I've been spending the three months of winter (mid-Dec through mid-March) at Dancing Rabbit, living with Ma'ikwe. In addition to the preciousness of exploring day-to-day rhythms with my wife, I've enjoyed adapting to the diurnal rituals of living in her house.
Ma'ikwe started construction of her home (dubbed Moon Lodge) in 2009, and bravely moved in that Halloween—which, unfortunately, foreshadowed some horrific nights wintering over in a structure with unfinished and highly leaky walls. When the wind blew out of the north, it tended to congeal the marrow in your bones.
Two years further along, the walls are much tighter (more plaster over the strawbale walls) and cold weather outside no longer presages an arctic experience inside. Still, Ma'ikwe has been going through a second bout of low energy and achy joints associated with chronic Lyme disease, and it's handy that I've been around so much to help with the routine of homestead domesticity while she concentrates on healing. While she still helps out when she can, she can't easily do as much.
Here are the recurring elements of my winter days:
o Each morning I roll up the quilted shades in front of the windows if the sun is shining, and roll them down again at dusk.
o I practice energy conservation (think Little House on the Prairie; not Leave It to Beaver). As Moon Lodge is off the grid, electricity depends on what's generated by a 1440-watt solar panel array. The extra juice is stored in eight deep cell marine batteries. Mostly this is sufficient to do whatever we need, including refrigeration—so long as we're prudent (no hair dryers or electric can openers) and so long as we don't get three cloudy days in succession. There have been a few evenings when the system was shut down and we were reading by candlelight. It's romantic, but doesn't help manage one's email In Box.
o I wash the dishes, usually every other day. While this may seem a plebeian task, there's no plumbing in the house yet, resulting in a complex dishwashing choreography. It begins by hauling a five-gallon bucket of water in from one of two rain barrels strategically parked under the eaves. This protocol works so long as the nighttime temperature doesn't dip too far below freezing, and bounces above it during the day—otherwise the water doesn't tend to flow so well (hence the phrase, "chopping water"), necessitating a a 100-yard schlep to fill buckets at the community's frostproof hydrant.
Regardless of how it's procured, once the water is inside, it gets transferred into a granite ware stock pot that's a constant fixture sitting atop the wood stove. After several hours you have hot water sufficient to wash and rinse the dishes. The waste stream drops into another five-gallon bucket, from which it is conveyed outside.
o I keep the wood fire burning. Beyond the obvious task of adding another chunk when we're down to embers (which chore I share with Ma'ikwe, and is greatly aided by a glass panel in the door to the firebox), this means hauling wood in from the not-yet-finished attached greenhouse just south of the living room, where we stockpile split wood until its needed inside. When the greenhouse supply runs low, this means some personal time with the splitting maul, segmenting drums into pieces that are digestible by the stove. On a bright sunny day, we'll have enough power that I can occasionally run the electric chain saw, allowing me to reduce logs into stove length drums and to splay open the pieces that are too large for the stove and too knotty for the splitting maul. The real monsters make great overnighters once I get them small enough to be eased into the fire box.
In addition to keeping the wood box filled, I also have to maintain a proper distribution of size: we need the right mix of thin pieces suitable for start-up in the morning, medium pieces for maintaining throughout the day, and lunkers (that barely fit) for burning through the night.
o I serve as the back-up hauler of potable water. While this is a primary household chore for Ma'ikwe's 14-year-old son, Jibran, when he can't answer the bell (which happened twice last week when he was stricken with pink eye) I'm the next monkey in the barrel. While we get most of our wash water from the rain barrels, we always go to the hydrant for our drinking and cooking water.
o Jibran & I share the task of taking out the recycling and emptying the household trash, which happen about once a week.
o Ma'ikwe and I share the cooking. If we plan far enough ahead, a fair amount of it can be done on the wood stove, substituting renewable wood for the propane consumed by the kitchen range.
o About every five days or so I sweep the floor, cleaning up the mud and wood scraps that we invariably track into the house.
In short, living at Ma'ikwe's provides all the baseline ingredients needed for Buddhist enlightenment. The relevant zen aphorism goes like this: Before enlightenment, chop wood, haul water. After enlightenment, chop wood, haul water.
I figure the Moon Lodge adaptation goes like this: Before the house is finished, chop wood, haul water. Afterward, haul wood, chop water. It's a subtle thing, enlightenment. Luckily, we don't have to wait for the house to get finished before we can turn the lights on.
Wednesday, February 29, 2012
I've been spending the three months of winter (mid-Dec through mid-March) at Dancing Rabbit, living with Ma'ikwe. In addition to the preciousness of exploring day-to-day rhythms with my wife, I've enjoyed adapting to the diurnal rituals of living in her house.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
I just received this inquiry from a friend, Mike Graff, whom I first met two years ago in the context of doing facilitation training at his then community, Heathcote (Freeland MD). Since that time he and his family have moved to East Lake Commons, an established cohousing community in Atlanta where I had done some consulting in 2008 and 2010. Mike wrote:
I see you are continuing your work to teach people how to get along. You've had a huge impact at ELC. The meetings are efficient, relatively friendly, and end with a decision on how to proceed. I'm sure you've heard stories from BL [Author's note: it took me a few minutes to puzzle out that that stood for Before Laird]. Suffice it to say, I'm glad I wasn't around in those days.
