Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Art of Working with People Who Can't See the Long View

Ma'ikwe and I are immersed in a facilitation training in Missouri right now and the teaching theme this weekend is power and leadership. In that context, a question bubbled up about how to handle the dynamic where a select group of veteran members with above-average power have been asked to constitute a committee to tackle long-range planning and questions about the group's future—only to face a withering gauntlet of push back about underlying assumptions whenever the committee brings forward its work. Yuck!

The person painting this picture colored the folks who were pouring sand in the gears as tending to be newer members who self-identified as less powerful, and advocated for positions that came across as
narrow and self-serving. Faced with that reality, how do you maintain equilibrium and grace? How do you not get jaded and reactive?

What a good question!

On the one hand, it's essential that there be an opening for the committee's work to be reviewed by the group and that there be room for questions and concerns. On the other, it's draining and demoralizing to face a steady diet of criticism and roadblocks en route to the promised land. I'm talking about the situation where there's more nervousness about misuse of power than appreciation for all the hard work being done, ostensibly on the group's behalf. It can be excruciating to have someone question your integrity when you thought you were being selfless.

In reflecting on this, it occurred to me that some of this dynamic may have nothing to do with power. Although that was the analysis given to me, there are other possible explanations. Let me start with those. For the purpose of this conversation I'll use the term "committee" to refer to any subgroup—including a single person who might be a manager—who has been authorized to do things on the group's behalf.

Trust correlates with access to information. One of the more common ways that committees inadvertently get in trouble is by massaging input from the group and then coming back with a proposal or decision that some group members have trouble seeing how it relates to their original input. If people can't see a pathway from input to proposal, it may look like they were blown off and there's likely to be trouble. It can help the committee enormously if they lay out how they balanced factors en route to drawing their conclusions. Thus, when presenting a proposal or announcing a decision, it's generally a good idea to offer a summary of the journey, giving everyone a peak behind the curtain.

People will tend to be far more accepting of not getting their way if they understand that their concerns and interests were fairly weighed in the deliberation. Merely assuming that others will see your efforts as fair and balanced is naive. Show your work!

Clarity of the Mandate
Are you bringing back work that addresses the right questions? If the committee was given authority to deal with x, has it done y instead, coloring outside the lines? In addition to potential fuzziness about what the committee was authorized to do (is everyone clear on what x means?), there may be honest disagreement about whether y is a subset of x, and therefore OK, or whether y exceeds x and is viewed as evidence of a runaway committee. Sloppiness in mandates can be a set-up for committees getting grilled whenever the plenary looks at their work, and non-committee members may feel the need to look over the committee's shoulder to make sure they don't stray beyond their pay grade. In turn, the committee chafes at being micro-managed. This can be a train wreck.

Getting the Sequence Right
Another way that committees can stumble is by attempting to solve problems before the group has had a chance to flesh out what factors need to be taken into account. If the committee gets too far ahead of the group and makes a poor guess at what will need to be balanced, then their work might be trashed in plenary, when group members not on the committee articulate factors that the committee didn't anticipate. Oops! While that doesn't mean the committee has a bad heart, it's also not fair getting upset at the whistle blowers who have given their input at the first available opportunity.

Who Has the High Moral Ground?
When the group gets into problem solving before having identified and agreed upon what values are in play, there is an increased danger of misunderstanding what's at the root of different
perspectives. Thus, when the committee comes forward with a proposal to buy solar panels and encounters resistance, it may interpret the objections as being in opposition to the group value about ecological consciousness (which was the value that inspired the committee to generate the proposal). However, it may be that the objections were at all anti-ecology; they might be based on sticker shock and that some members couldn't afford the bump in monthly dues needed to purchase the panels. The objectors may have felt fully justified because affordability is just as much a group value as ecological impact.

By not having done the work to ferret out the values in play before entertaining proposals, the fact that everyone's position is directly linked to a group value may be lost in the shuffle. in the example I cooked up above, people were emphasizing different group values and the real challenge is how to balance them. Maybe no one is being selfish or narrow-minded.

• • •
OK, suppose now that power imbalances are a factor. What about those situations?

Balancing Critical Feedback with Appreciation
There is a tendency in cooperative groups for leaders to be expected to handle a full complement of responsibilities—without being extended a comparable package of rights or perks. Often leaders don't get more money; they don't get a corner office; they don't get a secretary; they don't get a designated parking spot. All they get is the opportunity to serve.

In such an environment it's not unusual for criticism to get out of balance with appreciation. Cooperative leaders can be expected to more or less be on call 24/7 to listen and respond to whatever concerns group members bring them—while they can wait in vain for a cake or an attaboy.

One of the ironies is that leaders are often the ones most aware of the need for positive reinforcement and an environment of encouragement. While they have the wherewithal and gumption to see that others are
appropriately appreciated, they can't reasonably orchestrate their own celebrations. When group members see how leaders are treated, (all stick and no carrot), it doesn't inspire others to step forward. Lacking a wide base of leadership, more roles fall to the remaining few, heightening the need for greater appreciation. It can be a vicious downward spiral.

Thus, I advised the person who told the story (at the start of this blog), that they'd be well-advised to look for others in the group who could make sure that the committee work was being adequately appreciated—so that it didn't always seem like a slog bringing things to plenary, and that there was an opportunity for the "whiners" to publicly acknowledge the committee's good work.

Those who are nervous about power abuse (and leaders with out-of-control egos) may never serve on committees that address long-range planning or the future of the group. These members may never understand what it means to sit in that seat or see the group through long distance eyes. That does not, however, mean they should be disenfranchised (or boiled in oil).

While it's no doubt an advantage to widen one's perspective by walking a klick or two in as many moccasins as you can find, you can't count on others changing footwear very often, and it helps to develop some patience with new member myopia. If you need everyone to be able to understand your perspective, know going in that that's a high bar. When you take on work that others shy away from you can count on not being well understood. If you can't stand that heat, don't enter that kitchen.

Emotional Preparation
If there's a pattern to being misunderstood and having your motivations called into question, it's important to center yourself beforehand, summoning up as much goodwill as you can manifest your work is on the agenda for the next plenary. Anything you can do to be less triggered and defensive will be rewarded tenfold. Did someone promise you that life would be fair? Sorry. You could ask for a free replay, but I'm not hopeful that it would come out any better the next time.

Find buddies who can be there for you if the meeting gets hard—not to take your side or to protect from the slings and arrows of unreasonable charges; but to provide emotional support and the balm of caring to soothe you through the raw spots. The bad news is that everyone doesn't think like you. The good news is that some do.

Disenfranchisement as a Tactic
Finally, I want to describe the phenomenon where self-identified less powerful people have learned (probably as children) to influence through weakness. The concept here is that it's easier to get others to move in your direction through an emotional appeal than through strength of reason. If you come across as afraid and in distress than you may engender sympathy that will attract others toward you in an effort to address the power imbalance your distress is calling others to focus on. Clever, eh?

There tends to be so much nervousness about owning the label of "a powerful person" in a cooperative setting (considered prima facie evidence of a less evolved ego) that people will actually compete for the label of being less powerful. It's like the obverse of children in Lake Wobegon (where, according to Garrison Keillor, all are above average). In cooperative groups most people will try to convince you that they have below average power (in an attempt to keep their head lower than other people's cross hairs).

If you run into this profile, I suggest playing it straight (as opposed to responding with cynicism and disdain). That is, acknowledge that person's distress and then move directly onto how their concerns are or could be held. This does not necessarily that mean that they'll get their way—only that they've the same right to be heard as anyone else. If words aren't enough and you have to draw them a map, don't hesitate to get out the crayons and connect the dots.

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