August 2009 Archives

Who is really generous?

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Indians are more generous than most people. I am sure this statement will lead conservative Republicans to call me a racist and damage (but not eliminate) my chances of being confirmed on the supreme court.

I state this based on 19 years of personal experience working on reservations. Maybe there are some really mean, miserly tribes out there and I have just never met any of their members. Having met hundreds of people from the Great Plains tribes, though, I have to say that they are more likely to invite you to their home, a party, give you a gift with no expectation of return.

Everyone from Mark Twain to Spirit Lake Consulting President, Dr. Erich Longie, has commented on how moral courage is much less common than physical courage.

I think there is also such a thing as physical generosity and moral generosity (some people call this generosity of the spirit). Just like with courage, I think the physical kind is more common. After a lot of reflection on my experiences over the past two decades, I concluded that moral generosity is more common on the reservations, too, but still not nearly enough. As far as in the rest of society, outside of nuns and a few philosophers, it seems pretty darn hard to find.

For example, I attended my cousin Mike's wedding a few weeks ago. I noticed my niece, Wendy in a pretty dress with a nearly bald head. At first, I thought this was a new,odd fashion. At the reception, my sister asked,

"So, do you like your hair that short?"
My niece replied,
"I hate it!"
Curious, I asked,
"Well, why did you cut it that short, then?"

She explained that there was a fund-raiser for children with cancer at her school (Wendy teaches high school English) and she auctioned off shaving her head if the students donated a certain amount of money. They raised over $2,000 and Wendy came through on her part of the bargain.

I am very proud to know her. Here she demonstrates both generosity and honesty. She is modeling ethical behavior for her students. Good for her!

During the wedding, I heard lots of comments about how "stupid" Wendy was that she would shave her head for some people she didn't know, how it was ridiculous to shave your head and come to a wedding looking like that for a mere two thousand dollars, how naive she was to believe that a couple thousand dollars would make any difference in curing cancer, and on and on.

What every one of these people seemed unable to do was to appreciate the generosity and honesty of what Wendy did and GIVE her, generously, their whole-hearted approval.

Lest you think that I just have a bunch of mean relatives, let me add that this sort of experience happens ALL THE TIME. To give another example, I am on the Board of Directors of a non-profit organization. We have hundreds of volunteers. Each one of them gives of his or her time, talents and money. Constantly, I hear criticism from people who don't volunteer at all, something like this:

Complainer of the Day: "You know Susie that you think is so great?"

Me: "You mean Susie Sainte who edits our monthly magazine for free? The one who recruited an artist to design the cover and found three volunteers to write monthly columns for us?"

COTD: "Yes, that one. Well, you know in her biography that appears in the box on the inside cover of the magazine, where it says that she attended Yale University? Well, I just thought you'd like to know that she never graduated! I graduated from Yale and I checked with the alumni association and she attended for three years and then transferred to another school and graduated from there."

Me: "She doesn't say she graduated from Yale. What's your point?"

COTD: "Well, I just thought you would want to know, that's all. I mean, it suggests that she graduated from Yale and she didn't. I think maybe you should add in that box 'but didn't graduate from there.' "
This sort of event is not an unusual occurrence. It happens to me just about every day. Rather than being appreciative of the generous people donating their resources, these members of our organization (and many people who aren't even members) feel the need to tear people down. A very wise woman I knew years ago suggested to me that when a person said something like this to me I should confront them and say,

"Really, why are you telling me this?"

I am not saying that this type of "stinginess in spirt" doesn't happen on the reservations where I have been, but it happens far less often. One good example of this was Erich's graduation party. He was the first member of the Spirit Lake Nation to earn a doctorate. At the time, April, Erich and I were partners in Spirit Lake Consulting. April called me and said she wanted the company to host a party, commission a special star quilt for Erich and give it to him at the party. This was a great idea, I agreed, but the truth is, we had a lot of business at the time, the company was growing and I just did not take five minutes to think that it was a momentous occasion we should make a real effort to recognize - but April did, and she wasn't any less busy than me.