The reason for my email is to see if you have experience with web-based forum software (organized discussion boards). Are any communities using them successfully? Also, is there any web-based consensus software? I know that there is web-based voting software that looks like it could be functional.
Unfortunately, this is not an area I have much exposure to. While I can understand the motivation to develop such tools, I'm concerned that crucial input may be stripped out when attempting consensus electronically (I'm thinking of non-verbal cues, body language, tone, pacing, volume, etc.). Of course, we're also on the cusp of high functioning video conferencing, which will address some of those concerns.
As far as straight-forward discussion goes, there's increasing popularity with Goggle docs as a way to corral all the comments on a certain subject. I'm sure there's more in this realm that I don't know about, but that's what I can give you.
Our dialog continued:
There are folks around here—including me—who agree. That said, a tool could be used wisely, couldn't it? Also, not all decisions need such intimate group involvement, and often, it would be a fair trade-off to have more participation, and less intimacy, eh?
Certainly some decisions are sufficiently uncomplicated that electronic means will work fine. The trick is knowing both which not to attempt that way, and when to stop trying because it's breaking down.
One such tool that I found today is a free forum hosting software which is feature rich. It's called My Bulletin Board.
Keep in mind that the idea is to consolidate information, opinions, links, stats, etc in one thread that anyone can review to come up to speed when they have time. Groups can still talk, but with easy access to the accumulated knowledge. I believe that this would be better for topics than minutes, which usually get accumulated by meeting, rather than by topic.
Would you be interested in working through the technology/humanity barrier and putting together some ground rules on this subject?
It's an intriguing project. I have such a monograph about email usage, and much of the principles would be the same.
Increasingly, we live in a world dominated by electronic communication. There are many things that are good about that:
o It greatly shortens the time between transmission and receipt of a communication, making it possible to speed things up as fast as people can read (or hear) and reply. When people are in a chat room together, on a conference call, skyping, or instant messaging they're communicating in real time and it's just as quick as being in the same room, but with no travel time.
o The same message can be sent simultaneously to many people, greatly reducing (or eliminating) the tedious labor of photocopying, plus addressing and licking multiple envelopes.
o Once you've invested in the equipment and internet access, the marginal cost of each transmission is zero.
o Physical distance between parties becomes irrelevant, as it's just as simple and inexpensive to send an email from Washington DC to Bethesda MD as it is to send it to Sydney, Australia.
o Transmissions are easily archived for future reference.
o It's harder to regulate and control, which is a democratizing feature—allowing for the rapid dissemination of information and opinions. If you're unsure what I mean by this, just ask deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who never got the license plate number on the virtual truck of public protest that ran him over a year ago.
Having said all that, the trend toward more reliance on electronic communication is not altogether an unalloyed good. There are ripples in the Force. Witness:
—I can still recall the amazement I felt (in the summer of 1997) the first time I received an email query from someone who composed and transmitted it while sitting in the same room with me. Huh? Would it have been that hard to have just turned around and asked?
—It has become increasingly difficult to get a response from my son, even though I try both email and phone. His day-to-day communication world revolves around a smart phone and texting, which is technology I haven't embraced. Our exchanges have become limited by the paucity of intersection among our preferred media, rather than because there's been any shift in our caring about each other. Isn't this the tail wagging the dog? I've been uneasy for years about the trend toward responding preferentially to messages by virtue of the mode of transmission, rather than based on the urgency or importance of the content—and now it's hitting pretty close to the bone.
—My nephew Ryan's son, Jaxson, was born Jan 5. Everyone in the extended family knew that this blessed event was imminent, but I waited in vain for the happy email announcement. I only learned about the birth because Ma'ikwe saw pictures of the new baby on Facebook. Seven weeks later, I still haven't received an email communication from Ryan about the birth. Yikes! Facebook has become an alternate universe, and some people don't play in both. This is an enhancement?
—One of my favorite lines from satirist Tom Lehrer is, "If people don't have anything to say, the very least they can do is to shut up." Unfortunately, one byproduct of the Information Age is that it has become depressingly easy for people with little to say to indulge in expressing themselves at length. In the vast ocean of information floating out there on the internet, it has become a mind-numbing task sorting the wheat from the chaff; the signal from the noise. An amazing number of people mistakenly confuse the ability to broadcast to the world with discernment about whether they have anything useful for the world to hear. For centuries, it used to be that the time and cost of publishing hard copy served as a useful brake on such nonsense, now, sadly, we are in full diarrheal flow.
At its best, consensus involves working with the whole person. Where the predominant Western model of effective meeting culture depends almost exclusively on thinking, and working with ideation, that's a perversion of who we are as human beings—which includes feelings, intuition, body knowing, and spiritual insight. We are much more than our thoughts, and it's rather a foolish notion that we can do solid work by reducing everything to a single language and then expecting it all to come out well when it's time for implementation and everyone translates the idea captured in the agreement back into their complex realities. Frankly, I'm surprised the wheels don't fall of the wagon more often than they do.
