March 2009 Archives

Mean People Suck

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Out of the mouths of babes ... and our elders, too.

A few years ago, t-shirts, notebooks and other items with the saying, "Mean people suck", were very popular among the younger people (middle school students). In our grandparents' generation, "mean" was another word for stingy, the opposite of generous.

Of all of the four traditional values, generosity is the one we have discussed the least. With all the talk in the news about the bailouts of banks, huge insurance company AIG getting billions of dollars in government money and then giving $165 million in bonuses to executives  - well, greed is out. Greed and selfishness, the flip side of generosity, have always been seen as a bad trait on the reservation.

Joe the Tribal Worker is a fictional character discussed throughout our Introduction to Ethical Issues on Indian Reservations course. When asked whether they would vote for Joe, many respondents agreed with the Spirit Lake woman who wrote:

No because he will not do anything to help people out of their lifestyle or try to make changes for the better for them .... He will end up hurting the tribe because his motives are very selfish. 

Like all ethical issues, everyone thinks of him/ herself as the most ethical person in the room. People like to show their generosity by giveaways, feeds. If they are a program director, you can count on them to donate money, supplies or staff time for the community health fair, sobriety ride or Head Start activities. That's generosity, right?

As with most ethical issues, there's more to it. One of the myths we talk about in the courses is the myths of change including, "There's nothing to it," and "Everyone is already doing it."

How does putting your own relatives in jobs fit with generosity? Especially at a time when jobs are even harder to find than usual, isn't that being selfish, no matter how many star quilts you give away?

Another word for giving away is "charity".

The principle of charitable interpretation, is a really good idea from the study of philosophy. Basically, it says that if there are multiple interpretations for a behavior or argument, choose the one that shows the other person in the best possible light. How often do we see people really engage in charitable interpretation on boards, in the work place?

Take this example as one among a million,

Myrna and Donna work for the same program. Myrna is very busy working in the schools, meeting with teachers, the PTA, school board members, counseling students. Donna mostly does the newsletters, data entry and attends staff meetings. One day, their supervisor asks Donna if she can make flyers for the upcoming school open house. Donna is furious, here is her interpretation,

"That Myrna thinks she is better than me just because she has a college degree! Who does she think she is? Why should I do her work for her? I am so busy already, doing the newsletters and filling out the forms and all of the other stuff Myrna is too good to do. Well, I am just not going to do it!"

Here are two other possible interpretations,

"Schools are very impressed by credentials. Myrna didn't make it that way. That's the way it is. To be honest, they listen to her more because she is a former teacher. She is always perfectly polite to me and compliments  me on how good the newsletter looks. She really isn't as good as me in using a word processor and I do know the boss is right, I have more time and I would do a better job at it than her."

"Myrna's mom has been really, really sick. I think the stress is getting to her. It is very likely that she is going to have to take some time off to take care of her mother, who probably won't live much longer. The boss is probably trying to cut down her work as much as possible because when her mom dies, which, sad to say, will be soon, Myrna is not going to be here for a while."

I don't know which of the three interpretations is the truth - but, and here is the very important fact - NEITHER DOES DONNA !  I happen to know that Myrna has a sick mother. Perhaps Donna does not, although I rather doubt that, since, as the saying goes, there isn't much to see in a small town but what you hear makes up for it. Everyone knows everyone's business. Even if Donna doesn't, there is still nothing stopping her from interpreting the situation as due to something else in Myrna's life, even if she doesn't happen to know the specifics.

The next time you think of yourself as a generous, ethical person, think about a generosity of spirit, a generosity of opportunity. ARE you the most ethical person in the room? Or are you, sometimes, just a little bit mean?
In the free, on-line course, Spirit Lake Leadership project, we talk about ruining good employees. Recently, Erich told me about a book he had read, The Management Bible, by Bob Nelson and Peter Economy.

In this book, they spend several chapters discussing what managers actually do. This includes measuring performance and taking corrective action when employees don't measure up. Sounds like kind of boring stuff, right? Yes, I thought so, too, until I was reminded of Ron, the Tribal Manager. Let me tell you Ron's story.

Ron's a good guy. If you met him, you'd probably like him. He's intelligent, laughs a lot, gets along with almost everyone. When the new manager's job came up, he was picked over several other qualified applicants in part because of his "people skills".