At the party, Erich made a point to emphasize that although he was the first enrolled member of the  tribe to earn his doctorate that there were two other individuals who, while enrolled in other tribes, had grown up on the reservation and earned Ph.D., and one of them, Dr. Russ McDonald, was sitting right there, and pointed him out. This is a sharing of honors that I don't see people do that often. Erich felt an unfairness that Russell hadn't been recognized for his accomplishment and wanted to honor him as well.

I have known Erich for a long time, and heard a lot of stories about him from a long time before that, what some refer to as "his Dukes of Hazzard days". Believe me, he has a lot more to be criticized about, than my niece, Wendy. Yet, out of a hundred people in the room, one or two mentioned, "Well, he wasn't really the first to get a doctorate because there were those other two who weren't enrolled in the tribe...."  or "Funny to see him getting a doctorate, I remember when he was ..."

Still, the other 98 people or so were genuinely, whole-heartedly (there's that word again), happy for him and proud that he graduated. I must have seen a dozen parents or grandparents poke one of the children or teenagers in attendance and say,

"See that? You're going to be the next doctor from this tribe."

Another dozen people got up and spoke, some with tears in their eyes, each telling Erich how proud they were of him.

My point, and I do have one (in fact, two):
  1. Generosity of spirit is less common than generosity with stuff,
  2. Both kinds of generosity are still more common on the reservations.

Over two years ago, we wrote a proposal for a Small Business Innovation Research grant. As part of that proposal, we conducted a survey of leaders on several reservations asking what they considered the biggest ethical issues on the reservation. In our Introduction to Ethical Issues on Indian Reservations course, we asked this same question again to 87 people who took the course, either on-line or in tribal college computer labs. We received a total of 223 problems listed (each person could list up to five). The results are shown below.

I was surprised to see that alcohol & drug use was not higher, surprised enough that I checked the answers again, but sure enough, these were the true figures. Coming in at number one was the problem of "not working full hours being paid". Our 87 people mentioned this over 60 times in almost as many different ways.

  • "Absenteeism"
  • "being on time  leaving early   not showing up for appointments"
  • "Chronic tardiness"
  • "getting paid for unworked hours"
  • "Doing other extracurricular things rather than the intended work at work and during working hours. "

Some answers went into more than one category. For example, "falsifying time cards" was counted under both dishonesty and not working full hours.

The second big winner (loser?) in the ethical issues arena was not following policies. Examples of this ranged from simple, one-word answers to much greater detail. Some answers, like the first one below, fell into the "dishonesty" category as well. 

  • "Diverting program resource to family and friends. This practice is one of the most common and the most harmful.  Honest, decent tribal worker who struggle to make ends meet by coming to work every day are dishearten to see another tribal member supplement his/her income by using program resources to pay their family expenses when they are barely making it on their salary.  This practice is probably what turns an honest worker into a dishonest worker. "
  • "Workers not following chain of command crying to tribal council for anything if they don't get their way."
The one-word answer we heard the most? Favoritism.

I hear so many people complaining about the problems with drugs and alcohol that I really thought there would be more answers like this one.

"Alcoholism is unethical because nothing good ever came from it, and it destroys many people's lives and so many people are affected negatively from the effects of alcohol use.  About 3 out of 4 people from my reservation are affected negatively from alcohol and all that is associated with use of alcohol"

I wasn't surprised not working full hours was a problem, but I was not expecting it to come in this far ahead of alcohol. I know that alcoholism is a big problem. I wonder if it is not seen as an ethical problem but more as something else - a health problem, a unique problem in itself. Or it just may be that people are more concerned that teachers aren't in classrooms, the road crew isn't clearing the snow and the clinic has no nurses because certain people only work when it suits them.
Did it ever occur to you that we often try to fix problems with procedures and systems that are really ethical problems?