When people are in the same room together, communication is far more complex than the ideas captured in words. As I cautioned Mike above, we rely on a host of clues—many of which are non-verbal—to create the parallax needed to ensure a more accurate reading of what someone is fully intends (mind you, I'm in no way guaranteeing that physical proximity equates with acuity; I'm only saying it predictably helps). When we shift to electronic media, there is danger of misinterpreting meaning because there are far fewer clues to work with. In fact, it's been my observation that people will tend to fill in the blanks when they don't have direct observations to work with, imputing meaning that was never there in an effort to create context for what they're receiving.
Thus, when it comes to email—which is far and away the electronic medium with which I am most familiar—it is relatively common for people to guess that someone is upset by virtue of their word choice (or careless use of capitalization) and completely get it wrong. If both parties were in the same room, it would have been a relatively simple matter for tone, volume, pacing, and facial expressions to have placed the words into a more accurate context (or at the least to have quickly alerted the recipient to a possible misperception in progress). With email it can take days or even weeks before the mistake can be identified, and you can put the car into reverse.
When a group has a deep understanding of consensus, it knows that some of the time it will be working emotionally (or at least energetically), and it is this core aspect of the process that I fear is most at risk when engagement is attempted electronically. Discussion groups are fine for tracking input and creating summaries—which is a real benefit—they are not, however, well suited to identifying and working sensitively with feelings and energy.
Thus, if you are attempting consensus work using electronic media, there are dangers in two respects:
a) Not being in a good position to engage emotionally when that's what's called for.
b) Not even catching that such a moment has come until one or more people are well past the point where such work should have begun while others remain oblivious. This can get really messy.
So how do I feel about virtual consensus? So long as there's clarity about how you're sacrificing data points (reality checks?) for expediency, and you're aware of the dangers of swimming too far from the shore of emotional groundedness, I think it's OK to test the waters. (To be on the safe side, I recommend having the number of a virtual life guard on speed dial in the unhoped for event that mouth-to-mouth is needed.)
In general, I think electronic media work great for logistics, disseminating reports, crafting summaries, and archiving information. It gets a little dicier when you attempt discussion and the resolution of disparate viewpoints. It's dangerous (unless the stakeholders have a preexisting strong bond and a history of working through hard stuff together) to attempt processing emotional distress via electronic media, and it's down right foolish to attempt to use electronic means for expressing upset and distress.
I tell clients that if they ever feel the urge to vent at another person electronically, they'd be well served to unplug their keyboard or go for a walk until the moment passes. If you want to work on an upset (as distinct from dumping on a person you're upset with), my advice is to do whatever you can to get into the same room together, or at least pick up the phone. Virtually being in the same room is not the same as being in the same room.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Over the weekend, I sat in on selected sessions of Dancing Rabbit's annual retreat (see my previous blog, Stepping Back to Look Farther Ahead for more on that). Deep into Day Three we were 60 minutes into a conversation about paid staff evaluations and the protocol for firing people doing substandard work. After lining out the desired elements of a thorough job evaluation and spending some time dwelling on all the ways that things can go south (to make sure the Human Resources Committee has the chops it needs to handle whatever wonkiness comes up), community founder Tony Sirna sighed and reflected: "I'm not sure. Maybe we need all this structure, but it feels awfully corporate."
The subtext of Tony's lament was that Dancing Rabbit (or any intentional community for that matter) was purposefully created to be different than corporate culture. Hearing the anguish in his reflection, it got me thinking about the heart of evaluation...
My sense is that groups avoid evaluations mainly because it feels too judgmental or too onerous. If there's not a problem, why bother? If there is a problem, nobody wants a witch hunt, yet there's considerable nervousness about how to avoid it becoming one if the group actually talks about the real issues. Not having confidence that they can do it well, they don't do it all. I'm not saying that's good thinking; I'm only making the case that it's understandable.
To their credit, folks at DR are past the point where they need to be convinced to do evaluations. Now they're struggling with the more advanced issues of how to do them fairly, how to do them efficiently, how to do them deeply enough to surface the problems, and how to be constructive—all of which are not easy.
They want to make sure they're identifying and addressing problems in job performance before they get worse. Note that if problems go unaddressed that several bad things can happen, not just work not getting done or done poorly:
o It undercuts morale among other workers (why should they bother to be more diligent if slacker or martinet behavior is deemed acceptable?).
o Co-workers who might be inclined to bring up issues directly with the person who is performing poorly will be more hesitant to do so, because the message being conveyed by the culture is that you're on your own. This is especially true of subordinates with critical feedback for managers. Lacking clear institutional support for keeping feedback channels open, in most cases they will naturally constrict. (If you don't regularly dredge waterway channels, they tend to clog with undissolved sediments; with feedback channels they can clog with unresolved sentiments.)
o On a larger scale, it tends to erode the cooperative culture you intended in the first place. Problems fester, trust weakens, and before you know it you're back in the adversarial dynamics you were expressly trying to leave behind. Yuck.
OK, so where is the sweet spot? How can you have a robust tool, while avoiding robotic implementation? Nobody wants regular evaluations to transform HR into the performance police, nor do you want the life squeezed out of it under the press of interminable questionnaires and a endless gauntlet of backroom interviews to ascertain if someone has sufficient facility with gender-neutral third-person pronouns. Bureaucratic fatigue can kill the process just as effectively as a few poorly wrangled shootouts at the I'm-OK-you're-not-OK Corral.
