Today I am completing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:
Part 1: Yourself
Part 2: You and a New Group
Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture
Part 4: You, and an Established Group that Is Committed to Operating Cooperatively
While being "committed to operating cooperatively" will not, alas, necessarily mean that the group has discussed power and its distribution in the group, at least you should be able to count on a constructive response when that request bubbles up. I expect, for instance, cooperative groups to understand the distinction between "power over" and "power with," and to not be stuck on the naive hope that power can be evenly distributed in the group.
In the best groups (the ones furthest along in working well with power), you'll find four distinctive features. (I'm aiming pretty high here, so don't get discouraged if your group isn't doing any of these yet—much less all of them.)
1. They'll be able to handle conversations about the misuse of power without going thermonuclear
This is not easy to do. In fact, most groups don't have these kind of conversations at all. They are just too scary. Yet the reverse is scary, too—where people only discuss it in the parking lot.
A claim that power has been misused is, essentially, an accusation that someone used their influence for the benefit of some, and at the expense of others. This type of criticism commonly gets translated into impugning one's integrity and it can be hard to create a container strong enough to hold all the energy and to preserve the relationships. Handled poorly this kind of conflict can split a group in two. Not pretty.
So being able to work power at this depth requires that the group be able to handle conflict deftly. It's a tall order, yet it's something the group needs to do well anyway.
2. Power will be expressly be included in new member orientation
While it doesn't seem to be that difficult to articulate the concept of "power with" it's been my experience that groups rarely discuss power dynamics with new folks because it tends to be a work in progress and the group may not be that proud of what it's accomplished.
If someone asked me what to look for when visiting a group they were considering joining, I'd suggest they pay particular attention to how openly the group discuses how power is distributed. If they are not open with you up front, how can you count on it getting better?
3. The group will have a plan for developing the leadership capacity of all members
This is a definite step beyond recognizing how power is distributed in the group, and being able to talk about imbalances openly. If you do not have the distribution you want, how can you remedy that? While you cannot simply give people power (influence), you can purposefully invest in them and in their leadership capacity. You can give them opportunities to lead that are appropriate to whatever development stage they're at. You can invest in your members so that they will be more influential in the future as they accumulate experience.
4. Managers and committees will be regularly evaluated
For this to make sense, there need to be job descriptions and an enumeration of the qualities wanted in people filling positions in the group. This establishes objective standards against which to assess performance. Further, it should be some group's job (Personnel Committee?) to see that this happens on a regular rotation and with a consistent, caring process. (Heaven help you if you only dust off evaluations when someone has been coloring outside the lines or is shirking their duties and you want to slap their wrists—it'll be a bloodbath.)
Evaluations should be may things: time for tweaking and improving mandates, a time for mid-course corrections, and a time to celebrate what's working well.
Friday, January 20, 2017
Today I am completing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:
Monday, January 16, 2017
Power in Cooperative Groups, Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture
Today I am continuing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:
Part 1: Yourself
Part 2: You and a New Group
Part 3: You, and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Cooperative Culture
Part 4: You and an Established Group that is Committed to Operating Cooperatively
The subject of today's focus is the situation where you are committed to cooperative culture but the group in question is not. To be clear, it's not that the group has expressly declined to be cooperative; it may never have discussed it (or only given it cursory consideration, such that the de facto culture of the group is not cooperative).
(As it happens, this phenomenon—creating an internal culture that is far less cooperative than you'd expect from looking at the group values—is endemic among intentional communities. In fact, it's one of the principle reasons I get steady work as a group dynamics consultant, because unleashing competitive dynamics in the thick of would-be cooperative culture is like letting a fox loose in the hen house—it gets bloody real quick—even when everyone is dressed up to look like poultry.)
Assessing How Cooperative a Group's Culture Is
Consider this series of diagnostic questions:
1. When the stakes get high, are meetings more or less a battlefield over which the fate of issues is decided, with winners and losers?
2. Is it risky to reveal inner doubts or moral anguish because it will be seen as weakness?
3. Is it savvy to line up allies before an issue comes up for consideration, the better to steer things in a productive direction once the meeting starts?
4. Are members cautious about how information is shared because of concerns over how it might be misconstrued, or leaked in embarrassing ways?
5. Is the expression of distress seen as loss of self-control, or perhaps interpreted nefariously (as in crying or getting angry to manipulate outcomes or to control what gets discussed)?