Could  a lack of courage and honesty be the problem with your meetings? Thinking back, many, many of the meetings in which my time has been wasted had their problems not in lack of agenda, meeting minutes, nice flow charts done in Microsoft Project or all of those other things that managers like to spend classes and money on. The problem was that... get ready for it ...


Here is one example of a thousand ...

A team is announced to address Important Organization Problem Six. We'll call it IOPS. t doesn't matter what specifically it was. The team includes two people who are IOPS experts Fred and Susie, one person from accounting who can help us do the budget from IOPS, one manager whose job is to 'keep everyone on task', Joe, who is assigned because he works there and needs to be assigned to something,Jessica who is brand new, so it would be good training for her and Bill who is from another organization because 'we need communication'.

The first three meetings, Fred, Susie and the accountant decide on how to address the problem, how much it would cost and divide up the work. No work is assigned to Joe, Jessica or the manager because they know nothing about IOPS. After each meeting, the manager reminds them all, repeatedly, that they need to have an agenda, meeting minutes, with copies typed and put in the IOPS project binder, and the next meeting written on the master schedule. He also encourages them to include Joe, Bill and Jessica in the tasks because 'everyone has to contribute'. Susie points out that none of them know anything about IOPS. Fred gets the brilliant idea to assign Joe, Bill and Jessica to type up the minutes, write up the agenda and put the meeting on the schedule.

When Susie asks why they need all of this stuff and these people, the manager always gives one of two answers, either "People in the community want it" or "Our leaders want it".  Susie thinks that neither their leaders nor the people in the community could care less about the IOPS project and don't know it exists, but she doesn't see any point in saying so.

After FIFTEEN WEEKS of meetings, Fred and Susie have pretty much worked the problem out and solved it. The accountant quit attending the meetings after the eighth week because her part of the work was done. The manager schedules three meetings with tribal leadership to see what progress the IOPS project team is making.

Fifteen meetings in, what has been accomplished?  Fred and Susie did some good work with help from the accountant and solved an important problem. Neither Joe, Bill, Jessica nor the manager really contributed anything to the project's completion. Jessica may have learned something but there was no real structure for her to do that, so if she was bright and paid attention, she may have picked up some facts and procedures. The main people who benefited from the minutes, agenda and schedule were Joe, Bill, Jessica and the manager since they were not very familiar with what was going on. If there had only been two or three people meeting, it would have been much easier to arrange times. Did the tribal leadership really need to meet with this group three times? Not at all. The manager justified it as 'seeing progress' but his real reason was so that he could get seen by the tribal leaders as an effective manager.

How could we make this better? First, we could not add Joe just because he has no useful skills. That is avoiding a real problem of why he got hired in the first place and, hello? he has no useful skills. Sending him to 15 hours of meetings does nothing about the real problem. Second, we can ask why Bill is there. It almost always turns out that somewhere else there was a big failure in communication. To address that issue, a high level decision was made to have 'inter-agency communication'. On one reservation, this was so extreme that project directors often spent 12-15 hours of their work week in inter-agency meetings. Was the original failure because the project directors didn't go to enough meetings together? Usually not. Usually it came about because some of the directors were just incompetent in their jobs or plain hostile to one another (we all know how, in a small community, personality conflicts arise and can go on to make the Hatfields and McCoys feud look like Mother Teresa).

How is this for an honest look at meetings:
Does every person invited to this meeting today really need to attend? Do we even need to have official meetings on this project? What is the purpose of this meeting?

What if the manager had just told Susie and Fred, "We need you to fix the IOPS. I asked the accounting department manager to recommend someone who could help you and he said Francine would be available. Can you get it done in six weeks?"

Harping on the Right

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The harpies according to that source-of-all-knowledge, wikipedia, in Greek mythology, were nasty creatures with the bodies of birds and women's heads. They snatched food from those the gods wanted to punish, befouled the rest (I guess the Greeks were too cultured to say 'pooped on').