I think there are three main objectives in developing an effective evaluation process: a) minimal impediments to surfacing critical feedback; b) maximal safety for all stakeholders; and c) dedication to creating and maintaining a constructive container in which information is exchanged.
Let's walk through these one at a time.
A. Minimal Impediments
The work here is understanding what it takes to put people at ease around naming hard things. In some cases the hurdles to jump are related to the person whose behavior is being called into question. If there's a history of such exchanges going poorly in the past, or there's otherwise low trust between the speaker and the listener, it's going to be harder.
It could be family of origin issues. If a person was raised in a household where it was considered rude and axiomatically disrespectful to speak critically of another, that conditioning is likely to affect the person's comfort level in naming issues as an adult.
In addition, people are going to be more hesitant to speak up if they feel they're exposing themselves in the process, which brings to safety...
B. Maximal Safety
Safety can be a tricky thing. While almost everyone is in favor of people having it, what does it mean? While structure (clarity about sanctioned ways to go about expressing concerns) helps some folks relax, it's constricting for others (limiting options). For some, safety equates to giving or getting feedback in a small group; for others it's the opposite (safety in numbers). Some need an ally present; others need no extraneous witnesses. Some want good minutes (and don't trust that they can take notes themselves in such moments) or even an audio recording, the better to capture agreements and commitments.
Without trying to lay out all the ways in which people have varying preferences regarding safety, there are three main points I want to make: a) do not assume that greater structure will be universally translated into increased safety; b) do assume that people will have a wide variety of preferences about safety (in fact, the same individual will want different things in different circumstances) and that the group is well served by creating the widest possible menu of choices to select from; and c) the things that will make the greatest difference in people feeling safe are:
—confidence that they will be accurately heard and understood;
—confidence that they will not be run over by Person B's aggression when Person B is expressing distress;
—belief that their input will be taken seriously.
C. Constructive Container
This has a couple of components. First, it may make sense to have the delivery of the feedback facilitated, both to make sure that it was heard accurately, and that there is the spaciousness and capacity to process any significant emotional responses before moving onto problem solving.
While the point of the feedback is to be constructive—not punishing—some people automatically equate the expression of strong feelings directed their way with being punished, and it can be excruciating to open yourself to hearing it. Unfortunately, if the triggered person doesn't feel heard around their emotional experience, they often don't trust that the recipient is taking them seriously.
In my experience, feedback has a much better chance of landing constructively if it is given directly (don't sugarcoat it); is behavior specific (give clear examples); avoids interpretation of the why the person acted as they did (no amateur psychoanalysis); and there is a clear statement of specific, measurable corrective behaviors that would be seen as responsive (give the person a way to make it better, and show that they care).
It can further help if you can: be specific about how much time you're willing to give the person to effect changes; delineate the potential consequences of persistent non-compliance; and make clear the ways in which the inappropriate behavior is seen as out of bounds based on job descriptions or group agreements (rather than on personal distaste).
Having a known and established process for handling critical evaluation does not, fortunately, mean that you need to use the entire orchestra every time you want to hear some music. While fear of lawsuits may require corporate HR departments to conduct all evaluations by the book, cooperative HR committees can be more flexible. If they've successfully established that they can deliver on safety and constructiveness, then the HR folks can be much more informal in checking for concerns, and the full going-down-the-checklist-of-all-questions evaluation process need only be trotted out at need, or for a 50,000-mile checkup.
Think of it like going to the dentist. If you don't have any decay, the check up proceeds fairly smoothly and quickly—you're plaque gets scraped, your teeth get polished, and you're out of there. If however, there's a cavity, then everything slows down and the examination proceeds more deliberately. I'm proposing that HR does most of its evaluation work in that vein.
The nuance here is how often do you need to be offering evaluation opportunities in order to catch problems soon enough, versus the danger of suffering evaluation fatigue, where responses become wooden and are viewed more as a bureaucratic nuisance than a personnel life ring. For my suggestion to work (where HR did most of its work through informal checking until and unless they discovered a problem), you'd need people on HR who have been selected for the qualities of sensitivity to nuance (able to pick up clues about discomfort from people who are reluctant or unable to articulate their concerns without help), discretion (such that people feel it's safe to surface concerns), and the ability to work energetically (reading accurately what's happening in a given moment, not freaking out in the presence of serious distress, and having good instincts about how to proceed constructively when the shit hits the fan).
If you got that kind of savvy HR group, I don't think a comprehensive evaluation process need be invoked that often.
While I appreciate that most of us don't go to the dentist if we're looking for an ice cream sundae, think about how much easier it will be for people to keep their heart rate down when HR comes calling if such a visit is just as apt to lead to gold stars as cold stares. As Frank Cicela sagely pointed at the DR meeting on this topic yesterday, it will tend to work much better if you offer Rabbits a carrot rather than a stick.
Friday, February 17, 2012
Today is the opening day of Dancing Rabbit's annual retreat. Residents will meet Friday through Monday this weekend, followed by Friday-Sunday next weekend. Not counting check-ins, and other social opportunities (last night was Validation Day, where members shared handwritten appreciation on each other's cards—an alternative Hallmark tradition on or near Feb 14), by the time it's all over the community will have been in the same room together conducting business for 34.5 hours, shoehorned into seven days of a 10-day stretch. It's gonna be a meeting fest!
