Words Fail Me

I’ve been thinking about writing for a while but it’s difficult to know what to say. So many horrible things have happened around the world it’s hard to keep track. Although I still believe that measured using decades and centuries–not months and cable news–humanity is demonstrably improving, we are nevertheless suffering through a difficult period. I would call it a patch but that implies we know it will end soon, and we don’t know that at all.
I was cheered when French President Macron won and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was humbled. (I’m always encouraged when any grand political figure is skewered by their ego-driven calculations.) I don’t find anything in the US cheering. Partisan politics, having created this situation, are unlikely to help resolve it. Although it is tempting to blame President Trump for our problems in the US, he is undoubtedly a symptom of the pathology, not the fundamental illness. The anarchist in me says that it’s the very fact we have a political process which is the problem. Powerful institutions attract huge egos and make partisan, petty monsters out of all of us…and each of us.
The conviction that there exists a right side and a wrong side is, in my opinion, a disastrous delusion that costs us dearly. There appear to be two fundamental secular ways of thinking about the human condition, about the best way to live our lives. (I say secular because there are other religion-based approaches which I don’t dismiss; they essentially argue that our secular concerns are irrelevant.) One is that humans attain their ultimate greatness as individuals. The other argues that humans attain greatness in community with others. Where I think we veer off-base is when we think one of these philosophies is destined to prevail. I suspect the truth is that both are right to some degree and that both are wrong  in excess. Given that the two appear irreconcilable, the job of our political process is to mediate the tension between the two, regulating the pendulum to avoid abrupt and destabilizing swings.
This is not a new idea. In the book The Discovery of Chance, the biography of the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen by Aileen Kelly, she writes about the French philosopher Pierre Leroux who insisted on an

ineradicable conflict between the human drive toward social solidarity and the individual’s urge for self-realization. In this…perception he was ahead of his time…In the next decade {Pierre Joseph} Proudhon asserted that conflict between the individual and society was not a temporary aberration but “the very condition” of social existence.

Methinks that gets it just about right.
Can anything be done? Perhaps we need to pull together a corporate board for America. Its membership would be comprised of individuals who each side hates the most but who don’t currently hold political office. The so-called conservatives could identify their bete noires, perhaps Tim Cook, Oprah, Bill Gates. The so-called liberals could name theirs: the Koch Brothers, Peter Thiel, Peggy Noonan. The job of the corporate board would not be to make policy but simply to issue statements that they can all agree to. And when they can’t come to an agreement on a policy question–say health care, they issue a document that dispassionately lays out the most important areas of disagreement.
I’m being completely silly in making this suggestion. My only point is to demonstrate how unhelpful, in fact disastrous, our current partisan political process has become. And how difficult it is to come up with an alternative.
Ideology is the enemy of common sense. And the competition for political power has become a destabilizing arms race. It is long past time to demobilize. But no one knows how.

Rebels in Government!

img_1177Just a quick note that I’ve shared my Dos and Don’ts for civil servants during these difficult times over at Rebels at Work.

The Trump Civil Servant

Two controversies this inaugural weekend led me to reflect on the challenges for federal employees during the incoming administration of President Trump: the retweets by the official twitter account of the National Park Service and the content of President Trump’s speech at the CIA. Both were wrong for largely the same reason: they injected partisanship where it does not belong: in the execution of the duties of federal government employees.

The issue of political activity by federal employees is the subject of rather important legislation–the Hatch Act of 1939, which prohibits almost all federal employees from engaging in most forms of political, partisan activity. Of course, when a new administration takes office, the directions and policies of cabinet departments will change, and civil servants are expected to carry out these new policies whatever their previous and/or personal views.

In the case of the National Park Service, its twitter account retweeted comments that had partisan implications, one comparing the size of inaugural crowds, and the other criticizing changes in the content of the White House web site. Although defenders of the Park Service would say the comments are innocuous, they really weren’t. They were not-so-subtle digs at the incoming Trump administration and as such just plain inappropriate. In fact,  the Park Service has been prohibited by law since 1995 from estimating crowd sizes at events on the National Mall, in part because these estimates can become politically controversial.

The same general principles–federal civil employees should not engage in partisan political activity during work hours–can help us think about President Trump’s visit to the CIA on Saturday,. The fact of the visit is not a problem–but the content of the speech was a disaster. The President had no business suggesting that CIA employees overwhelming voted for him. A CIA officer’s personal views should have no bearing on the performance of her duties. I know this is a high bar and, in reality, impossible to reach. Cognitive science has shown that no human can be a perfectly objective being. But the future of intelligence activities in democratic societies depends upon every employee striving for this goal.

