Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Is vanity the root of all evil?

Recently a reader accused me of being vain. So I wondered if he were right and, if so, did that make me a sinner of demonic proportions? For, after all, it is said that vanity is the root of all evil.
            But is it? Well, let's consider the question for a moment. Vanity is defined as excessive pride in one's appearance, abilities, and achievements.
            Society would have us believe that vanity is a nasty quality, that our personal assets should be harnessed with reticent humility.
            The vanity of appearance. I can see the logic of being humble about one's appearance. Being handsome--or not--is all about the luck of the draw. To be excessively proud of personal good looks is like being puffed up about our nationality. We had nothing to do with it. So, for those who are vain about high cheekbones or a classic figure, I'm not impressed. Such pride was not earned (although I see nothing wrong with being appreciative of one's good fortune).
            The vanity of talent. Being excessively proud of our abilities—our talents—requires a more nuanced discussion. Our abilities are derived from both nature and nurture. (The percentage of the split is still under debate.) Usain Bolt is the fastest man alive—perhaps the fastest man of all time—with a top speed of nearly twenty-eight mph. Much of his speed (perhaps most) was a product of his physical superiority, but not all. He also worked hard at his craft, incorporating hundreds of squats, leaps, and stretches into his daily workout. I am amazed by his physical prowess, but impressed by his sweat equity. It would not hurt for him to be a little vain; he earned it.
            The vanity of achievements. What should we make of the person who is excessively proud of his or her achievements? That also earns a split decision. Achievement is largely gained by good fortune: natural intelligence, a privileged environment, and physical beauty. A rich, intelligent, and handsome man or woman has a better shot at success than the underprivileged, the plodding, the plain. (I'm sorry—I don’t like it either—but that’s way the world turns.)  
            Although their achievements may be impressive, to my mind, the privileged have very little to crow about.
            The victors. In contrast, those who blasted through the barriers of a bleak home life, moderate intelligence, and marginal beauty (or the wrong color of skin) are to be lauded. They are the immigrants who began with nothing, the struggling students who buckled down, the physically blemished who kicked down the doors of injustice.
            I call these powerful people—these indefatigable underdogs—the "victors." Their success was chiseled out of sheer grit, discipline, and tenacity. More power to them. Damn it, they should be proud.
            And where do I stand in all of this? I'm a pretty average bloke with spindly legs, rounded shoulders, a weak chin, and a ridiculous scarcity of hair. My intelligence is average (I've seen the scores) but honestly honed through hard work. My upbringing was blue collar. We lived in a bathless twenty-seven-foot trailer until we upgraded to an eleven-hundred square-foot rambler that felt like a mansion. My allowance was twenty-five cents a week until I went to college, at which point the endowment dropped to zero.
            My only saving grace was my discipline. I tend to finish what I start. And I really can't take credit for that quality; it's just the way the package arrived. However, I can take credit for engaging it.
            Financially, I'm relatively successful. I have a nice home, a spiffy car, and enough money in the bank to see me through to what my mother euphemistically called "my graduation."
            So, do I have a right to be vain, to be excessively proud? Well, maybe not excessively, but I would say moderately proud. I began with little social advantage and a lackluster intelligence quotient and still managed to make a decent life for my family. And for that, I'm proud and, yes, a little vain.
            Does that make me the poster child for the root of all evil? I don't think so. For the root of all evil—if there is such a thing—may not be vanity at all. It may be something much more insidious: not what we attribute to ourselves, but what we project unto others. Envy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Understanding systems ensures better decisions

In 1958, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong raged war on sparrows. His reasoning was on the surface logical enough: The sparrows stole the fruit of the people’s labor by eating their seeds. Zedong commanded his 653 million citizens to bang pots, pans, and drums until the sparrows fell out of the sky from exhaustion.
            Zedong was logical, but shortsighted. Free of predators, the locusts thrived and swarmed across the hills and plains of China. In the end, that misguided decision contributed to the Great Chinese Famine that killed twenty million people by starvation.
            Now let’s make a seven-thousand-mile leap from China to Washington D.C. The year is 2016. Congress is still in gridlock. But it was not always that way. As recent as the 1970s, representatives and senators met behind closed doors to unravel the Gordian knots of partisan politics.  But after Watergate, such meetings were held suspect and the system was changed. Negotiations became more public and, consequently, less productive. The Atlantic columnist, Jonathan Rauch, was on target in his 2016 article, “What’s Ailing American Politics?”

“Smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, were good for brokering complex compromises in which nothing was settled until everything was settled.”

            A third example. In the desert of Southern Idaho there is a ranch for at-risk teenagers. Some of the teens arrive against their will in the middle of the night. Most are belligerent and spoiled. They are in for a grand paradigm shift. For the next month they will wander the desert with blankets roped to their backs. The first few days are spent in complete silence. Their first task is to march eight miles across the desolate landscape. If they make it, they will be fed; if not, they will go hungry.
            As the month progresses, they learn to start a fire without the convenience of a match. They circle up in the evenings, pass a talking stick, and disclose their innermost secrets. By the end of the month, at least eighty percent of them are transformed by a new sense of achievement through struggle and responsibility.
            And then they go home.
            They are changed, but for how long? Their families and friends have not shared their experience; it is not something they can grasp or even respect. What they do understand is their own way of being. So they naturally do whatever they can to remold their child, brother, sister, or friend into the culture they know—even when the culture is dysfunctional.
            What is the common thread of these three examples? It is this: a lack of understanding regarding the power of systems.
            All things are part of one or more systems: an interrelated tangle of ecology, political relationships, interpersonal dynamics—and much more. Ignoring that association is tantamount to courting disaster.
            Zedong was ignorant of or disinterested in the systemic nature of an ecological food chain. Members of congress were either ill-advised or politically coerced to abandon a time-proven process for crafting winning bipartisan compromises. The leaders at the wilderness survival ranch were correct in teaching responsibility and the natural consequences of ill-mannered behavior, but wrong in throwing their graduates back into the fray of an untrained and often chaotic social system.
            Finding enduring solutions to complicated problems is never easy, but it is virtually impossible without a studied analysis of the natural or ruling system.
            Now let's get up close and personal. How is this relevant to our daily life? The late American psychiatrist, Murray Bowen, who was a professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, explored the intricacies of family systems.
            Very briefly, these are three of his most important findings:

  1. Family members fall on a continuum of autonomy. Some are more emotionally and intellectually differentiated than others. That means they are more independent and, therefore, more likely to form their own moral code. Others are less differentiated and more likely to be fused to the family ideology and, consequently, far more dependent upon the family for approval and acceptance.
  2. Family triangles are formed within the family, often pitting two low differentiated members (two insiders) against a highly differentiated member (the outsider).
  3. A differentiated member is often emotionally cut off from the family through physical separation, silence, or the deflection of sensitive issues, such as politics, religion, or personal lifestyle.

            The healthiest families are characterized by high differentiation, allowing unique differences to flourish and, consequently, removing the need to engage in triangular warfare and emotional shunning.
            The point is that no one lives in a vacuum. We are all members of multiple systems. Understanding that is key to recognizing how our decisions negatively or positively impact the lives of others. It has the power to save literally millions of lives.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Lizard Brains and Human Brains Spawn Divergent Outcomes

All of us are born with a lizard brain, although some of us rely on it a little more than we should.

The lizard brain
            The lizard brain is found at the base of our skull. It’s called the medulla oblongata. It controls our heart rate, breathing, and the constriction and dilation of blood vessels. It also powers our sympathetic nervous system, which activates our fight or flight responses. The medulla is part of the primordial reptilian brain. This is confirmed by examining the prodigious size of the medulla in crocodiles and monitor lizards.
            The medulla does not generate emotions, but it does induce the urge to fight or take flight. And where self-defense is concerned, hate, anger, fear, and vengeance can’t be far behind. With just a little prodding, the lizard brain can spiral—like a dust devil into a raging tornado—crowning in suspicion, deprecation, discrimination, and aggression.
            Throughout American history, obtuse leaders have given in to their lizard brains. They kindled the genocide of Native Americans, the profit of slavery, the shame of Japanese-American internment camps, the extinguishing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the blasphemy of the Klu Klux Klan, and the hubris of George W. Bush’s rush to war.

The human brain   
            Happily, the better part of the human brain is made up of the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the cerebral cortex, which, among other things, drive our awareness, conscience, imagination, and independent will. These are the qualities that allow us to see and understand the world beyond our own skins. These are the qualities that stoke the fires of compassion, celebrate differences, and initiate understanding. The cerebral cortex is what makes us human.
            Let’s consider two contrasting examples from history: one influenced by the lizard brain, the other inspired by the human brain.