Of course, when you're trying to create a model ecovillage, there's a lot to talk about. The topics queued up include:
o Budgets (for both the land trust that owns the property and community buildings, and for the nonprofit that's the educational and outreach arm of the community)
o Goals & priorities for the coming year
o Decision making (the community is in the midst of trying to figure out what governance system makes most sense as it goes through the metamorphosis from whole group consensus to village council)
o Wage rates in the community (taking into account the desire for everyone to be able to earn a living wage, yet some skills are more valuable than others; to what extent should market rates enter the equation?)
o Hiring and firing in the community (how much can volunteers and your fellow community members be held accountable for job performance, and what constitutes due process in giving people a fair chance to get their shit together?)
o Issues in the community economy (how much does DR want to encourage entrepreneurial initiative; what kinds of jobs are people seeking and with what degree of flexibility about hours; how weird is it to have a neighbor be your boss?)
o Review and adjustment of manager and committee assignment (kind of like a giant game of musical chairs)
o Membership questions (how many folks are people open to accepting as new members in the coming year; how much housing is available for new folks; how good a job are we doing integrating new members?)
o Restorative Circles (does the community want to embrace this approach to conflict resolution?)
o Review of agricultural policy (what can/should the community do to encourage internal food production; to what extent is food production on the land compatible with ecological covenants?)
o Registered sex offenders (how does the community want to handle this hot potato, balancing the need to provide safety while at the same time not abrogating civil liberties?)
Do these folks know how to have fun, or what?
While I'll get the chance to sit in on selected conversations, for the most part my job this weekend is to make sure that the wood stove is stoked, the dishes are cleaned, and Ma'ikwe has a warm lunch waiting for her on the noon break.
In particular, I'm interested in the conversations about the DR economy because I'll be the lead teacher for the economic segment of the 37-day Ecovillage Education program that Ma'ikwe is the head hoopenpooper for this summer (June 30-Aug 5). I have in mind asking students to survey community members about what they're looking for in the way of business support and job opportunities, and then developing —either singly or in teams—a business plan that they think would be viable in the community. My hope is that this exercise will simultaneously ground the students learning about sustainable economics in a practical example, and produce data and ideas that will be valuable for the community after the students go home.
I'm also interested in the issues being brought forward by the Human Resources Committee because the second weekend of the retreat will be facilitated by students of Ma'ikwe's and my facilitation training, and one of those sessions will be a follow up on HR issues. By watching the front end of those talks, I'll have a much better handle on what will be needed a week from now.
One of the reasons that Ma'ikwe appreciates the fortnight of retreat is because her email traffic drops off (she's sitting next to me as I type this and was shocked that when she checked for new messages a few minutes ago—after being in meetings for five hours—that there were none. How could that be?!
Well, half of her normal communication load is internal traffic from fellow Rabbits. Once retreat starts, no one at DR is sending emails because they're all in meetings!
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
This past Sunday I spent the day with Jamaica Plain Cohousing in Boston, helping them try to untangle a skein of questions about how best to use their Affordability Fund. Over several years the community has gradually capitalized this Fund by siphoning off five percent of HOA dues. They have now accumulated an impressive amount of money and they're itching to start putting this money to use—they just want to do it well.
The community is located in a well-established neighborhood with a mixed race and mixed income profile—features that the founding group intentionally sought. The community has a core commitment to being multicultural and multi-generational, and has demonstrated that commitment by setting aside hard cash to finance their dedication to diversity. For my money, this is damn important work, which is my motivation to tell this story.
Early in the day, we were able to establish that folks want to use the Fund in such a way that they'll take into account the impact on the surrounding neighborhood, as well as on the intentional community. They see themselves as a stakeholder in the future of their corner of Jamaica Plain, and need to be vigilant about not inadvertently contributing to gentrification, which could price out the multicultural mix they now enjoy.
We also identified that they'll need to explicitly identify which population segments they want to track in their quest for diversity (while they probably don't care how many seven-footers are in residence, they do care about having a representative ethnic mix; while they can safely ignore how many members have belly button piercings, they desire a mix of families with young children relative to empty nesters). They'll also have to define what it means that an identified target population segment is under-represented as well as how much preference a prospective might get by virtue of wearing that label. in short, it's complicated.
After making a pass at laying out the complete laundry list of questions that the community will have to address before they have a complete affordability package (we were able to name about 20 and I'm certain more will surface as the work continues), we rolled up our sleeves and started tackling the strands, one at a time.
Three Ring Circus
The highlight of the day, for me, was the rich complexity that emerged when we looked at the question: "To what extent do we want to emphasize using the Fund to support current residents relative to supporting suitable prospective members that come from under-represented target populations?"