US law stipulates the federal employee oath of office:

An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” This section does not affect other oaths required by law.

(Pub. L. 89–554, Sept. 6, 1966, 80 Stat. 424.)
The first commandment for federal civil servants it to uphold the US constitution, but there’s a lot of squishy room for interpretation in the phrase “faithfully discharge the duties of the office…” I think most Americans would think that it means execute the law regardless of your personal preferences and follow the policy wishes of the US President and members of Congress, as long as they are legal and constitutional. All new administrations are challenging for civil servants. But I expect this transition to be particularly tumultuous given that President Trump intends to depart radically from the practices of previous US governments across a broad range of issues. To avoid government crises, both the incoming administration and the civil service will need to exercise good judgment and benefit from a lot of luck. Seriously…a lot of luck.

Why the CIA Struggles with Diversity

I recently wrote on this topic for Overtaction. org. You can find the complete post here.  Highlights below. (or at least I think so!)

The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

Read the rest of the post here.

Sisters Are Doing It for Others

I don’t know what my readers think of Catholic nuns, if they think about them much at all, but I bet very few of you see religious orders as women-owned non-profits having tremendous social impact. But that’s what I learned last weekend when I visited the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. The sisters trace their beginnings back to 19th-century Germany, where two women established the order as a way of continuing their care for poor neglected children. I was there to visit my good friend Sister Pat, who has been with the order her entire adult life, serving primarily as an educator. She is now the Treasurer of the Chardon Province of the order–there are four provinces in the US, and so she could fill us in on how the Sisters are working to preserve their legacy of good works even as their numbers decline.

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Some of the artwork, mostly by the Sisters, in their chapel.

It’s no secret that few women in the US choose to be nuns. The number of Catholic nuns in the US peaked at about 180,000 in the 1960s, when Sister Pat joined the order, to less than 50,000 today. Sister Pat told us that the median age of the Sisters in their province is in the 70s. And yet the Sisters remain a key resource for their rural community east of Cleveland. The sisters run an elementary school and high school–the largest meeting facility in the county is on their property. The order has always been active in educating and taking care of children, but they are now extending their mission into areas such as health care, water security in Africa, and human trafficking. Their calling card appears to be compassion for all humans and for the planet.

But one of their biggest priorities now is to sustain their good works regardless of the future size of their order. As Sister Pat described the initiatives they’re pursuing, I realized the Sisters have had to develop business acumen and clear-eyed strategies. They know that religious orders are being disrupted, but they’re ready to innovate, not to stay one step ahead of “competitors” but to preserve the value they provide to others.

There’s some lessons all of us dealing with exponential and perhaps even existential change can learn from the Sisters of Notre Dame.

It’s about the mission. I was struck by how focused the Sisters are on preserving their outcomes, not necessarily themselves. I wish the Sisters a glorious future, and I suspect that their outward focus is what will best ensure it. I can’t help but contrast their strategy with the actions of many organizations, who seek to preserve themselves first, sometimes even at the cost of their mission.

It’s about BOTH tradition and progress. Sister Pat took us on a tour of their buildings, where they have a lovely display of the history of their order. And just around the corner she showed us where their IT staff works and told us about how they handled the recent live streaming of a funeral mass.

Art and Nature are always part of the Mission. The Sisters are proper caretakers of a charming rural property and they have built a dedicated arts center for their students. Their buildings are situated to be close to nature.

Taking care of each other is God’s work. This requires no explanation.

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My Puerto Rican Visitors

My great-aunt Laura and her husband Felix visited me in northern Virginia the last week in April. My great-aunt is 83 years old, Felix a few years younger, and they live in Puerto Rico. She was the youngest and now the only survivor of a robust line of siblings of my grandmother, Doña Yuya. (Abuela died at 96 1/2 years old in 2003.) Laura and my mother, who turns 80 this summer, grew up like sisters in the barrio of Santo Domingo in Caguas, Puerto Rico. When they get together, they like to talk about the chickens who lived with them. When the chickens became sick, Abuela would burn tires. Most of the chickens would die, but the ones that survived were declared cured.

Like he does every time we see him, Felix talked about his tough childhood in Puerto Rico and New York City. His schooling ended in the third grade as a result of his mother’s death. His father sent Felix off to stay with other relatives, who put him to work at a restaurant of sorts in Puerto Rico, where Felix says he might as well have been a slave. He only had one shirt and one pair of pants, he said, and didn’t attend school. He was saved by an Americano who would come to the restaurant and who eventually offered him a better job. Felix ended up in a cold water flat in New York City. He had no idea of how cold water could get until he took his first shower in the winter.