The employees Ron was hired to manage include:
  • Susie Sainte, who is the most ethical, competent, hardest working person on the reservation. .
  • Joe the Tribal Worker, who never comes to work on Monday or Friday, and sometimes not on Wednesday, either. Maybe he has a drinking problem or maybe he just doesn't like working. Joe is a very bright guy, capable of doing his job, but he would rather spend his time on the phone scheming to get his brother elected to tribal council and going to lunch with people who might help him get a better job.
  • You can read more about Susie & Joe here on the Tribal Leaders Council forum.
  • Jessica is a clerk who was hired ten months ago.
  • Carol was hired as the business manager, based on the recommendation of her old boss. She says she has an accounting degree. Whether she really has a degree is uncertain, what is sure is that she is the worst accountant in the history of accounting. She can barely use a computer and her budgets are almost never anywhere near correct. Carol comes to work on time every day and rarely misses a day of work.
  • Rick was hired as an accountant six weeks ago, in part because the Tribal Council was tired of continually getting wrong information. The previous manager stated the problem was they did not have enough people on staff. Rick just graduated from college. During school, he had worked part-time at a couple of successful businesses.

Rick knew something was wrong the very first week when he pointed out to Carol that the two sides of a balance sheet had to match, that is balance, and she was surprised. She asked, "Are you sure?"

Ron should be monitoring the performance of all of his employees, comparing their performance to a criterion and taking corrective action. He knows that Joe only works 20 hours or so each week, but Ron doesn't want to get in a fight with the tribal council as he is just getting into his job. Besides, he reasons, Joe has been working there for years and only coming in three days a week. The work gets done, Joe is a smart guy. Ron lacks the courage to stand up to Joe and his powerful friends.

Carol's performance is terrible. Ron thinks, "How can I fire her? She comes to work every day, when Joe only comes three days a week. She takes notes at all the meetings. She always volunteers when there is a job or a committee, like the building clean-up committee. Her work is not that bad."

Here we see a failure of the traditional value of honesty. Her work is that bad. She was hired as a business manager, not a secretary or a janitor. While she is on these committees, and making mistakes in her own work, the program has had to hire a second person, Rick, to do the work Carol should be doing.

woman_at_pool.jpgRon asks himself, "What's the harm in leaving things the way they are?" One harm is that he is paying two people to do the job of one person, the business manager. Again, we see a failure of honesty.  In part, these failures in honesty were made more likely by his failure to have the courage to fire Joe, which makes it harder to fire the person who does come to work every day but just fails to perform.

Jessica has noticed that both Joe and Carol get paid about the same, but Joe comes into work only three days a week. Jessica doesn't know anything about accounting. Since Carol has the title of Business Manager and Ron seems satisfied with her performance, Jessica assumes everything is fine. From her point of view, whether you work three days a week or five days a week, you get paid the same. Lately, she has started leaving at three o'clock so that she can go to the pool with her kids after school.

Ron does not say anything to her. After all, she is still working 10 hours a week more than Joe and, unlike Carol, she knows her job and makes very few mistakes.

Susie Sainte is disgusted with the whole situation. She works 40 hours a week, does a very good job and this year, she gets a 3% raise, as did all tribal employees. Ron doesn't really see what Susie's problem is. She got a raise and he has been as nice to her as possible, as he always is to everyone. Yet, she still does not seem very friendly to him. Last week, in a meeting, when a question on the budget came up, Ron mentioned he would ask Carol. Susie laughed and said, "Good luck! Why don't you just flip a coin?" When he told her she wasn't being a team player, Susie laughed in his face.

Ron was re-thinking the good evaluation he was planning to give Susie this year, but it turns out it didn't matter because she just turned in her notice. She is leaving in two weeks to work for another program?

So... how do you think this will affect our new employee, Rick? What do you think Rick is making of all of this? What would you do if you were Rick?

Tune in next time to find .... the rest of the story.

P.S. Sad, unrelated note, Paul Harvey who was famous for those "rest of the story" stories on the radio died last month at age 90. 

Erich and I were discussing the next course. The original title was "Ethical and Effective Management". Erich said he thought it could be simplified, that when he found himself talking about issues and decision-making in the Introduction to Ethical Issues on Indian Reservations course that it all came down to two, Honesty and Courage. He is thinking of changing the name of the next course to Honest and Courageous Leadership.

