Category Archives: Social Change

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.

Being Open to the Serendipity of Sharing

A good friend (almost 40 years younger than I am) asked me last week what I thought of the message in this vide0.

I wrote my friend back yesterday and what I’ve posted below is my response unedited.

“So as someone who has essentially lived by herself her entire adult life–I have absolutely no problem with being alone. At the same time there is nothing I value more than having good conversations with people I know well–and also with new people who bring some interesting new dimension to the way I think.

I have personally found social networks very enriching because I learn so much more about people, both the ones i know in real life–though truth be told most of them hardly use social networks–and the ones I have met NIRL. I don’t think I’m confused about the difference between conversation and connection; that said I think some of my on-line relationships are quite substantial. These individuals appreciate the way I think and I appreciate the way they think and we bring interesting ideas to each others’ attention. If I post something unusually negative for me, they notice and ask me if something is wrong. This is not something that replaces IRL friendship but is an interesting and developing complement to it. (It is very helpful when I’m sitting in an airport waiting for my flights, for example. I always have the best on-line conversations in that hour at the gate.) I’ve often heard the 150 number and while I generally think there is a limit to whom we can know, the 150 number is based I think on experiments done before the advent of these new technologies. I’d like to see research done about the conditions we find ourselves in now.

The video doesn’t talk about what I think is one of the great new phenomena today–how near or complete strangers can delight each other through things they share online. I share a slice of my inner dialogue on-line. I see something interesting that makes me think; now I post many of those in case someone else might find it interesting as well. Some great exchanges happen as a result of being open to the serendipity of sharing.

What I actually think has been much more corrosive to the quality of people’s lives, much more so than sharing and the online life, is the culture of entertainment, which long predates Facebook and Twitter. I’m really troubled when I see people seemingly living their lives through the entertainment they consume. It drives me nuts really. Living your life as if the purpose of it is to be entertained is my definition of hell on earth.

Hope you have a great weekend and thanks for asking me what I thought about the video.

Your IRL friend,


We’re All in the Same Bathtub

When I was much younger, 34 years ago, I ended up having to take Economics 101, 102 before I could start graduate school. I was in the DC area, poor (in the way college kids are poor, which is different from how struggling families are poor), and so I enrolled at Prince George’s Community College. The professor, whose name I can’t remember, was a smart fellow, an engaging teacher, and clearly quite conservative in his economic and political orientation. It was fun and I learned a lot.

During one afternoon lecture, I remember Prof getting quite excited about how wrong it was for government to promulgate laws and regulations that imposed non-economic costs on businesses. How it messed up the purity of economics, I guess. At the time he was citing examples such as the relatively new requirement for companies to control pollution. Everyone in the class nodded in agreement but I decided I couldn’t let that one go. I raised my hand and noted, based on my not very commanding knowledge of economic history, that over the centuries many different “noneconomic” costs had been imposed on businesses: they couldn’t employ children just to get the cheapest labor; they couldn’t force workers to toil in unhealthy conditions; they couldn’t build cars that were firetraps. In the end, it seemed to me then and it still seems to me now, businesses are just another element in society and culture, and they essentially have no choice but to operate in accordance with whatever the socio-cultural norms are at the time. Being a business doesn’t exempt them, neither does the argument that certain costs are noneconomic. Given that currency itself is a social construct, in the final analysis all costs are noneconomic, or so it seems to me. (I know that last sentence doesn’t really make any sense, but it does accurately convey my thinking (muddy) here.)

The “occupy” events of the past few weeks and the growing discussion of Corporate Social Responsibility have reminded me of that Economics 101 class. I can’t help but think that we keep making silly distinctions about what category things fall into–such as economic vs. noneconomic, domestic vs. international, nature vs. man-made–when the rather obvious reality is: We’re All in the Same Bathtub. The “occupy” protests really are about trying to change the current social norms as they apply to business and profit. My guess is the very act of protesting is already changing those norms, but it is also probably true that the fact the protests are occurring indicates the norms are already changing.

In doing a little research for this post, I found an interesting discussion on this blog about economic and noneconomic costs in society. The following expresses what I’m thinking much better than I ever could:

Donohue-White submits (with very good reason) that every “market economy is shaped by the culture in which it exists, and, in turn, it affects the daily practices and customs of the people that comprise it.” By the rather broad term culture, she means the sum of “customs, traditions, and practices of a people.” In turn, the market exerts an influence on the culture in which it subsists, fostering particular sets of virtues or vices. Market and culture–while certainly conceptually distinct–are inextricably bound up in the concrete, practical affairs of a people. On this view, the market cannot be properly evaluated without recourse to the culture and society that shapes it AND to the impact the market has on this same culture and society. The “economic rationality” exhibited by many contemporary corporations seems to be largely devoid of the consideration of non-economic “costs,” particularly with respect to treatment of workers (wage, outsourcing, lay-offs), wealth accumulation and disregard for local and expansive tradition.