After hearing from several people on this, some themes emerged:
a) There was a clear preference that more money go to supporting prospective members than to supporting current residents.
b) There was the expectation that prospective members were most likely to need a loan in order to come up with the down payment (which was likely to be five figures), while current residents were more likely to need a short-term loan to cover unexpected expenses or the temporary loss of employment (where loan size was likely to be an order of magnitude lower).
c) There was overwhelming support for the notion that the Fund should be used to make loans, not grants, and that it was to be seen as a bridge, not an artificial leg. Recipients needed to be able show that they had reasonable prospects for repaying the loan and that there was adequate collateral in the event of default. The group wanted to able to use the money over and over.
When we were able to tease out this clarity we moved in the direction of establishing percentage guidelines for how the Fund could be used: 50% for prospective members; 25% for current residents; and 25% at the discretion of the Affordability Fund Management Committee (the group that would be receiving applications and making decisions about who would get loans based on the guidance developed by the plenary).
Just when it appeared we were closing in on an agreement, a third idea entered the field: how about using the money to buy a housing unit that the community would permanently own and could rent to low-income folks from one of the targeted populations? Suddenly we had three worms crawling around on the floor instead of two. The conversation started to mushroom instead of converge, and people were started getting anxious about how we were going to get all of the worms back in the can.
After allowing a certain amount of open discussion—mainly to flesh out the ideas—I asked folks to stand in a line, representing with their feet where they stood (literally) on this matter. We had those wanting to go all in to buy a unit position themselves at one end of the room; those wanting to restrict Fund use to supporting prospectives and/or current residents stood at the other end; those with mixed preferences, or undecided, placed themselves somewhere in the middle. We knew we had a good question because folks were spread out all along the line, with small clumps at either end. Now what?
Folks at one end argued in favor of this new idea because it was bold, and a surer way (in their eyes) to actually put low-income people into residence in the community. They tried to make the case that the amount of money available in the Fund was too small to make that much difference to prospective buyers.
Going the other way, people liked the idea of helping prospective owners and/or creating a financial safety net for current residents, and they felt that the Fund was too small to be buying units with it—it would only be enough for a down payment and all the rental income would go into debt service, leaving nothing for helping others.
The Magic of Consensus
We reached this point with about 20 minutes left in the day, and it appeared on the surface that the differences were so great that the meeting was headed toward a hung jury—and very meager product after five hours together. Uh oh.
Fortunately, we were in better shape than people could see at first. By listening closely to the undercurrents, we were able to articulate a productive direction:
a) There was broad-based support for seriously considering the community buying a unit and using that to breathe life into the community's affordability commitment.
b) At the same time, there was nowhere near solid support for taking all of the current money in the Fund and devoting it to buying a unit, leaving nothing for supporting the affordability needs of current residents or those of propsectives trying to purchase units.
c) The idea of buying a unit had never been chewed on before in plenary and it stirred up a lot of serious questions (notably about marketing and property management). Recognizing that it would take a while to both flesh out and address these questions, it seemed reasonable to uncouple this idea from the Affordability Fund—at least for now.
d) Because the community also had another pot of money in hand (from a Brownfield settlement for remediation of the soil on the property), it seemed much more comfortable to most people to consider the idea of buying a unit in the context of using these funds, for which a conversation about was in the plenary queue.
As this summary worked well for folks (that is, everyone felt included), we were able to lay down the idea of using the Fund to buy a unit, with the understanding that it would get serious consideration when the Brownfield money got looked at. Then we were able to approve the suggested percentages for how the Fund would be apportioned between prospectives and current residents.
In the evaluation at the end of the meeting, some members felt we'd spun our wheels in trying to reach the above agreement, pointing out that we had that proposal on the table at 2:45 pm yet weren't able to close the deal until 3:45 pm, after we'd opened up Pandora's Box on the question of buying a unit.
While it was true that the hour devoted to exploring the idea of buying a unit did not, ultimately, change the final agreement at all, it provided a much richer context for that decision (which translates to much more solid buy in) and set the table for how the group would begin the conversation about how to use the Brownfield money. I thought the hour was well spent and demonstrated the payout for all the work done in the first half of the meeting to clear the air and lay out a road map for how to proceed.
It was the earlier work that made it possible for people to be brave enough in the afternoon to add complications to the conversation and still have confidence that we could find our way through the ticket of divergent ideas and the thorniness of dear-to-the-heart opinions. And it was the authenticity and completeness of the conversation that will sustain the community through the messy days of implementation ahead.
To me, this was a terrific demonstration of the magic of consensus, where a group becomes fluid and creative once it's done sufficient spadework to pull the fangs on unresolved tensions and created a container of safety and caring sufficient for participants to bring what they have on the topic at hand and to trust that no one will be blown off. I never get tired of seeing the magic unfold.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
I know it's not yet Feb 14, but I had time on the train yesterday to think about all the ways I appreciate my partner, and it seemed a good time articulate them. Here's what I came up with:
o You like being held
o You're willing to talk about anything
o You're highly articulate about what's going on with you
o You hang in there when I'm struggling
o You have a goofy & playful side
o You live a happy life on a frugal budget
o You're a terrific training partner & a skilled facilitator
o You're willing to read my writing and offer constructive criticism
o You're a good cook and do at least half the cooking when we're together
o You have a positive attitude, all the more impressive in that you're more or less in constant physical pain
o You're not a fearful person
o You're a good administrator
o You're a competent organizer
o You're willing to try new things
o You're a good mother
o You try to integrate everything what happens in your life
o You try to make our partnership work
o You can match my bigness and are not swamped by me
o You have a solid public presence
o You don't build your life around me
o You like hot springs
o You enjoy dining out and a variety of cuisines
o You don't get upset when I eat fish
o You sometimes play games with me, including crosswords & acrostics
o You make sure there's coffee and half & half in your kitchen
Ma'ikwe has been struggling lately with how critical I am, and how worn down she feels being around my dance with perfectionism (see Enneagram 1). It seemed a good time to step back and focus on the other side of the coin.
