The will to end suffering

Scarcity is no longer caused by actual lack (food, housing and medicine at the least are readily available for the use of relatively few physical resources) but HUMANITY has  FUNDAMENTAL problems of distribution and lack-of-will.

 

Let’s fix that.

Why innocuous preferences are not.

Let’s just get this out there right now. If someone is more comfortable because of someone’s gender rather than their level of expertise, cultural gender bias is at play.

I am a cisgender woman who prefers women doctors. Why? Because women are less likely by the numbers to assault, make disrespectful comments, or assume I’m an idiot.  That’s not because individual men are bad, that’s society. Masculinity is associated with power; therefore, men are less likely to have been told when they were taking too much power. (yes, yes… N. A. M.)

Yes, I just acknowledged that my choice of medical professionals is influenced by sexism in our culture. No, that does not make me or anyone a “bad”  person.

Gendered assumptions like: Women are “catty”? Men are more likely to think logically or women more empathetically? Girls and more mature for their age? Women care more about keeping their own spaces clean? All of these are assumptions which are taught and reinforced by culture, and most of them are value-neutral on their surface (i. e. not good or bad, more or less admirable)

Let’s just look at the “who cares about cleanliness” assumption. Think about the TV and movie depictions of teen rooms. Whose are light and clever? Whose are dark and messy? When a girl’s room is dark, is usually symbolizes her conflicted or unhappy nature. A dark boy’s room? Mysterious and deep, interesting and full of potential. Decorating itself is a related phenomenon! How many straight male decorators have you seen on HGTV? Not builder types, but the color of paint, shape of curtains, which dodad belongs on the coffee table decorators.

TV and movies today reflect some of what we are comfortable with and some of aspirations. That is why I point to them. But sure, it’s over simplified, and not perfect.  Still when our media, created by us, is fairly uniform… It does tell us something.

So what?

A single, or even a few gender assumptions are not harmful, right? Yeah, but it’s not just a few. The weight of our myriad  of gendered assumptions becomes a powerful limitation on most people. A few who can game the system (think football players who make multimillion for running around well with a ball, or models who live out massively exaggerated  gendered assumptions visually) get extremely generously rewarded. Many find ways to fit or flex into what is asked, often easily with the help of how we were raised, social praise, and economic success. But for many, this disconnect is literally painful, and social scorn, the work of rejecting a mal-fitting child raising, and/or economic alienation (but which I mean struggles to find keep or be promoted in a job) disincentive personal expression over gendered conformity.

Not so neutral

Here is the fact we like to deny. Value is not some extrinsic, objective reality. What people are willing to pay is hugely influenced by our cultural, political, and power based thinking. Gender affects how much we think things are worth.  This is a chicken/egg situation: men are driven towards professions worth more, and professions are less highly valued as they become more and more feminine dominated. (See: teaching, secretarial/administrative work, even physicians. )

One cause of this, is that the modern workforce  was shaped during years when traits that men held were valued more, so many traditionally women’s tasks were undervalued, resulting in economic gaps between people who do work in fields we think of as masculine led (engineering) and those who work in fields we think of as feminine led (childcare, which is expensive by exists on the backs of minimum wage earning college graduates).

So, yes, your supposedly personal preference may be influenced by cultural sexism. No, that does not make you a bad person. Refusing to consider the unintended consequences now that you know better? Well, I’ll leave the judgment up to you.

Power

If you are the “more experienced” of a group, the person technically in charge, or otherwise the ‘normal’ or ‘insider’, you have power. Pretending you do not have power does not make it go away. Just because you do not “feel” like you have power, or just because people with *more* power or power over you exist, does not negate the power you have over others.
Therefore, just remember: Your small words of affirmation can make someone’s day. Your thoughtless teasing can wound deeper than your intentions by a factor of 10. Your off handed criticism may be heard as a deep and searing negation of other’s effort.
In one large organization where I spent many years attempting to belong, people are told that “power over” is bad.  Therefore, a culture of always pretending and trying to be “one of the peons” has developed.  Therefore, too many people with authority do not take responsibility for the extra weight and power of their words and actions bestowed by positional authority.

Then, regardless of intention: harm happens.   The outsiders, newbies, or underling is only permitted to ask for the tools they need for their job,  after they have determined that the powerful-person will say “yes” Otherwise, the underling is BLAMED for the fact that the powerful-person feels sad about having to say no.  “How dare you ask?”   

As the one who is inside/powerful/authority, it’s YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to act in ways which build up, not tear down. Use your power well.

Take them down

Simply put, I support the removal of monuments to confederate history. I believe it’s OK to take down even statues of founders who were blemished people but generally regarded as doing more good than harm.

Because I think it’s important to distinguish between removing history and changing how we tell it.

