Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Nonprofits, Guilt, Martyrdom, and Accountability

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.

1 comment:

Anne said...

I love this! Very intelligent and great break downs! Thanks Laird :)