Somehow, a scolding woman came to be called a harpy and someone who just won't shut up about something is said to be harping on the subject.  I have found myself harping on one topic a lot lately, and I do believe it is directly a result of Erich's course on ethics for managers. That is, there is no excuse for doing something you know damn well is wrong. I am sick and tired of those people who say,
"It's not all as simple as that. Not everything is black and white."

Not it isn't ALL as simple as that, but some of it is. If you are a student doing a group project and are asked to give your fellow students an evaluation, you may rate one student fairly high even though she did very little work. You may explain it away because she had a sick child and could not do her share, or that the poor evaluation would bring her grade down and she would lose her financial aid. All of those reasons show some generosity and they may be wrong but the other person could argue their point of view was right. No, I am talking about the situation when you are sitting in class and the crazy teacher picks up a stapler and smacks the student next to you in the head causing severe brain injury. That kind of right versus wrong. The right thing is to call 911, report it to the dean and file a police report. Yet, how many people "don't want to get involved". We even find the relatives of the crazy stapler-wielder saying things like, "Well, she should have known better than to take a class from a crazy person anyway,"


"You'd think somebody that age would move faster when a crazy person with a stapler attacked them. Maybe she already had brain damage to begin with."

Sound silly? Today, I was talking to someone about a board of directors that had spent $150,000 that year on travel and entertainment for themselves and their chief executive officer. A friend of mine had gone to the last fundraiser that board had held. When I said he was condoning their behavior, someone else interjected and said,

"It isn't that simple. He's been involved with them for a long time. They weren't always that bad. If he wants to keep his position, which is pretty high up, he really doesn't have a choice."

I said,
"Yes, he does. Everybody has a choice. You choose not to put a price on your integrity. You can make up excuses all day long but the fact is that he KNOWS what the board did was wrong. He KNEW they took money out of their budget that was supposed to be for programs and spent it on themselves, and not just a little money, but a lot, and the people they were supposed to serve suffered for it. He knew it was wrong, he went along with it and showed up to support them."

One of my mentors, in graduate school, Dr. Jane Mercer, spoke out about the bias in intelligence tests long before it was socially acceptable to do so. She was attacked on many fronts as a scholar, as too emotional (kind of a veiled slant on wome in science). One of the arguments proposed that she "be reasonable" pointed out the large amount of money that had been invested in intelligence testing. She had an old Turkish proverb typed out and taped over her desk.

"No matter how far you've gone down a wrong road. Turn back."

It really is that simple. When you know the right path to take, go down it.
According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, students entering the University of Michigan Business School have to write a case study on the most challenging ethical dilemma each had faced. I asked myself,

"If I had to write about my biggest ethical dilemma, what would it be?"

I don't think one big event shapes anyone as an ethical person. In fact, I face ethical challenges every day.

If everyone else has left early, do I leave or do I stay and put in a full day's work for a full day's pay? When a friend asks me to do him a favor and write a letter recommending him for a job, do I do it even if I know he doesn't meet all of the requirements? That might seem like an easy one if you know me and how unbending I tend to be on honesty - but where does generosity come in? What if I truly know my friend is smart and hard-working and will be a success in that job? What if he has done me favors in the past, and I know he will do well, do I stretch the truth and count that six months he worked on projects in college as 'work experience'?

If I am hiring someone, do I have the courage to pick the person who doesn't meet the published qualifications if I am convinced he or she is the best person for other reasons - speaks a second language, has experience creating web sites. I have to admit I am wrong in that I didn't think of these other qualities that we could really use and I have to on top of that face the fallout from those people who didn't get hired even though they did have all the right skills on paper.