Felix was constantly on the phone, checking on his network of friends and family in Puerto Rico.Felix (It is unusual for Laura and Felix to travel anywhere now that they’ve retired.) Felix is the facilitator, the engineer of his social circle. His areas of expertise include car repairs, cell phone bills, and baseball, particularly the New York Mets. He also knows what most things should cost and was surprised that the Burger Kings in the US mainland charge more than the ones in Puerto Rico. He appeared to know to the penny what he should have been paying.

Labor Unions. Felix recounted his experience at his first job as an adult. He was working at a factoria in New York City and eventually ended up as the shop steward, even though he did not speak much English. (He still doesn’t.) During some kerfuffle he was fired and he filed a complaint with the New York Labor Commission. When they investigated, according to Felix, they discovered that the owner of the factoria was also the head of the labor union. Felix was always a union man; he believed companies always took advantage of Puerto Ricans and blacks.

Economics. Felix eventually became the treasurer of a social club in New Jersey, Amigos Unidos. He became frustrated by the endless hassle collecting annual membership dues, so he suggested to the club leadership that they drop the dues and rely on bar revenues for income. Most of his colleagues were dubious but, as Felix recounted, his plan worked. They made more profit from the bar than they ever made from membership dues. The club became so profitable that it eventually acquired its own building, which was an overstretch. They also ran afoul of the local liquor commission, which began to impose stricter conditions for a liquor license.

Cemeteries. Perhaps the highlight of Felix’ and Laura’s visit was when we visited Abuela’s and my father’s graves. Abuela is buried at a lovely cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. My mother grieves every time she visits but this time Laura was there to reassure her. Visiting AbuelaMy father is in Arlington National Cemetery, which always makes for an impressive visit. My mother is calmer when she visits my father. She only says the Our Father at his grave and omits the Hail Mary because he was a Protestant.

Felix loves to play cards and claims to be a successful gambler. One day I invited a friend who knew Abuela to come over and play cards with us. Abuela knew her as La Alta Flaca. We played Spanish cards–Briscas, and Felix was a good teacher of the game. He also won.

All in all, it was a good break for Felix and Laura. He left us with his favorite saying: Cuídense que de los buenos quedan pocos. (Take care, because there aren’t too many good ones left.)

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Compassion is a Special Kind of Intelligence

I posted this tweet just about an hour ago. Like many of my tweets, it has a back story, and I thought I might share this one.

I’m in Puerto Rico with my mom for Thanksgiving, and that’s because we are Puerto RIMAG1055icans–my mother born and bred and me born and sort of half-bred. We don’t have much immediate family left on the island, but one of our favorites who is still there and with us is my great aunt Laura. She’s my grandmother’s youngest sister–25 years younger than Abuela. Laura is 83 now–the only one of her siblings still alive. This is a picture of her from earlier today–she’s eating so that’s why her mouth looks a little funny.

The genetic material on that side of the family is choice. My grandmother lived to be 96 and her mother topped 100 by several years–no one really knows for sure because she never was clear in her own mind. She was born, she said, a few years before some horrible hurricane hit Puerto Rico and was a young woman when the Americans landed.

Almost all of my family in Puerto Rico were poor and not well-educated, at least through World War II. My grandmother only finished the first grade and could barely read and sign her name–although her command of financial matters was astute. She never learned to speak English except for counting from 1 to 75–the Bingo numbers.

And Laura wasn’t well educated either. She is not book smart. The modern world escapes her. She only ever worked as a laborer. She never learned to drive.

And yet as we drove back to the hotel from our last visit, I reflected on my great aunt Laura’s personal kind of smarts. She has no idea how the internet works or the economic fundamentals behind her electricity bill. Instead, she feels deeply the injustice in the world. “Ave Maria” is her most common phrase which she uses to register her sympathy with your plight–or anyone else’s. Her last story was about her neighbor’s dog, who is chained in the backyard and shown no love. “I cannot tell you how much I suffer because of him.” she said.

Compassion. That’s her form of intelligence. And it has grown through a lifetime of empathy for everyone she’s ever met.

So that tweet was for my great aunt Laura. She will never see it. She does not know Twitter exists. But now Twitter will know she exists.

Explaining the Worldwide Conspiracy for the Preservation of Mediocrity

(RecoveringFed has been less than robust this past year, in large part because of the push to complete the book by Lois Kelly and me: Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. largecoverThe good news is that it’s with the publishers–O’Reilly Media–and we’re expecting it to materialize before the end of the year–with luck perhaps even before Thanksgiving. You can pre-order from O’Reilly here and from Amazon here. And now for some new RecoveringFed content!!)