Names on schools, Monuments, street names, and statues are not just there to remember history, but to teach what is worthy of admiration and imitation. The movement here in the US is going to feel like changing history for sure, because we want to tell the side of the story, the names of people who were forcibly silenced and intentionally ignored by school books.

Yes, people who advocate for these changes are trying to make a scary social change: one where being racist disqualifies a person from being a role model. One where we name schools and put up statues to people whom we hope our children will grow up to be like. Not discriminating. Not ignoring the indigenous people.

This is not about being offended or not, it’s about being honest about why we have monuments, and it is to describe heros. And racism, sexism, exploitation is nor heroic. Noticing the poor is. Fighting for equality is.

Turning Learning Opportunities into Productive Habits.

A few years ago, I was working with an intern who frustrated me NO END.

VolunteerManager would make a mistake, we would correct it, and I would expect him to realize that what was learned could apply to similar situations.   And then the next big event would happen, and he would make ten more mistakes.  We would discuss, and he would correct those technical issues, but VolunteerManager seemed to have both a significant lack of judgement and an inability to apply the lesson from one situation to other, similar ones.

So, once we had a huge event, about the fourth or fifth that he and I had planned and run together, but the largest by far. Knowing that VolunteerManager had struggled in the past with the stress on the day of an event, I planned to discuss every detail of the event with him beforehand.   In that discussion, I had two themes or principles which I would argue came up in a few ways (including that I stated them explicitly).  (1)  VolunteerManager should have zero tasks to complete on the day of the event.  His only role was “air traffic control” and answering questions when asked.  (2) No surprises on the day of the event; planning should include thinking through all that is needed and reviewing it with all involved staff or leaders.

But on the day of the event, he failed to implement both some of my specific instructions and these principles.   VolunteerManager was trying to get people to sign forms while he was telling others their tasks.  VolunteerManager had failed to pay attention to the fact that we were registering guests on paper (we had sold tickets electronically) and thought that we could have volunteers register online at the guest check in.   However, he failed to ask the two staff in charge of registration if this would work for them!

So, in our post-event discussions, I asked him directly, “Why didn’t you follow my instructions?” He said, “oh, I thought that was just a suggestion, in case I started to get overwhelmed!”  and, “Why did you think you could add that to the registration desk on the day of the event” and his reply was “I just assumed we were doing it that way and it would be easy to include volunteers.”

Well, there were two things happening here.

First, my failure to ensure that instructions were clearly differentiated from suggestions.  That is a communication issue, and while I hoped that over time I could make less effort as VolunteerManager learned my style, that never really took place. He always needed explicit directions, and often, follow up afterwards to ensure he understood them.

But the second issue was more interesting to me.

Why did it seem that each time VolunteerManager made a judgement call, he failed to implement the lessons that earlier errors and corrections could have taught?  

What he incapable of taking “this one example” and translating it to other problems or situations? And if so, how does a person develop this skill: to take instruction and use it to increase your understanding of how it relates to new and similar but different problems?

My brilliant sister and I have come up with some principles to begin to encourage people to improve our accountability mindsets and learn from what we experience.

 

The prime lesson is that every (correction / error / discussion) can help elucidate the broader principles, themes, and norms by which work should be accomplished. Nothing happens in a vacuum, every correction can tell you something about the expectations or what is required to succeed.  But first we must ensure that the team is a place which encourages this kind of learning.  Blame, shame, competition, and image-management are antithetical to open and honest learning.  People develop a need to save face when they are worried their imperfections will be used to abuse, punish or diminish them.  Is your team a safe place to  learn, or does a school yard bully fit in, ready and willing to ridicule for mistakes and punish for innocent errors?

If your team is stuck in the vindictive and image conscious, please consider reading Managing from the Heart.

Next I have four questions for a manger to ask in discussion with someone seeking to transition from learning each technical corrections to identifying themes and principles for tactical and strategic judgement:

  1. What makes this situation different? What context will repeat?

First, you have to be able to understand what clues you use to put each project, event, or problem into categories.  When many of us solve problems, we often indirectly ask ourselves, “What have I seen that was like this before?” See if you can as a manager identify the common elements between the prior situations you have learned from, or share a few and explore together the potential similarities.

  1. What future situations will share those distinguishing characteristics? What situations may require a similar solution, but may look very different at first?

If you have done question 1 well, the idea of prognosticating into the future will feel less scary.  You are not trying to identify or avoid every future possible problem, but merely to confirm your initial descriptions of themes and principles by applying them to future hypotheticals.

  1. What are the “assumptions” I make on a daily basis that are less universal than I may otherwise believe?

This is a great place to stop and take account of industry norms, racism, classism, sexism, or other inadvertent forms of exclusion, but it includes more than that.  As an event planner, do I include best practices learned in a long ago course?  What books or thought leaders have I learned from?