6. Is there a significant emphasis placed on meetings being efficient (to dispose of issues quickly)?
7. If Member A finds Member B's group behaviors challenging, is Member A more likely to discuss that with Member B, than with Member C (who may or may not have the same issues with Member B)?
8. Do new members report that they feel welcome, and that they were well oriented to how things work in the group?
9. Do standing committees regularly offer new members an orientation about what they do and how to get involved in their area?
10.Is there clarity in the group about how it will work with emotional input?
11. Does the group ever discus how power is distributed in the group, and how it would like it to be distributed?
12. Is the performance of people who fill manager roles regularly evaluated?
The more you answered questions 1-7 in the affirmative (or questions 8-12 in the negative), the less likely you are to have developed cooperative culture. The point I am trying to make is that what you actually do counts for far more than what you say you'll do. You don't just claim cooperative culture; you have to build it and sustain it, one practice at a time.
So the scope of today's blog covers two kinds of groups: a) those that have cooperative values but not cooperative culture; and b) those with progressive values but with no aspirations of developing cooperative culture.
How Power Is Accrued in These Groups
(Note that this list is similar to the way that power is accrued in cooperative culture, yet there are significant differences.)
—Through being unflappable (not being knocked off center by distress in others)
—Through being firm (though not ruthless—compassion helps, but you don't want to be perceived as a softie)
—Through brokering successful coalitions
—Through being discreet when in possession of delicate information
—Through being an effective advocate in plenary
—Through being a gracious winner (no rubbing it in) as well as a gracious loser (no whining)
—Through not discussing power (if you have it you needn't discuss it)
—Through completing assignments well, on time, and within budget
—Through demonstrating a knack for creative problem solving when encountering curve balls
—Through not letting personal issues get in the way of group performance
—Through doing above and beyond what was asked for (over-performing)
—Through being steadfast and steely in your resolve
The principle challenge in this dynamic is figuring out what's possible in the way of purposefully shifting the culture of the group toward being more cooperative without explicit permission do so.
What Can You Do a Guerrilla Social Change Agent?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Consider this set of potential action steps:
—Volunteer to facilitate when you're not a stakeholder on the agenda
—Volunteer to take minutes when you're not a stakeholder on the agenda (the summarizing done by a good facilitator is essentially the same skill that a notetaker relies on when summarizing comments—one does it orally, the other in writing).
—Agree to head ad hoc committees where the composition appears volatile. Someone good at bridging and working even-handedly through differences can make a measurable difference in productivity. If the mandate is unclear, you can get that corrected with alacrity.
—When in discussion and people are mishearing each other, wait for whoever is running the meeting to help out, but if they fail in the attempt (or worse, fail to see that an attempt is needed) it's an opportunity for you to offer a bridge that gets things untracked.
—If someone is having trouble feeling heard there is a chance for you to step in with a concise summary that captures both the essence of their meaning, and why it matters to the speaker. Trust me, you will not be vilified for this initiative (even when you don't get it right you'll earn partial credit for a good faith attempt).
—If someone goes into nontrivial reactivity and you reach out to make a connecting statement that acknowledges what they're feeling (without judgment) and captures what's at stake, you will be universally loved (for having successfully deescalated a minefield without ducking the issue).
—You can totally shift the energy in the room by offering a solid connecting or summarizing statement that sensitively represents the views of someone you disagree with (most don't believe that's even possible).
You'll undoubtedly notice that all of the above suggestions are ways in which you can make a positive contribution by focusing on the "how" rather than the "what." If you are not attached to outcomes it gives you considerable wiggle room with respect to how business is conducted, and people will pick up on things going more smoothly if you're effective in your efforts.
The beauty of this approach is that all the above suggestions can be attempted at low risk (when was the last time you recall someone getting called out for being covertly cooperative?). They are tactics aimed to grease the wheels of conversation and, in aggregate, to help nudge the group culture more in a cooperative direction. In addition to deescalating the tension that frequently infuses and stultifies plenary conversations in not-so-cooperative groups, it will subtly work to instill authenticity and civility in the culture.
Who knew that subversion could be so pleasant?