Because the world is generally inhospitable to Rebels at Work, the Worldwide Conspiracy for the Preservation of Mediocrity continues unabated. You can see the conspiracy in operation every time individuals and organizations settle for less than they should. I think most of the members of the Worldwide Conspiracy are unwitting. Oftentimes they believe they’re doing good. They would hate to be called settlers.

Stories torn from recent headlines illustrate how the Worldwide Conspiracy gains its adherents. Like many malevolent forces, the Worldwide Conspiracy sometimes uses innocuous, even noble words to disguise its true goals. Words like Consensus and Career.

For example, the word Consensus pops up frequently in the recent reporting on former Federal Reserve bank examiner Carmen Segarra’s secret taping of workplace conversations. The tapes indicate that the desire for consensus made it difficult to express contrary opinions. Consensus is one of those noble-sounding concepts that are actually not so attractive when you try to implement them. Consensus, by its very nature, is a way to avoid making decisions–a way of settling.

Career ambition is another dynamic that the Worldwide Conspiracy uses to its advantage. Of course, you want to succeed in your career; you want to be a high performer. And we’re told all the time that success in the workplace is as much about relations and emotions as it is about substance. And that’s how the Worldwide Conspiracy begins to capture you. Your desire to remain on some important person’s good side leads you to hesitate when something difficult needs to be said. Whatever you do, you don’t want to ruffle that particular set of feathers.

Formula is another interesting tool of the Worldwide Conspiracy. For the sake of efficiency, tasks are routinized, parameters are set and formulas are established. Staff are rewarded for applying the formula effectively. But the problem with formulas is that from Day One, their alignment with reality begins to slip. As the divergence grows, organizations delay reconfiguring the formula for fear of all the lost productivity and inefficiencies such a process entails. And so the organization settles.

Finally you get Complacency. Everyone becomes comfortable with doing well enough. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The Worldwide Conspiracy’s most popular slogan. And thus you end up sincerely believing that mediocrity is the practical solution.

I am reminded of Pogo

Five Nouns, Five Verbs for Leaders

When you haven’t posted on your blog in a while, and I haven’t posted since Christmas, it gets harder and harder to return to it, like when you haven’t called a friend in ages. It’s not like I haven’t been writing. I’ve been posting pretty regularly on RebelsatWork.com. You can check out my most recent post here. And if you know me, you know I always have opinions. I always think too much

A favorite topic for me to think about is management and leadership. Actually the more I think about both topics, the less sense they make to me. About a month ago I was at an event, which I will not specify, at which there was a presentation by a rather prominent thinker on leadership, whom I will not name. The ideas were so tired: great men (and all his examples were men) set great visions for their teams who then can singlehandedly conquer the world, or at least next year’s profit and loss statement.

I’ve long suspected the world really doesn’t work that way. Sure some individuals appear to have significant, short-term success, but usually if you wait long enough reality comes whistling along and bites them in the butt. David Petraeus comes to mind. Or an individual, such as Harry S Truman, whom his contemporaries viewed as a poor leader gets reclaimed by history. Will Marissa Mayer be Yahoo’s Savior? Does Elizabeth Warren have gravitas? In the end, how much will their individual contributions matter?

And then there’s the rather inconvenient fact that leadership is a value-free concept. You can exhibit strong leadership traits–i.e. you can influence people and you can point the arrow in a particular direction, and you make decisions quickly, and you rarely change your mind (and I have a few nits to pick with these attributes too)–but none of that necessarily means you will have a net positive impact on your group or society–however we might measure that. Vladimir Putin comes to mind. He’s a strong man on the world stage, say the pundits a little bit too admiringly.

But despite my misgivings, I sometimes get asked to serve on a panel or give a talk about leadership. Grumpy Carmen of course wants to say something along the lines of what I just wrote, but that would be bad and, most important, rather rude to the people who asked me.

The last time this happened I came up with the following list. Ten words. Five Verbs. And Five Nouns. And the more I think about them the more they say all I want to say about being a manager, a leader, an employee, a citizen, and a person.

Conversation sustains.
Empathy connects.
Authenticity reassures.
Optimism lifts.
Purpose commands.

They do not need explanation, but just a few words on the last one. So many significant things are outside of a manager’s or leader’s ability to command. You can’t command people to trust you. You can’t command them to believe in your goals. And you cannot order them to give you their discretionary energy.

But a common purpose can.