Because we’re all in the same bathtub, the argument that socially responsible behavior is not relevant to corporations or doesn’t make good business sense just falls apart.  US companies for example are already feeling the consequences of our declining education system. They can’t find the highly skilled workers they need, or at least not enough of them. Their transportation costs are rising because of the decaying transportation system. Internationally, I remember people making the argument that Somalia was not worth anyone’s attention, and so we ignored it. Ten years later, Somali pirates over the last two years have cost business $7-12 billion once you count all the related costs.

As automation and internet networks intrude into every line of business, I’m betting these changes will not only cost jobs; they will eventually shrink the size of corporations, including their profits and revenues. I can imagine a day when corporations evolve away from being primarily money-making activities to actually embracing their social responsibilities as one of the fundamental reasons for their existence. Business and government both will become less important organizing concepts for society. At first corporations will embrace greater community involvement as a clever way to market what they do; eventually I think some of these community activities may actually end up generating revenues for them and perhaps creating new types of jobs for the economy. They may no longer be profit-making entities, although they will still make money. Already I think you can see signs of this in the rise of NGO’s and other nonprofits in the world economy. Public Services International notes that NGO’s are now the 8th largest economy in the world, employing more than 19 million paid workers. The US is currently home to about 1.5 million nonprofits, with 30-50K being created every year.

Being in the same bathtub applies to the world economy as well. When the bathwater gets dirty–i.e. during the global financial crisis–everyone suffers. Until we discover sentient (and prosperous) life on other planets, we will have to find a way to make this financial system work, despite its imbalances. There is simply no other place for China, or any other country, to invest its trillions.

One final link. The latest piece in the Harvard Business Review by Rosabeth Moss Kanter powerfully discusses some of these dynamics. Money quote:

Only if leaders think of themselves as builders of social institutions can they master today’s changes and challenges.

Turkish Insights

Today is my 8th day in Turkey, a country I had not been to until now. (I’ve had the good fortune to visit much of the world, with the exception of Latin America and Asia, which are underrepresented in my travels.) I had no idea before the trip began that this journey would be such an eye-opener. Turkey is bursting with the new energy coursing through the planet. Unlike the US and the West, which at this moment appear overwhelmed by problems of their own making and undermined by an epic clash in values—particularly in the United States, Turkey strikes you as a country optimistically committed to its future. I know Turkey has problems—after all every society has, but they do not appear to be defeating the optimism of the Turkish people.

Some impressions I’ve made:

Turkey is pointed toward the East and has the opportunity this century to truly optimize its natural position as the connector between the East and the West. I suspect, however, that Turkish businessmen and the Government, if forced to choose, will declare “Go East, young man.” Flying around on Turkish airlines I’ve studied their route map. Today, they fly to 14 destinations in India, China, and the rest of Asia, compared to six destinations in the Americas, 4 in the US, 1 to Canada, and an intriguing connection between Istanbul and Sao Paolo, Brazil. True, Turkish Airlines has an impressive flight network in Europe, flying to nine German cities alone, but this is almost matched by its comprehensive coverage of the ‘stans, other former Soviet Republics, and the Middle East.

Turkey is still traveling on the uphill slope of its potential curve. Turkey is edgy in a good way. Just a short walk on the streets of Istanbul reveals all the cracks and fissures in the society. For example, every possible perspective on the role of women is seen walking on the boulevards: the great majority of women dress Western but head scarves and veils are also common, particularly in Istanbul. But most people on the street seem to be happily exploring how all these different value structures can best fit together, rather than choosing to believe there is a problem. It is altogether common, for example, to see women eating together at a restaurant, dressed in the full range from Vogue magazine to village traditional. I’m not familiar enough with Turkish politics to know if this generosity of acceptance extends fully to their politicians. I suspect that it doesn’t, knowing that politics, at least in the modern era, seem to thrive more on dwelling on problems than on devising solutions. But I can’t imagine Turkish politics has yet sunk to the level of American politicians, who are now fashioning their campaign platforms around our differences.  I’ve asked our tour guides questions, for example, about Turkey’s attitude toward Greece. My questions are dismissed as silly; we’ve grown beyond that. If only the West could learn again how to grow past problems, rather than dwell on them.