One way to begin to ask this question is to fly to another city, rent a car, and try to drive in rush hour traffic.  I moved from Chicago to Atlanta in 2015 and spent my first four months of driving in Georgia thinking I was going to die.  Speed limits are suggestions in Atlanta.  When you turn on your turning signal to merge into another lane in Chicago, the cars in that lane will ease off the gas to make room for you, but in Atlanta they will speed up to get out of your way.  Both result in the same impact – you can merge – but they are literally opposite reactions. After almost two years of Atlanta driving, a friend from the Midwest moved to Atlanta and we now carpool together.  She hates Atlanta traffic because “speed up and get out of your way” seems rude to her – why did they do that, rather than ease off and let me in?  She’s beginning to figure out the weird foibles that are Atlanta roads, but her struggle really reminded me that a behavior I had learned to categorize as helpful (I still get to merge) looks extremely rude for someone accustomed to something else.

What patterns have your team, your community, your industry developed which need to be introduced to people, rather than assumed?   *Note in the church we called this “hidden language” a term useful to google if you’re interested.

  1. When are my expectations as a manager unreasonable?

I.e. when am I wishing that my supervisee would just read my mind?   It is unreasonable for me to expect my supervisees to know that I always print two-sided, except thank you letters.  Company styles guides are created because only designers know that the font matters, but so does the size of the lettering, or the decision to center align vs. left aligning a logo.  Ask yourself, does this need to be spelled out? And is it something I would have resented from a manager when I was entry level?  What could managers have taught me to reveal their goals and motivations?

  1. How can I as the manager better describe this specific situation to elucidate the important patterns and themes that should guide the work?

Honestly, part of your job as a manager is to equip your team for success, and on a regular basis that is going to mean some form of translation.   In order to translate to your team the goals, or principles, or boundaries of their work, you must first know the language of your team members.  You must be fluent in their assumptions and hopes and skills and industry expectations.  No, you should not be a expert in all the things they are experts in, but you should know enough to understand when you tell them to merge into another lane and they are in Chicago for the first time, they should not be surprised when someone slows down to create a sufficient gap.  Or in the reverse – in Atlanta? Just turn on that signal a little early and give the fast guys a momen to get out of your way.

Why I refuse to judge

Each person who comes to Living Room is unique, but many share a hard to describe determination. Like the brilliant woman who spoke during Taste of Life, many are working while caring for young children or elderly parents. Others have been working two or even three jobs, and still others have learned that work will not happen until they have daily access to a shower and some ability to launder their clothes.

This is one of the most remarkable, and frustrating, things about working with the homeless population. Their needs are infinitely simple, tangible, and attainable. In fact, their greatest desires are things I take so much for granted. I have been known to leave the keys in the lock to the front door of my house. Because I’m so accustomed to the privacy and safety of doors that close, and locks that hold, I forgot to double check. Some case managers have reported that will people who move into an apartment or private room after many months or years on the streets manifest a form of PTSD in which they become utterly convinced that someone has entered their room, taken, broken or moved their things.
Because when you’re sleeping on the streets, that happens. It happens every night – someone steals your shoes from under your bed in the shelter. A group comes upon you and takes everything you have, no matter how worthless. You never fall fully asleep because you are afraid if you did, someone might take your last $5, the one you have been saving to buy breakfast. Or they might steal the last third of your sandwich.

 

No matter how severe the obstacles they face, people who come to Living Room do so because they bring a seed of hope inside of them.  A belief that they are not the “walking dead” just biding time until the  virus consumes their final t-cell and decimates their immune system.

They believe life can be better than that.    Their  minds betray them, as many of our minds are wont to do, but that hope? it actually DOES matter. It helps people eventually to believe that the lock stayed closed, their medicines will still be present when they wake up, and after a time, they can truely rest easy, in a chair, without counting the seconds before someone comes to usher them off.

Autonomy And Workers

what it takes to do my job well: we don’t have a policy on “refunds” after an event. but a VERY RELIABLE and LONG TIME donor was overcharged by $10. he didn’t ASK For a refund, just wanted me to know of the overcharge, so I refunded him, as a GOOD FAITH expression of his relationship to the organization. I didn’t think to ask until afterwards, but DID inform my supervisor.

…Having that kind of authority to make decisions is LITERALLY the difference between the ability to thinking strategically and not.

BY which i mean, if i’m worried or primarily engaged (emotionally OR rationally) in pleasing my superiors, than I’m NOT primarily engaged (mentally) in thinking “what will create the best results).

this may be why after a few years of very external facing roles, I fantasize about the simplicity of an internal operations / HR / leadership development role. Because I will not have to negotiate the necessary and yet often frustrations of pleasing both the hierarchies and the customers/clients.