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
People mainly come to community seeking relationship and connection. What happens when those hopes and aspirations fall short?
I recently witnessed a set of meetings where veteran community members painfully unpacked some of this. Sandy & Chris talked about feeling hurt when Dale chose to continue playing music on the porch instead of coming to the dinner circle on time—that disrespected the hours that the cook had devoted to preparing a group meal. Dale spoke about how hard it was as a new member hearing Sandy and others laughing and having a good time in Sandy's room while Dale was left out. Chris had a story about feeling excluded when Dale and friends were packed onto a couch giggling and there was no room for one more.
The poignancy of these stories is that it's relatively easy to put yourself into either position in all them: times when we've been among the subgroup connecting and having fun; times when we've been the person on the outside looking in; times when we've been irritated by others opting out of a connecting ritual; times when we were the one who opted out because something else felt more pressing or more pleasing. Thus, it's not hard to see how these incidents could have happened without anyone meaning to have slighted anyone—yet all of them had that result.
Where is the intersection between individual flexibility and observance of the group connection? While no one would try to argue that there should be no individual discretion (you must show up for every dinner circle and connect lovingly with your fellow members at 6:02 pm every day), neither would anyone advocate for total individual discretion when it comes to observing group norms (hey, if you don't feel like cooking when it's your turn, just blow it off). The challenge is finding the sweet spot where connections are robust yet no one feels trapped in a straight jacket.
Even though we readily agree on the desire for connection with one another and the need to nurture relationships as a priority, we don't all prefer to do that in the same ways, or at the same times. I'm a person who enjoys connecting through work or skill sharing (where I'm learning or passing along knowledge). Others are more comfortable hanging out, going on a walk, or lingering after a meal. Nobody's wrong, yet things won't necessarily flow well without someone stretching beyond their comfort zone.
In addition to collaborating with others, I enjoy eating together with friends and connecting over food and drink, but there are limits. Up to 12 can work well for me, beyond that it's too chaotic and I tend to shy away. And it's even more nuanced than that. To feel comfortable connecting at a meal, I need to have a sense that what I have to say will be interesting to those present. While I'm willing to do a certain amount of testing the water, if initial forays don't land well I'll often stay quiet.
It's humbling for people to discuss hurts like this, to admit that there's blockage in the informal group flow and a need to attend to social arteriosclerosis before the heart stops. Meetings to discuss the phenomenon can help in that it's a chance to clear the air (social angioplasty), to affirm good will, and to discuss ways to alter how people reach out to one another (dietary adjustments).
In the meeting I described at the outset of this blog, the session ended with Sandy, Dale, and Chris all making dates with one another to work through their hurts. They were brave enough to admit that they needed help and were willing to do the work to remove the plaque that had built up in their arteries, restricting the flow to the hearts.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
I'm going to have a full day today.
After my usual caffeinated start to the day (coupled with keyboard communing), I'll walk over to Sandhill for the opening session of our annual retreat. This year we'll be meeting every morning from 9-noon for four days. It's a time to step back from the immediate, reflect on where we've been, take stock of where we are, and set goals and priorities for the year ahead. Think of it as sharpening the saw—Senge's habit #7—where it's a heart meld as much as a mind meld (retreats: not just for Vulcans anymore).
Having been mostly over at Dancing Rabbit since mid-December, I'm anticipating getting in sync with my fellow Sandhillians over the next few days.
Immediately afterwards Ma'ikwe and I will do some counseling with a divorcing couple trying to thread their way through the delicacy of who will live in the house they built, and who will find lodging elsewhere as both attempt to continue actively parenting their kids. It's tender and important work, walking two loving people over a bed of hots coals, trying to encourage them with assurances that the blisters will eventually heal.
Then there's a football game. There should be just enough time after the counseling session to scoot back home to stoke the fire and enjoy a cup of coffee before Ma'ikwe and I rendezvous with Kurt & Alline for the half-hour drive to participate in Roger & Mary Walker's annual Super Bowl Party. Yeehah! We get to critique this year's most expensive television commercials while noshing and generally yukking it up with friends. Who knows, maybe the football game will be entertaining also. You never know.
I'm really looking forward to the party because I haven't seen Roger since he and his sons supervised pouring the concrete slab for Ma'ikwe's house in the summer of '09, and I haven't seen Mary in longer than that. Maybe not since she stepped down as the Rutledge postmaster in 2007 (after a 17-year run). Yikes. At the very least it's time to sit down and have a beer together.
Depending on how late the game runs, I hope to have time after getting home to check email, post this blog, and work a bit on editing minutes from the two days of FIC Oversight Committee minutes that happened mid-January.