Well, he may be correct in that Honesty and Courage are all that is necessary for ethical management, but a think a third one of those traditional values is definitely necessary for effective management, that is, fortitude.

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, fortitude is
- strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.

It is also called perseverance
- the act of persisting in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement

Involved with boards for too many years, I can tell you that effective management requires a lot of fortitude. It is an old-fashioned word, but now that I have read the dictionary definition, I am pretty fond of it. For example, when someone asked how travel funds were spent for one board of which I was the president, I wrote a response saying that although previous presidents had a travel budget, I had paid for all of my own travel, and, in fact, the only reimbursement I had ever received was for others who could not afford to travel or even pay up front and get reimbursed. So, I had paid for some other people, and submitted the receipts and gotten reimbursed. Do you think I received a letter back thanking me for my dedication and service to the organization and applauding my generosity in helping others?

If you believe that, you probably also think the letter was delivered by a unicorn.

No, in fact, the response I received stated said that I was obviously defensive since I felt the need to respond. Of course, if I hadn't responded, the same person would have said I refused to answer the questions about board travel funds.

So, what did I do? Did I quit in disgust because my work is so unappreciated? I thought about that for about four-tenths of one second. Then, I went into the kitchen and made some tea.

I have seen board members respond to such situations in a range of ways, from bursting into tears to screaming obscenities. More often, though, managers and leaders just experience burn out.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary is just my best friend today. It defines burn out as

exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.

I have seen this happen to too many highly ethical people, the "Susie Saintes" of the world. They are working hard, sacrificing time with their families, leisure time, spending their own money or working at jobs that pay far less than they could make in the private sector. Rather than appreciation, they are faced with self-serving individuals who demand undeserved promotions, have chronic absenteeism or are unqualified for their positions. When standing up to those individuals, they face threats of being fired or losing an election from the "Tribal Joes" themselves as well as their friends and relatives.

How can we have ethical and EFFECTIVE managers, who have the strength to carry on even when they are attacked for their honesty and courage?

Maintaining fortitude - what managers can do for themselves

1. A sense of humor - Back when we were dating, my late husband worked for a huge corporation. He had a good-paying job in management when he found out that the company was illegally overcharging the federal government for work. When he went to the vice-president and presented his findings, he was told to shut up and mind his own business. Ron took off his company badge, threw it in the vice-president's face and walked out. Did he receive the respect of his peers for this? No, because company executives spread a rumor that he had been fired for drug sales, that he had made hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing cocaine and had a Porsche in his garage. He was quite upset when he told me about it. I started laughing, looking out in the driveway where our cars were parked. I said,
"Okay, I can forgive you for not telling me about the drug dealing, the money and the Porsche, but how come you never told me we had a garage?"

He started laughing, too, as he realized how crazy it all was. I have had just about every comment imaginable said about me, including a rumor that circulates every few years that I am a lesbian, a rumor that is always greeted with bewilderment by my four children and my current (and third) husband.


2. Keep a long-term view : You have probably had plenty of good days in your life, this one is just a bump in the road. As for Ron, he had a new job within the week, where he was very happy and stayed for years. The vice-president ended up going to jail for embezzlement, along with a couple of other top executives at the company. In my experience, the ethical people have happier, more successful lives over the long run. More days than not, I wake up and think what a great life I have. My husband brings me a cup of hot coffee, I have a day ahead of me working on challenging projects with interesting people. If you focus on the long-term, you will realize that the latest "tribal joe" is just a small part of your life.

3. Don't take opposition personally - No, it is NOT you. The same people who are trying to cut corners, to badger you into giving them undeserved positions, to waive policies for them and are attacking you when you have the courage and honesty to stand up to them, would be  doing the same to whoever came before you and whoever comes after you. Whatever you do, don't give in to the naysayers, the complainers, the chiselers. Yes, it is hard to stand up to what may seem like a constant barrage of criticism, that's where the perseverance and fortitude comes in. Keep in mind all of the other people who do appreciate what you are doing.

Maintaining fortitude - what managers can do for one another, and - Maintaining fortitude: creating a system to support ethical and effective managers