The lizard brain and the Treaty of Versailles
            In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to accept responsibility for causing “all the loss and damage” sustained during World War I. Germany was forced to disarm, concede 27,000 square miles of territory (approximately the area of West Virginia), and pay reparations of $442 billion. (All sums in this article are adjusted to match current dollar values.)
            The British economist, John Maynard Keynes, called the treaty a “Carthaginian Peace”—a treaty fueled by French revenge that was so severe that it meant the virtual destruction of Deutschland.
            By the early 1920s, the annual reparations paid by Germany greatly contributed to hyperinflation. In 1921, the mark was valued at 330 marks to one US dollar. By 1922, the exchange was 7,400 marks to one dollar. The cost of living increased by fifteen fold. In 1932, unemployment was nearly thirty percent. Then in 1933, when the country was financially crushed, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. We know the rest of the story.
            French vengeance and Nazi barbarism were both inflamed by the lizard brain.

The human brain and the Marshall Plan
            It was a different scenario in 1948. That was the year the Marshall Plan—officially the “European Recovery Plan”—was set in place. In an effort to rebuild eighteen war-devastated countries, the United States granted $120 billon, including $13.2 billion to Germany.
            Concurrently, in grants separate from the Marshall Plan, $59 billion were allotted to Asian countries, including $24 billion to Japan.
            In total, from 1945-1953, the United States granted or loaned $443 billion to return life to a shattered world.
            The human brain was put to good use in the rendering of the Marshall Plan.

Rewriting history
            What if world leaders had behaved differently in 1919? What if a version of the Marshall Plan had been established after World War I—a plan to raise a nation up, not tear it down? Some might argue that Germany deserved being razed. To such vengeful thinkers, I’d like to point out the benefit of a higher-brain approach.
            If the Allies had been more compassionate at the end of World War I, the Second World War may have been averted—saving the United States over 419,000 lives and approximately $4,000 billion. Globally, 60 million lives would have been spared and $14.46 trillion saved. Suddenly, a post World War II grant of $443 billion seems like a pittance.

Our sacred duty
            And now, in this election year, we all have a crucial decision to make. Will we emulate the vengeance of the Treaty of Versailles or the compassion of the Marshall Plan? Will we acquiesce to the gnawing fight-or-flight instincts of our lizard brains or be uplifted by the reason and compassion of our human brains? These may be the most important questions of our time.
            I know how I will vote. Do you?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Being Curious about Tribes Can Change the World