Generosity - how do you treat people you work with every day? I have a lot of education, and sometimes a person will say something or ask a question so clueless that it leaves me almost speechless. A few days ago, I received an email from a person and there were so many errors in what the person was asking I didn't even know where to begin. Something along the lines of,
"I am new to your country and I would like to have the experience of being queen of a pow-wow but this weekend is the only time I am free. Can you tell me if it is possible to get enrolled in a tribe by Thursday and how much does it cost? And which tribe is the best?"
Where do you start? Do I make the person feel really stupid by going point by point -  that you cannot enroll in a  tribe like you enroll in a college, pow-wows don't have queens, there probably isn't one in Los Angeles this weekend and on and on? I am a smart-ass by nature so I was tempted to give a response that would amuse me but no doubt hurt the person's feelings. Instead, after five minutes thought, I wrote back,

"It is really nice to hear you are interested in learning more about our country. I can tell you have never been to a pow-wow. Here is a little information about what goes on .... "

It's not a great story or case study, maybe not even a great blog, but the truth is that my greatest ethical challenge is being a littler more generous, braver, more honest, stronger for the next five minutes, than my first impulse might lead me to be.

"You are a mean, old woman," more than one of my daughters have told me more than once.
relaxing3.jpg"You know, sometimes you're a real bitch," I have been told by friends (but never by my husband who is commonly known as the calmest man in the world.)

I can't even claim to misunderstand the source of this discontent. As I have said on repeated occasions,
"I may be a bitch but I've never been a stupid bitch."

What is this all about, even from people who like me, sometimes love me? Well, I'll tell you. I am not an understanding person. I don't try to be. I don't want to be. There are three very big lack-of-understanding areas that really upset people.

1. It is not nice to discuss ethics. I was amazed to find that even alltop, the way-cool digital magazine site doesn't have a category for ethics. It has a category for ETSYRATI, for heaven's sake, which is a word that I had to look up, and I have four degrees. (To save you the time, I will tell you. Etsy is a website for small business owners to sell handmade items. Etsy rati are people who do that.) Talking about ethics is like talking about racism or sexual harassment. It makes people uncomfortable. Nice people talk about the weather or the cost of Michael Jackson's funeral or will Rush Limbaugh ever shut the hell up.

2. Even less nice than discussing ethics in general is discussing specific people's specific ethics, like honesty. I was in a meeting today and the outrageous spending of a non-profit organization was brought up. These people had spent $150,000 this year on board member travel, entertainment and travel for their chief executive. In the meantime, they had given the organization a 'contribution' of $160,000 from their endowment fund, 'borrowed' $70,000 from their endowment fund and that fund had LOST almost $70,000 this year after having been invested with some friends of the board members.  I demanded to know how this could happen, were the board members 'asleep at the wheel'? How could no one not have noticed this? These weren't secret documents. They were the financial statements given to all board members and no one said a word.

3. Least nice of all is calling people out, calling them cowards and 'refusing to be understanding'.

In defending the board members, a friend of some of them said,
"AnnMaria, you don't understand. Some of these people have spent a lot of their own money over the years to get to their current positions. They have paid to fly to events at their own expense to support the organization, get noticed and be selected for different opportunities. They've invested not just money but years of their lives to get recognized by this organization."

He's right. I DON'T understand. Even meaner, I don't WANT to understand. Here is what I DO understand. It doesn't take any courage to do the right thing when there is no cost. If that homeless guy who is half your size steals a hotdog from the stand out front, it  doesn't take any courage to yell at him and threaten him if he does it again. When it does take courage is if your boss, or the chairman of the board, is taking $25,000 to fly first-class around the world while the clients you supposed to serve are getting told there is no money, very sorry. What I do understand is that it only takes courage to do the right thing when there is a risk.

If you only do what's ethical when it is at no cost, no risk to you, then you are NOT ethical, you are NOT honest, you are NOT courageous and no, I DON'T want to understand where you're coming from.

Or... maybe I do understand and I don't care. As I said in the meeting today,
"I feel only contempt for people who would sell out their community for a price as small as being on some committee so they get a free trip to Hawaii. I understand perfectly well."

So, there you have it, I am a mean old woman.

I try very, very hard though, to persevere in being an ethical one.