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Today I am continuing my blog series on power in cooperative groups:
Part 1: Yourself
Part 2: You and a New Group
Part 3: You and an Established Group that is Not Committed to Operating Cooperatively
Part 4: You and an Established Group that is Committed to Operating Cooperatively
One the principal differences between competitive culture and cooperative culture is how we intend to work with power (which, unfortunately, is often quite different than how we actually work with power, but bear with me). So let's take a moment to explore intentions. In competitive culture one earns power through having ideas that are brighter than those of others; through being demonstrably superior at presenting one's ideas persuasively; through being better at promoting one's ideas; through being better at securing allies for one's ideas.
In cooperative culture we want power (influence) to be used for the benefit of all—not for the benefit of some and at the expense of others. In competitive culture the model is that the best idea will emerge as the winner (survivor) of a fair fight (vigorous debate). We don't need to worry so much about "the benefit of all" because that will be an automatic byproduct of the free market, with everyone struggling to prevail… at least that's the theory.
We are increasingly questioning the competitive model for a number of reasons:
—the playing field is never level (without safeguards to protect rights, they are curtailed and subverted for the benefit of those in power, preserving the status quo)
—those in power have tremendous advantages over those with less (the richer get richer)
—the rules are written by those in power, institutionalizing their advantages (do you think it's just a coincidence that laws are written by lawyers and lawyers are very powerful and rich in mainstream culture?)
—in reality, everyone does not have equal access to the microphone, much is decided in smoke-filled back rooms; ideas originating from people out of power are not as seriously considered as ideas coming from those in power.
Unfortunately, being clear that we want something different (in this case, cooperative culture) doesn't mean we know how to act cooperatively. Especially when the stakes are high and there's disagreement. In today's essay I want to focus on the situation where you are a serious shopper for getting involved in a group that's ostensibly committed to operating cooperatively and you're trying to decide if this is the group for you.
Here is a set of questions, the answers to which should help you sort out whether this is a good group for you. There are a number of lenses that it may be fruitful to consider this through:
o How well does the group's core values match yours?
o How well does the group's actions align with its values (do they walk their talk)?
o Do you like the people, are you energetically drawn to their ED, their Board, and key staff?
o Can you see yourself volunteering for this group, joining their Board, or becoming a donor?
o How does the group welcome new people (is there room at the table for new blood or is there an in-group and an out-group?)
But this series is about power, so I want to set aside the above (perhaps for future essays) and drill down on that particular lens for assessing a new group.
Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about how it wants power to be used in the group (and how it doesn't want it to be used)?
Can the group talk openly about power and how it is distributed in the group? (Hint: if members tell you not to worry; power is evenly distributed among members, you should be very afraid.)
Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about what qualities it wants in people who fill leadership positions in the group? (Note the difference between this question and "do you want leaders?") What support, if any, do you need from others to be willing to fill a leadership role in the group? Has it discussed what commitment it has to developing those qualities in its members? How will it celebrate and appreciate good leadership and the healthy use of power?
If this last question caught your attention (it should) I suggest you consider three ways you might go about that:
o Trainingo Mentoring
o A commitment to filling leadership roles with people who are good enough, rather than always reaching for the best qualified, with the explicit goal of increasing the capacity of the group down the road without unduly straining your commitment to quality work now.
Has the group ever had an explicit conversation about what it wants its culture to be?
Points to consider:
—how is information shared—are meetings open to all
—are minutes good enough that people who missed the meeting can tell what was said
—how are slots filled (both manager positions and committee seats)
—do you have clear mandates for committees and managers, laying out their authority
—how welcoming is the group to new energy
Note: Weak process (by which I mean inconsistent and incomplete minutes, inability to work constructively with emotions, sloppy mandates, and their ilk) favors the status quo—whatever power distribution is currently in place.
Has the group had an explicit conversation about the power peculiar to founders and how you intend to handle that with firmness, sensitivity, and compassion?
Has the group discussed how it will work constructively with the range of abilities among members to express themselves well orally and in writing when representing the group? (This came up poignantly for me at Sandhill once, when a long-term member told me that it mattered more to her that several voices be represented in the text of the community's website than that the prose was clear and well-written. In essence, she was concerned that I had too much power by virtue of my being a practiced writer and this was her initiative to see that it was more widely distributed—even if the quality of the text reflected poorly on the group. She not only didn't want me drafting text; she didn't want me editing hers.)
To what extent is the group able to support the expression of critical comments about how a member uses their power? The toughest moment comes when one member thinks another has used their power to benefit some at the expense of others and that assessment is not shared by the person being criticized. It can be incendiary. You'll be dealing with both the limits of individual members to handle criticism that's likely to land pretty close to the bone, and the ability of the group to be able to create a container sufficiently strong and compassionate to sustain a constructive atmosphere.