It’s the first hour of a new day. I’m riding my recumbent tricycle on a familiar bike path, waving and smiling at the oncoming cyclists. Each rider smiles and waves back. The exchange feels good; we are all members of the same tribe. I happily soak up the spirit of brotherhood like a dry bar mop.
            Then at an intersection, a wizened, leather-clad rider on a Harley cruiser rolls to a stop, and I think, “He and I are members of another tribe. We are both in the autumn of our lives and yet precariously balanced over wheels. He is my brother.”  So I snap him a sharp salute. And he glares at me, not in honor of our kinship, but with pinched, scowling eyebrows, as if I had just called his mother a soulless “lady of the night.” Perhaps he was disenchanted by my six-foot high hot-pink and periwinkle blue flag swishing behind me like a rainbow trout in the shallows. Whatever the source of his discontent, his message was clear: I was not his brother.
            It’s a funny thing about tribes: Their number is equal to every passion on earth. There are church, military, language, and ethnic tribes. There are even tribal devotees to tiddlywinks and didgeridoo. All of which is pretty cool.
            There are two ways to react to tribes. The first is with curiosity. The second is with suspicion or even contempt. I’m an advocate of the former.
            In my lifetime I have eaten pig ears, frog legs, and duck brains in France. I have danced the Kalamatianos on the streets of Greece, shouting “Opa” in celebration. I have sat cross-legged on a Berber hilltop in Algeria and listened to the local musicians play their tambourines, drums, and flutes, while the women trilled their high-pitched ululations.
            Not everyone understands my sense of curiosity. Frankly, some are surprised or even offended that I would leave my ancestral tribe, if only for an hour.
            A year ago, a friend and I were traveling through Georgia. It was Sunday and, faithful to our custom, we sought a black church—usually Southern Baptist—to soak in the wonderment of gospel music. As we crisscrossed the streets, we came upon an all-white Baptist church. Two of the church members were greeting the parishioners at the door. Surely they would know where we would find the local black church.
            I parked the car, scrambled up the church steps, and looked into the eyes of one of the greeters. “Excuse me,” I said, “could you tell me where we could find the black Baptist church?”
            All at once, the greeter stared at me with eyes narrowing into gashes of reproach. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked.
            “Because we love the music,” I replied truthfully.
            “We have beautiful music here.”
            “I’m sure you do, but it’s not often that we have a chance to experience authentic black gospel music. I hope you understand.”
            “I’m not sure I do,” the greeter said, “but I can tell you where to find those people.”
            True to his word, he directed us to those people.
            When we arrived, we basked in the tradition of the most soulful church I have ever attended. The organist improvised a score that made the minister’s words soar, while the choir answered his every call.
            “They shall mount up with wings as eagles,” the preacher heralded.
            “Wings as eagles,” the choir answered.
            The pure joy of the congregation surged like an ocean wave over my body. You do not have to be a believer to feel the honest purity of that kind of celebration.
            When the minister asked the parishioners to greet each other, a round radiant grandmother in a broad flowered hat wrapped her arms around me and said, “I be so happy you come visit our church. I got a blessin’ wid yo name on it.” And then she hugged me again as if I were her long-lost son.
            I truly loved that black Baptist tribe, and for two hours of worship, I was one of its spirited members.
            Why must we see other tribes with suspicion or, worse, enmity?
            Not all tribes are as loving as the Georgian Baptist congregation. And, yes, a fraction of all the tribes on earth are malicious. But disregard the deluded extremists for a moment. What would happen if we explored—if only for an hour—the ninety-nine percent of all the good-hearted tribes that are foreign to us? What if we sought to understand and respect (with no obligation to accept) an unfamiliar theology? A strange flavor? A new dance? An exotic music?
            What if the leather-bound Harley rider had smiled and acknowledged that we are all members of the largest tribe of all: humanity, with well over seven billion cousins? What if the white Georgian greeter had said of the black disciples, “You will love their service, they are good people”?
            Don’t you think the world would have been a better place? But what if such instances were multiplied by seven billion times a day—one moment for every resident on earth? Can you imagine the rumbling surge of charity, rising up from under our feet, lifting us up “with wings as eagles”?
            Amen, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Pinch Theory Offers a Reasoned Approach to Managing Conflict

It happened at an executive staff meeting. I was presenting a new organizational development program, and it seemed to be going well. At least the staff of twelve was attentive, occasionally nodding in approval.
            When I had finished, the CEO said, “This could make a big difference in our company,” he said.
            “I think you’re absolutely right,” I said offhandedly.
            Then—curiously, unexpectedly—the CEO turned to me and said, “I don’t give a shit what you think.”
            That snapped my head back. What could he be thinking? Why would he berate one of his employees before his executive staff?
            I tried to relieve the tension. “Are we going to have a donnybrook right here and now?” I asked with a befuddled smile.
            The CEO glared at me with snake eyes and said in a husky whisper, “Don’t even try.”
            What would you do next?
            I’ll tell you what I did, but not before introducing a model for dealing with organizational conflict—conflict of any kind really.
            It’s called the “Pinch Theory” and was first developed by John J. Sherwood, John C. Glidewell, and later extended by John Scherer.
On the road to pinches
            Whenever individuals enter an organization, they invariably spin through a cycle of optimism and disappointments. It begins when the employee and the manager—or co-workers for that matter—meet for the first time. At that first encounter, they are “getting to know each other.” During this honeymoon stage, they both want the relationship to work, so they are on their best behavior. If something doesn’t feel right, they simply ignore it.
            In those early meetings strong managers establish their expectations. Consequently, the new employees “know their places” and “feel good” about it.
            But that happy feeling is generally short-lived. After a time, the first “pinch” is felt—especially in organizations where expectations are unclear. 
            A pinch is the unsettling feeling that something is wrong, that expectations have been violated. We might say to ourselves, “Hey, what was that all about? I thought we were on the same side.
            A pinch may come in a word or a look: a snide remark, a subtle put down, or even a sideways glance.

            What do we do with a pinch? Typically, we “bite the bullet.” We say to ourselves, Wow, that smarted, but I’m an adult. I can handle it. We remind ourselves of the early days, when we knew our place and felt like a valued team member. In other words, we sweep the pinch under the rug, until an expensive consultant trips over the corrugated carpet, takes a peak, and watches in horror as all the bats from hell whoosh out with gleaming fangs.
            A pinch does not vanish when it is disregarded. It shows up later in uglier ways, taking us on a harried “emotion coaster.” Those emotions include ambiguity (What did the boss mean by that?), guilt (Gee, I must be doing something wrong), blame (It’s not my fault the boss is an idiot), and anxiety (I’m having a helluva time sleeping these days).
            This is not a happy time for employees. It’s a debilitating roller coaster ride that ends in a “crunch”—when the mounting pinches are unbearable.

