way that is comfortable for you to connect with work colleagues that feels less like work and more like play to regain that creative sense of camaraderie you used to share at work.

In the scheme of things, working at home is the best possible scenario during a pandemic. We feel for those who experiencing job loss, illness, grief, racism and fear. For those required to keep working “out there” during these challenging times, let’s honor them by always wearing a mask!!

For ideas on how to create a healthy workplace, please check out my book, “Management Culture: Innovative & Bold Strategies to Engage Employees” at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.

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My Privilege

I was not born privileged. Both of my parents were poor and worked hard to overcome it. Mom was the first of her 9 siblings to graduate high school. Dad went further, investing in 6 more years of training to become a master of his trade.

Mom and Dad married as soon as she graduated. Within 6 years, they had 4 healthy kids and a mortgage on a house in the suburbs. We moved out of the city in search of more safety and better school districts. Every decision Mom and Dad made was to give us a better life than either of them had known. 

I worked hard too. I got good grades, stayed out of trouble and earned my BA with the help of part-time jobs, scholarships, grants and loans. I earned my Master’s with tuition reimbursement help from my employer. 

I have received multiple raises and promotions that have provided financial security. I have the successful and fulfilling life my grandparents and parents dreamed for me, and I am so grateful for their hard work to get me here.

***

That was my story until I realized that hard work alone does not account for success. I am just beginning to see the invisible force of privilege that has been giving me an advantage every step of the way. I need to rewrite my story.

***

I was not born privileged. Both of my parents were poor and worked hard to overcome it. Mom was the first of her 9 siblings to graduate high school. Dad went further, investing in 6 more years of training to become a master of his trade. Neither were forced to drop out of school to provide for their families. Dad was not denied admission to trade school because of the color or his skin. That was privilege.

Mom and Dad married as soon as she graduated. Within 6 years, they had 4 healthy kids, Dad’s union provided health insurance, giving our family the best health care available, a privilege not enjoyed by all parents who work hard, and a mortgage on a house in the suburbs. They were not denied a mortgage, and they got an affordable interest rate because they are white. That was privilege. We moved out of the city in in search of more safety and better school districts. Our family was not “red-lined” out of the neighborhood and we were not harassed by neighbors because of the color of our skin. That was privilege.

I worked hard too. I got good grades. My school was well-funded by suburban property taxes. That was privilege, stayed out of trouble My neighborhood was safe; I trusted the government; I saw the police as my protectors—privileges of being white and earned my BA with the help of part-time jobs, scholarships, grants and loans. I was not turned down for jobs, college or grad school admission, student loans or scholarships because of the color of my skin. That was privilege. I earned my Master’s with tuition reimbursement help from my employer. I had a job with tuition reimbursement benefits, which was privilege.  

I have received multiple raises and promotions that have provided financial security. I was not denied jobs, raises or promotions because of the color of my skin. That was privilege. I have the successful and fulfilling life my grandparents and parents dreamed for me, and I am so grateful for their hard work to get me here. In addition to hard work, I have had a life of privilege in a society that favors the color of my skin at the expense of those who are denied it.

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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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