To be fair, I don't recall ever having encountered a group that's had all these conversations, but I can dream. Meanwhile, I derive hope from knowing what they are, and with any luck I've given readers something powerful to look for (so to speak).
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Today I'm starting a blog series spotlighting the concept of power in cooperative culture. In the context of group dynamics—my main arena—power has to do
with how people interrelate, but I want to start with the individual before interactions begin.
In physics, power is defined as work accomplished over time, or force multiplied by velocity. In sociology, the lens I'm using in this series, I define power as influence, the ability to get others to agree to something or to do something.
I've chosen to examine the individual's relationship to power through a series of questions, the answers to which can help a person sort out where they stand in relationship to power in any given situation.
1. Do you want power?
While that may be an easy "yes" for some, it's an easy "no" for others, with plenty of anguish in between whenever the answer isn't obvious. Yes, it's a opportunity to contribute and to influence results, but the obverse of that coin is that it's also an opportunity to mess up, and not everyone is comfortable with that weight on their shoulders.
Knowing that you can never know all factors that bear on a situation (much less what weight to give those factors), when do you know enough to be willing to act? This can be subtle. Perhaps it's not so difficult to assess retrospectively, but it can be chaotic and challenging (even paralyzing) in the dynamic moment—which can be heavily freighted with consequences if you get it wrong. The pressure of the moment, coupled with the uncertainty, can be overwhelming.
Even if you are clear that you have power, care about the outcome, and know what you think, you may be hesitant to exercise your power.
2. How can you assess what power you have?
—Your power is group specific. What is your history with that particular group? Has anything happened lately that would suggest a shift in power?
—How persuasive are you as a communicator?
—Do you have background advantages on the issue at hand? (In addition to being group specific, power is situation specific—you may know electrical wiring, but not plumbing; you may be a logistical whiz, yet poor at negotiating.)
—Though others cannot give you power (influence), they can give you authority; or they can abdicate their own power, leaving the field to you, which changes the calculus. (Whether you want power under either of those circumstances is another question.)
3. How do you get power?
In healthy cooperative groups you can get power, or accrue it, through a wide variety of ways:
o demonstration of relevant skill
o display of confidence
o reputation transmitted through respected sources who vouch for your skill or wisdom
o demonstration of being able to accurately assess what's best for the group (as distinguished from what's best for you)
o showing that you're sensitive enough to frame comments in ways that acknowledge the interests of others
o history of on-time performance
o history of following through on commitments
o reputation for coming through in the clutch
o not needing personal recognition
o readily crediting others for their contributions
o not being quick to assign blame
o owning your mistakes
o being open to new ideas
o seeing the good intent in others (especially those with whom you disagree)
o reputation for being able to bridge disparate views
o known to be able to receive critical feedback with grace and openness
o being explicitly authorized to make decisions that are binding on the group
You can also acquire power in unhealthy or unearned ways:
o friendships with powerful people
o family ties (power through legacy)
o as a donor (money talks)
o as a martyr (who works too much and expects power as the payoff)
o brashness (tough skin; others will back down before you will)
o sarcasm (intimidation)
4. What does it take to be willing to use your power?
o a reasonable assessment that you know enough about the issues being discussed
o an issue you care enough about
o do you need it to be likely that you'll be right?
o sufficient courage to risk being wrong, to have incomplete or faulty thinking exposed, or to be found in opposition to others (Hint: if you have to be right, lay down your lapel mic now and back out of the room)
o strong enough core (sense of self) that you'll be OK even if your pitch is ineffective (you have less power than you thought) or your advocacy turns out badly for the group
o can you admit doubt to yourself; can you admit doubt to others?
o does your willingness to use power depend on how it was gained?
o does your willingness to use power depend on how you think others will treat you if they don't like the results?
o does your willingness to use power depend on the media of communication available to you?
o does your willingness to use power depend on who you expect to disagree with you?
o does your willingness to use power depend on the magnitude of the stakes?
o does your willingness to use power depend on the likelihood of push back or resistance to what you'll advocate?
5. How do you know that you're using power in a good way?
A lot of times you can't be sure. While few of us use power with intent to put one over on others, it can certainly land that way at times (and be terrifically embarrassing). Why? Perhaps because you didn't think though the consequences as deeply as you might have; perhaps because there were unknown factors at play, skewing the results; perhaps because you didn't know what everyone wanted and were working from faulty premises. Shit happens.