Irresponsible responses to a crunch point
            Those who have been repeatedly pinched will often resort to “get-my-way tactics.” Some will turn to depression, believing that their depression releases them from responsibility. Others may choose anger by deriding the management team or even sabotaging the company’s mission. Still others will self-medicate—turning to alcohol, drugs, or comfort foods for relief.
            These are all get-my-way tactics. The victims hope their depression, anger, or addictions will magically stop the pinches. They won’t.
            Others may emotional check out, stalking about like “zombies.” They are human, but just barely. Don’t ask them to do anything, because it will be done badly, or not at all.
            The hardiest of the lot channel “John Wayne”: “That really hurt, pilgrim, but I’m gettin’ back on my horse and doin’ it again.” Recalling their satisfaction in “knowing their place,” they try to recreate it. Unfortunately, when pinches are ignored, the wounded employee will return even faster to another crunch point.
            A few will “beat cleats.” They will update their résumés and take the first job that comes along. They leave without resolving the issues. And, not surprisingly, carry their resentments and lack of understanding to the next position.

Doing the right thing
            What is the right thing to do when employees reach the crunch point? The answer is what the graphic calls the “last resort”: talking to the boss. This option requires both consideration and courage: consideration in clarifying our manager’s expectations and courage in describing our own “emotion coaster” ride.
            There are two possible outcomes to such a negotiation. In the first and best outcome, gifted managers will calmly examine mutual expectations—seeking first to understand and then to be understood. They will also create a strategy for addressing future pinches.
            In the second possible outcome—when their expectations are incompatible—the manager and employee will agree to terminate their relationship—to say “so long.” If it comes to that, they leave disappointed, but wiser. Understanding the sticking points will aid the departing employee on the next job.

The truly right stuff
            The smart people—the ones who understand the pinch theory—will do the “right stuff.” They will not wait for the crunch. The first or second time they are pinched, they will seek out the manager (or the employee) and clearly and fairly describes the pinches. Hopefully, the manager will have the wisdom to clarify expectations and own his or her own shortcomings. When that happens, both manager and employee can return to a workplace of trust, where problem-solving is a piece of cake.

When to do the right stuff
            Deciding when to initiate the “right stuff” is not always easy. You must consider both risks and benefits, which requires honest self-evaluation. Here are five crucial questions:

1.      How important is the relationship?
2.      How important is the issue?
3.      What will happen if I do nothing?
4.      How will I feel about myself if I do nothing?
5.      Is the other mature enough to examine expectations?

            If we are talking about your boss, the answer to the first question is “important.” The hours we put into a workday warrants healthy relationships. The second question is pivotal: How important is the issue? If the pinch is trivial—a failure to return a morning greeting, for example—the issue may be innocuous and unimportant. However, if the issue is chronic and acute, doing the “right stuff” is prescribed.
            Employees should also consider the consequences of inaction. Will the pinches continue? Will the irritation fester? Will the success of the company mission be jeopardized? Will the employee feel disrespected, disavowed, or discredited? If the answer is “yes,” it is time to do the “right stuff.”
            The game changer may be the last questions: Is the other mature enough? Even if the relationship and the issue are important, even if the outcome of inaction is toxic, doing the “right stuff” may not be a valid alternative. It may be wiser to simply leave—to “beat cleats”—which essentially means leaving mad and ignorant. It’s not the best alternative, but it may be the best option, given a hostile environment.

The path I took
            I never did the “right stuff” with my CEO. Although the issue was important, I did not think the executive had the maturity to have an honest and respectful discussion. I reasoned—rightly or wrongly—that he was imbued with an intractable ego. (He may have thought the same of me; I’ll never know.)
            So on that very day, I updated my résumé. The hunt was on.
            As it turned out, the CEO left the company shortly after that infamous executive staff meeting. It was no longer an issue. He was gone.
            It was unfortunate that I could not speak to him, nor he to me. He could have learned how he was crossing my expectations. More importantly, I could have learned how I was missing the mark. Consequently, the relationship ended unresolved and marinated in resentment, at least for me, which is never healthy—certainly not the best way to deal with the inevitable and ubiquitous pinches of business life.