Turkey, I think, is not so often discussed when we talk about Islam, politics, and the Muslim religion, but we need to focus on it (and Indonesia) more as we think about how Islam will contribute to the setting of new global norms in the 21st century. Turkey, at least, strikes me as a very positive example. On September 11th, between 8 and 9 am East Coast Time, our tour group was sitting in Suleyman’s mosque in Istanbul, listening to our guide explain Islam. About halfway through the talk, many members of our group made the connection between the date and our context, and I think many of us—but not all—were happier to be in a mosque than to be in the US at that very moment. Turkey’s Islamic identity produces some interesting nuances in its relations with China. The Turks consider the Uigers to be part of the ancestral Turkish nation; the two languages have many similarities. So when we think about how international politics will evolve in the decades to come, one mental model we need to discard is that all situations involving significant differences will involve the US. You can imagine, for example, tensions between a country such as Turkey and China developing over the question of how China treats its Muslim population.

I could list more impressions, at this point all positive. Social media seems to be everywhere, for example. But the bottom line for me and many in our tour group, including veteran financial advisers and investment types, is that Turkey is much more appropriate exemplar for the world today than the US. And that was an impression I had no expectation having when I arrived.

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

Sex and Money

A couple of weeks ago I began wondering whether same sex marriage was about much more than sexual identity. Was it, instead, one of the early moves in a long process that will gradually reconceptualize human society?

What a crazy thought, I thought! But I parked the idea, on yellow sticky notes, thinking I needed to get back to it and unpack it even more. (At this point I interrupted this blog post to tweet: New ideas squirmy little creatures, difficult to pin down. You’re not even sure you like ’em. You need to catch them to get closer look.)

Three tweets were actually involved in my first feeble attempt to capture the idea:

Wondering if same-sex marriage is about more than just sexual preference. Thinking it could be first step in reconstructing society.

How does human society change if sexual drives and acquisitive desires no longer the key motivational constructs for our lives?

Most religions seek to control sexual drives and acquisitive desires for common good. Sex and greed tend to drive violence.

Then a friend and follower commented, re religion:

Largely by treating women as something akin to evil.

Perhaps a bit harsh, but can’t deny the historical record.

The daunting girth of the idea and the need to find other treatments of it, because I imagine these must exist, also delayed any attempt by me to address it.  And then I realized this morning (or maybe just reconciled myself to accepting as a convenient excuse) that it was highly unlikely I could ever, through my own research or words, do the topic justice.  So what follow are comments I know in fact are incomplete and insufficient.

The Catholic Church, with which I am most familiar, argued last century that agreeing to contraception would eventually lead to a cascading series of social changes that were bad. And they have been proven correct in their causality chain if not their value judgment. Contraception has “led” to abortion, which in turn has led to what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death. People disagree as to whether society today is better or not than it was 100 years ago and more to the point about what “better” is. But the original point the Church was making, that seemingly minor acts of legislation or social change can have major downstream effects, seems unassailable.

The heterosexual family unit has been the building block of most Western societies for some time now. (But interestingly enough not the main building block of many (most?) mammalian social structures, many of which organize themselves into same-sex groups, except during the mating season.) Changes in the composition of that building block unit have already altered society, and same-sex marriage and parental teams seem likely to continue this trend. But what’s most intriguing to me is what a society less organized around concepts of male-female sexual relations would look like. I don’t know and I won’t live to see it, but it intrigues. (It’s not clear to me, by the way, whether same-sex relationships are really that much different from heterosexual ones. Concerning that latter point, this piece three years ago in Time Magazine is thoughtful.)

Are there some early indicators of this shift? The declining birth and marriage rates in most of the West seem to point to something. A few weeks ago the media was amused by the stories of Japanese men’s declining interest in sex, although my Google search shows this story appeared at least seven years ago in USA Today. Finally much is written about the different, more tolerant attitudes of Millenials toward a range of social issues, although I tend to be skeptical about how enduring generational change really is. We “want-to-teach-the-world-to-sing” baby boomers certainly didn’t take a back seat to anyone on acquiring material wealth.

Sex and money–powerful drivers of the modern world. Capitalism is the ultimate expression of a society that organizes itself around money. And yet today, now that a decent interval has passed since the collapse of communism, people are writing seriously again, even in the Harvard Business Review, about whether there is a better set of organizing principles for modern economies. If we can rethink our attitudes around money, can sex be far behind?