6. What are the likely consequences?
With power, feedback loops tend to be fairly direct. If the people you've influenced believe you used power well (for the benefit of all), you'll be paid in kind. That is, you'll have more power in the future. The reverse is also true. Note that you can veer into the ditch in two ways: a) what you advocate is perceived to benefit some at the expense of others (or substantially favors some more than others); or b) your even-handed suggestion turns out badly for all.
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
The title for today's blog is the nom de guerre of the Duluth comedy theatre (you know it's real theater when it's spelled "theatre"—their line, not mine) that's been making fun of local weather since 1983. Susan and I enjoyed a reprisal of their hit musical Les Uncomfortables this past summer, which is a slightly off key (and off color) retelling of the founding of Duluth by Québécois voyageurs, that establishes the gold standard for what can be accomplished under the banner of poetic license. I lament that I was not yet in town for their 2010 original work, Older by the Lake (the Colonoscopy Monologues). I heard it was dark, but hey, you can't see everything, and sometimes it's better when you don't.
The picture above was taken last Jan 17 and does a bang up job of portraying the bay outside the Port of Duluth as the mercury descends—as it does today. When the way is clear, ore boats ease through the canal and under the lift bridge (framed in the lower right) to enter the inner harbor. However, it is -15 ˚ as I type and the ice elves are busily extracting heat from the water. It is not expected to get north of zero again until Sunday, by which time the shipping season may be a done deal. Today, ironically, it's warmer by the lake—a whopping 50 degrees warmer (from whence the fog that ethereally floats on the surface as the lake gives up its BTUs).
Whenever I tell people I've moved to Duluth (I've been here a year now), three out of four times the first response is some form of commiseration: "Oh, I'm so sorry." Why, they're thinking, would anyone in their right mind move to the icebox of the country? While the straight forward answer is that I came for love (which is good enough), it turns out I have a plethora of strong back-up replies: I like the cold climate (and clean air and abundant fresh water); I like inhaling fragrance of white pine as soon as I step out the back door, and am spiritually drawn to the boreal forest. As icing on the cake (so to speak), Duluth has been my gateway to wilderness canoeing since 1959. (What about community, you ask? Community is no less dear to me today, yet is needed everywhere; so you can't make a bad choice in that respect.) So the real question is, what took me so long?
Of course, you need the right clothes to enjoy winter, and I have them—including a fabulous LL Bean down parka that my mother gave me years ago and patiently rests in the storage because it was mostly too warm for winters in northeast Missouri or Chapel Hill, and I haven't broken it out yet this winter.
For some reason the coldest week of the year always seems to be the one right after New Year's, when all you have to keep you warm are memories, a tired Christmas tree, and—in our case at least—a mantle full of tomten that imbue our living room with their indefatigable good cheer:
The indoor downstairs rhythm for Susan and me rotates around three locations:
a) The Kitchen
Where the magic happens. We both love to cook. Sometimes our performances are solo; sometimes we manage a duet. This is a creative center, and much more fun because we have each other to bounce ideas and tastes off of, and to nurture with our food. If you're ever invited to dinner, say "yes!"
b) The Dining Room
In addition to eating at the table, it's where Susan does her morning Sudoku, pays bills, and wraps presents. It's where I set up shop every morning, tackling the NYT crossword, chasing email, crafting reports, and authoring blogs.
c) The Living Room
In addition to television therapy (we're watching reruns of West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's magnum opus, where Martin Sheen portrays the President we wished we could have elected), we catch the PBS News Hour, view some sports now and then, play gin rummy, and read our respective books under the benevolent gaze of the tomten. Sometimes Lucie joins us on the couch.
While I've been able to recover a substantial portion of my flexibility and stamina after battling cancer, I have to accept that with three collapsed vertebrae I will never shovel snow or split wood again, which are regular features of winter homesteading that I miss. (It helps my morale that I'm well enough to make breakfast and empty the dishwasher these days while Susan shovels and takes Lucie for a spin around the block—so I'm doing something useful.)