In my world, that adds up to a Super Sunday…
(… Which will be followed closely by Merrymaking Monday. After another round of retreat in the morning, it's back to DR to cook for Ma'ikwe's 42nd birthday party. Sometimes it's a challenge to fit everything in, but you gotta try. It's 48 hours of concentrated time with friends and loved ones, which is precisely what community is all about.)
Thursday, February 2, 2012
Most people are familiar with the bumper sticker: Beer: it's not just for breakfast anymore
While most folks connect the humor dots in that one-liner by laughing at the absurdity of starting the day with Budweiser, there are deeper waters here. As near as anthropologists can tell, beer (or some version of fermented beverage based on locally available materials: perhaps wine, cider, or mead) exists wherever grain is cultivated, and is second only to water as a universally consumed drink among human cultures.
In medieval life it was common to drink beer at every meal. That said, much of it was weak in alcohol (no sense in having the family get ripped before cows were milked, fields hoed, or trees hewn), from whence the term "small beer." It was probably what the small fry drank whenever ale was served. (The concept of a legal drinking age is strictly a modern phenomenon; in medieval households parents were far more concerned with getting the wool carded, not the kids.) Small beer was likely what everyone drank when they had work to do afterwards requiring focus and dexterity.
Interestingly, in British culture, small beer has taken on the additional meaning of someone or something of little consequence.
Let's move along the timeline now from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. It wasn't that long ago (in the course of human events) that factory workers were given beer breaks to break up the drudgery (and perhaps to promote docility). In fact, when unions came on the scene, it wasn't uncommon for access to beer to be written into their contracts. Yes, there was a time when drinking on the job was considered normal, and the employer supplied the suds. If you're thinking that died out with the advent of the horseless carriage, think again. At the Carlsberg brewery in Denmark, drinking on the job wasn't curtailed until April 2010 (over strenuous union objections).
I enjoyed a latter day variation of this quaint practice in the early days of the Berkshire Brewing Company (in South Deerfield MA). For the first decade or so of their existence, they invited volunteers to show up for bottling shifts every Monday and Friday, compensating them with a case of anything they brewed, plus all the beer they cared to drink from 10 am onward. If the shift lasted well into the afternoon it was a challenge driving home safely. While this custom was phased out circa 2005 (when the brewery got successful enough to hire bottling crews), I have fond memories of a handful of Fridays volunteering at the brewery when my travels took me through western Massachusetts.
Ma'ikwe's community, Dancing Rabbit, was featured on a 2005 episode of 30 Days, a reality television program created by Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame). A couple from Manhattan (the one in New York, not Kansas) lived for a month in a rural ecovillage while Spurlock's crew filmed the cultural juxtaposition.
My version of a one-month documentary involved walking over to Sandhill yesterday (to file our annual sales tax report with the state of Missouri). Because I had made regular trips to Sandhill to cover FIC office shifts over the holidays (filling in for Emily while she was vacationing with her family back East), I knew that the highway glass, plastic, and aluminum along the three miles from DR to SH had been fairly well picked up as of Jan 2—I know because I did it myself. (For previous ruminations about highway trash, see my April 2009 blog: No MO Trash.)
Thus, 30 days later, I was curious to see what I would find walking the same route. The results were depressing:
—4 glass bottles (three Pepsis and a Silver Bullet)
—23 plastic bottles (mostly soda, but there was one polyethylene pint of Canadian Mist)
—41 aluminum cans
Of the cans, a majority were either Bud Light or Miller Lite, which got me thinking. The calorie content of Bud Light is 110 per can. For Miller Lite it's 96. In obeisance to a culture that's obsessed with obesity, I observe that breweries (at least the big boys) are constantly striving for malt offerings with fewer and fewer calories while still producing something that still tastes like beer. Miller, for example, now holds the pole position in this race with Miller Genuine Draft Lite, which manages to squeeze into a svelte size 64 (calories per 12 oz serving).
As the proliferation of light beer continues and the presence of highway litter persists, I wonder if there's a direct relationship between the low calorie count per can and the IQ of the consumer. I figure light beer is essentially the commercial equivalent of small beer, and I'm positing that the consumers of small beer tend to be, well, small beer.
What are these people thinking?? Mind you, I can understand how a person who loves beer wouldn't want the beverage to go their waistline, but couldn't they couple that with a determination to not have the container go into their waste line (trailing behind their vehicle)?
Think about it. I was only collecting the recyclables along a three-mile stretch of seldom-used byway in the middle of winter: two miles of which are gravel; one mile of which is paved. While there's no doubt some of what I collected yesterday was there Jan 2 (you never get it all), the vast majority of what I plucked from the grassy shoulders were fresh deposits: a total of 68 pieces—all of which could have easily been recycled. People took the effort to open a window on a cold day to indulge in the ultimate act of NIMBY mindlessness. It's like children who hope they won't be seen if they close their eyes (if that empty can is out of my sight, then—voila!—it's taken care of). Oy.
Ben Franklin is reputed to have written: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to happy." While there is apparently some dispute as to Franklin's authorship of this line, I'd drink to the sentiment at the bottom of it at any time. What I won't drink to is all the sediment that careless imbibers are leaving as residue along our roadsides. This level of irresponsibility is more than small beer to me.