And we have a new treat on the horizon for 2017. I switched health insurance (to supplement Medicare) t Blue Cross Blue Shield effective Jan 1 and have just found out that it includes access to a local fitness center at no additional charge. As Susan's insurance offers the same perk, we're about to add regular visits there to our weekly routine. Susan has her eye on swimming laps in a heated pool and I'm thinking sauna. It's one more reason that life is better together, as we're far more likely to keep at it if it's something we do together.
Oddly enough, it turns out that in winter I am drawn to sensual experiences of heat (wood fires, saunas, baked goods in the oven, and the warm cave of our bed) just about as much as I am to the cold. It's a yin and yang thing.
Now where did I put that parka…
Sunday, January 1, 2017
This is my
post for 2016 (actually, my it's my first for 2017, but I'm invoking poetic license,) and I'm going to use it to continue an annual tradition I
started five years ago: by summarizing where I've slept this past year.
I refer to this as "bedlam" because: a) I'm on the road a lot and have a chaotic and confusing distribution of sleeping arrangements; b) some think that my travel schedule is prima facie evidence of mental illness; and c) I have a congenital weakness for word play.
So here are the highlights of where I was when the lights went out each night. (Due to health challenges this year was quite distinct from any other, yet hopefully entertaining nonetheless.)
o I moved to Duluth last winter (relocating from Chapel Hill NC) and spent a whopping 209 nights at home, which is 57%, up a modest 4% from the previous year, and down 5% from 2014. So a run-of-the-mill total.
o The single stat that's off the charts is that I spent 81 nights in the hospital, at a rehab facility (in Duluth), or at Transplant House (in Rochester) where I bivouacked while undergoing my stem cell transplant. In toto that was nearly a quarter of my nights in a type of location where I had not spent even one night in the prior five years!
o I stayed with clients 31 nights, down sharply from 51 a year ago (essentially that's a function of having placed my consulting and teaching career on hold for eight months while I arm wrestled with the Grim Reaper—and was sufficiently successful to win a reprieve).
o I visited family and friends a modest dozen nights, down precipitously from 74 last year. When you're seriously sick you just don't get around as much.
o I traveled to attend FIC meetings and networking events a mere eight nights, an anemic total compared with 36 the year before.
o I slept on a train 25 nights, which was rather a strong showing considering that the total was just six before Labor Day. Nonetheless that was down from 42 nights on rolling stock in 2015.
o All together, I slept in 10 states and one province.
What's ahead? My FIC administrative days are behind me and I'm cutting way back on attending events. Travel in the year ahead will be focused on consulting and teaching, with occasional trips to visit family and friends. Once Susan retires there may be more vacation travel but that's mostly on hold for now. Meanwhile, sleeping in my own bed never looked better… nor was it better for my back.
Happy New Year one and all!
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
I recently worked with a group that hired me after they had struggled for a year to make a difficult decision. They were looking for assistance with four things:
a) How to finally make the decision (their inability to cross the finish line was eating them up) while at the same time avoid calling for a vote, if possible. Voting was on the books as a backup to consensus yet had never been invoked, and they were leery of how a split vote might harden hearts.
b) Regardless of the decision, the group knew it needed to recover from the relationship damage that had been sustained over the prior year. The community needed to heal and was uncertain how to go about it.
c) Help identifying the lessons from the hard time.
d) What tools could I leave them with that would help them avoid repeating the exhausting experience they had just gone through.
Though I was principally hired to wrangle the group to a consensus decision, they were happy to have me arrive early (Wed night) and stay through Sunday, which allowed me sufficient room to facilitate five hours of plenaries, sit with committees for four hours, and interview individuals for 13 hours.
One of the pivotal moments came Saturday morning when the whole group was gathered and I asked people to respond to the question, "What, if anything, do you want others to know about what has come up for you in the context of this issue and the way the community has been working on it?"
Everyone was given a chance to speak once, and almost everyone did. It took us 80 minutes to get around the room, but I knew this was an essential building block of the healing process, since so many had reported to me in 1:1 sessions that they did not feel heard. There was no cross talk and no discussion; people just listened.
While most of what was said was not a surprise, there were a handful of revelations—especially with regard to analysis and depth of anguish. Two strong themes that emerged from that sharing were: a) many reported feelings of guilt (either about what they had done, or about what they had not done in connection with the presenting issue); and b) a significant minority described feelings of martyrdom (doing more than they felt comfortable doing, to the point of resentment, even though no one had asked them to do so much).
Because it's so common for people in nonprofits to feel either guilty or overworked (sometimes both!) this is where I want to focus today's essay.
o Dynamics of Volunteers
There is always much more work to do than paid staff time to accomplish it. This leads to relying on volunteers at all levels: everything from filling Board spots, to filling coffee pots; from taking a few minutes to meet with visitors, to taking minutes at a few meetings; from running to the store to get flip chart paper, to running off hard copies.
People's life circumstances vary widely. Anything from retired in good health with no kids at home, to two rugrats in a household where both parents work full time and can only scrape together 30 minutes of discretionary time once a week (before bed Saturday night) to read a magazine, change the sheets, or make love (pick one).
People's motivation to do more than their fair share varies widely, based how much they identify with the group, how intrinsically interesting they find their work, how they've been raised ("giving back" is a powerful motivator in some households, while "charity begins at home" is cross-stitched over the fireplace in others).
In the land of volunteers, recognition is the coin of the realm, yet all coins are is not valued equally. Some prefer that this be handled quietly, behind the scenes—perhaps via a hand-written note or a privately delivered bouquet of flowers. Others want their name in lights, or engraved for posterity in pavers prominently displayed on the patio flooring of the new building. Nobody is wrong; they're just different.
o Dynamics of Uncertainty
Not knowing fully what's going on, do you assume the best or suspect the worst? When you encounter a fog (lack of clarity) do you tend to hold back until the fog lifts, to avoid the potential embarrassment of a misstep, or do you step right in figuring it's simpler to secure forgiveness than permission (and you have no qualms about breaking a few eggs en route to an omelet)? Hint: it's not so much that there's a best path in this situation as that there are multiple lenses through which this common circumstance will be viewed, and there needs to be some compassion around the near-certainty that different folks will navigate this differently— without anyone being branded a jerk or cold-hearted.
o Dynamics of Structure
When structure is high, people who like that find it relaxing and reassuring (you know where you stand and what's expected). If you don't like it, it's a straight jacket that forces one-size-fits-all solutions, eliminating nuance and respect for individual differences (we are people, after all, not automatons).
Alternately, when structure is low, people who favor that will appreciate the extra breathing room, making it possible for creative solutions to bubble up and fill the interstices left by emerging conditions. They accept responsibility for their actions and are glad that their intelligence is not insulted by having it all spelled out. Sometimes they are able to do more; sometimes they need to do less, and they're confident that it will all even out over time. If you don't like low structure, then you experience it as dangerous or needlessly vague—initiative can be viewed as power mongering; inaction can be labeled overly timid, placing undo burdens on those who have to pick up the slack. In short, you can get in trouble either way.
o Dynamics of Guilt
The old saw is that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. Left unattended, it breeds in dark corners. In a perfect shit storm we hesitate to voice guilty feelings for a number of reasons:
—It can be excruciating shining a negative spotlight on yourself.
—If you alone sense it, you may be drawing heretofore unfocused critical attention to yourself. Now that you have alerted others to what you feel guilty about, they may join in your negative judgment, heaping ashes on your soul.
—If others don't share your self-judgment, your critical assessment may come across as unbalanced—even paranoid—calling into question your ability to read situations accurately. Left unexamined, this can lead to people sharing less with you in the future (for fear that you'll do something weird with the information) or to being more hesitant to give you assignments that require discernment. In short, your social capital can take a hit.
—While people prefer that co-workers (especially leaders) are relatively self-aware of their weaknesses and foibles, it is also true that they are generally more drawn to people with a positive attitude, who are not obsessed with flaws. After all, nobody's perfect and we have work to do. Let's get on with it. If you are devoting a substantial portion of your bandwidth to self-flagellation, how much remains for problem solving and being an enjoyable compatriot?
Of course, not being forthcoming about one's shortcomings also carries risks. (Did someone say this was easy?) If others think you should be more sensitive to how your words or actions may result in strain for others, you're in danger of coming across as callous, uncaring, or at least naive if you're not the first one out of the blocks with a mea culpa. It doesn't take very many iterations of contemplating the best course of action with respect to self-disclosure before you enter that rarefied how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory: where you start to feel guilty about whether or not you've expressed enough guilt. Talk about chasing your tail!
o Dynamics of Martyrdom
Here's how martyrdom works: First there exists a decided shortfall of work that needs to get done and some people respond by volunteering to do extra, in a good faith effort to close the gap. So far so good. Over time, however, the extra work becomes a burden, and this is where it gets interesting. Instead of cutting back to a more manageable workload, the martyr continues to keep their thumb in the dike yet starts claiming that they're due extra consideration in group decisions by virtue of "credit" they've earned by letting their thumb get all wrinkly—even though the group never agreed to that quid pro quo. At its worst, the martyr resents the group and the group resents the martyr, with each feeling taken advantage of by the other. Yuck!
The baseline in most nonprofits (of which intentional community is a subset) is that they have to depend both on some degree of volunteerism, and on some portion of the volunteers contributing above and beyond their fair share to the well-being and maintenance of the organization. The trick is making it clear that you do not want people contributing more than they can do freely (no strings attached), because the resentment invariably poisons the well.
So you must rely on uneven contributions, yet embrace them in such a way that it doesn't leak into martyrdom. The good news is that with diligence, clarity of purpose, and good communication this strategy will float. Without those buoyant qualities however, prepare to ship water.
o Dynamics of Accountability
Many people come into the experience of community living with the best of intentions… and naive ideas about how humans will behave. It can be shocking (a fall from grace) to realize that people don't always do what they say they'll do, and, in fact, will sometimes willfully break agreements. Now what? Some groups are paralyzed by this dynamic. They didn't sign up for holding people's feet to the fire and they resent the miscreants who visit this unthoughtful behavior on the group. Unfortunately, merely occupying the high moral ground and adopting an attitude of dismay and disdain will—along with $4—not get you much more than a good cup of coffee. Unaddressed, the impact of people being allowed to color outside the lines is a steady erosion of trust and a malignant cynicism about group agreements.
You're going to have to talk about it.
In the group I mentioned at the front of this essay, one of the most disturbing elements was how many people told me 1:1 they were disturbed by what they saw others doing yet were unwilling (to date) to approach them directly to discuss it. There were some instances where this had been going on for more than two years. Not good.
While some people automatically associate accountability with consequences, it's rarely that simple. (Yes, there are times when there's an obvious and natural option: when a person repeatedly fails to clean and sharpen the community chain saw after using it, they may lose their designation as an approved operator.) In general, I find it more productive to focus the conversation on the carrot (improved relationships and social capital) rather than on the stick (loss of privileges, fines, and a trip through the spanking machine).
o Dynamics of Clearing the Air
Once you've screwed up your courage to have that conversation, my strong advice is to set it up well. First, ask for a good time to share some critical feedback (don't assume that what's good for you is good for them). You might give the headline, without giving the feedback ("This about following our agreements about chain saw use") so that the recipient's imagination doesn't veer into overdrive. Sometimes people feel more at ease if there's a third party present. While you shouldn't agree to conditions that don't feel safe to you, the prime objective here is to have a constructive exchange, so I urge you to give as much ground as you can in the set up.
Once the talk begins, keep in mind that yours is not the only truth in play, and that there needs to be a full opportunity for each player to say what they believe happened, what feelings came up for them about that, and what meaning that sequence has for them. It will serve you well to remember that you may have a mistaken perception or you may not be fully aware of the circumstances.
I advise that the goal here should not be so much about punishment and consequences as about eliminating the problem in the future and repairing damage to relationship. You can aim to secure an affirmation of the agreement that the behavior is unacceptable—even though you thought the group already had that agreement. Now you've made sure: a) that others are clear about that as well; and b) that if the objectionable behavior persists that there will be another conversation. If the perpetrator thought it might go unnoticed or be allowed to slide by, you have disabused them of that.
Alternately, the conversation may go in other directions. It could, for example, uncover ambiguity or dissatisfaction with the agreement that needs plenary attention. Further, it is not unusual to learn that a person is breaking an agreement in part because they witnessed someone else break that agreement and not get called on it—thus, the problem may be bigger than you knew.
(While there is occasional need for policy about how to handle a pattern of agreement breaking—where the same person fails repeatedly to keep agreements despite attempts to point it out—this drifts into the territory of involuntary loss of member rights and is beyond the scope of this essay.)
The thing is, guilt, blame, martyrdom, and the desire to punish are all common fauna in our zoo of alternative culture, yet none are helpful. I have written this essay on the theory that we need to thoroughly understand their living conditions and breeding habits if we're to have a chance of expunging them from the many places in our culture where their presence persists. We have to learn to neither feed nor pet the dangerous animals, and it is my hope that this tour guide will be instructive in that effort.