December 2009 Archives

Native Americans are noted for their generosity. People give feasts, presents, time and attention to one another.

Once you become a board member, you will be giving of your time and talents to the community. Good for you! That is why you were elected or appointed. There is a reason it is called public service. I am going to assume that you are doing a fine, even an outstanding job. Unfortunately, I have seen people like you get burned out and discouraged by mean people. You can learn what to do through experience, your own or other people's. Try to learn through other people's experience whenever you can. It is less painful.

As a board member and consultant to boards, on and off reservations, I have had my experience with generosity, and with its opposite - meanness.

Most of us think of the common definition of "mean" as small-minded or not treating people decently. There is an older, related definition, though - stingy or selfish. You will come to learn as board member that your children are correct. Mean people really do suck.

Avoid Mean People

For some people, no amount you give will ever be enough. For example, I had someone send me an email on Christmas - demanding an answer. His question wasn't an emergency. He just wanted me to drop whatever I was doing on Christmas with my family and answer him because he wanted me to do it. What did I do? I made Christmas cookies with my daughters. (Well, actually they made them, but I ate them so that counts as a family activity, right?) 

This person will probably speak out against me at the next board meeting and say that I am unresponsive. That's okay. If people you serve as a board member don't believe you should be able to have any time to yourself, not even on Christmas, then those people lack generosity and are probably not the type of people you want to associate with.

 Other people demand 100% agreement. You can vote on the same side as them 99 times out of 100, but that 100th time, when you vote with the opposition, they are outraged and the next thing you know, they are trying to get you recalled.

Decisions about Mean People

Sometimes mean people can sound almost reasonable. (Imagine this said in the most whiny voice possible ... )

"I called you because you are on the board. People like you are supposed to be providing a public service. If you did not want to help people out why did you run for the board instead of letting somebody who is really committed have that seat?"

Notice the person doesn't even acknowledge the fact that it is 11 p.m. on Saturday night.

You are on a board to serve your community but you don't owe any one person or even the whole community your entire life. If this was a regular job, you would have holidays off, sick days and not be expected to work 24-7 .  If you can, simply do the best you can and don't give these people another thought. Turn off your cell phone after 10 p.m. and go back to baking Christmas cookies. Odds are, the majority of the people you serve appreciate your efforts and appreciate how generous you are with your time, and they, in return, are not overly selfish n their demands.

If you are in an organization or on a board that consists of mostly mean people, consider quitting and going somewhere else. Maybe that sounds like quitting - well, it is quitting, I just used that word, didn't I?  In the book, "Business as a game" one of the best chapters has the title, "Never play with a stacked deck."

One way mean people take advantage of others is by playing on those very ethics, the generosity that motivates you to give of yourself, the perseverance that makes you unwilling to give up.

If you find yourself the minority in a group of mean people, there is no win for you. They will keep demanding more and more from you than is reasonable to expect you to give. As Erich always says in his ethics courses, you can't change other people, you can only change yourself.

Walk away.  Left behind you will be a whole group of takers, each trying to get the others to do more for ME, to please ME, to agree with ME.  Can that group ever succeed? No.

Does this mean that you are letting down people in the community who you could help? No, again. Someone with your willingness to give of yourself for the good of the community will be welcome many places. Find one of them and leave the mean people behind.

When I gave a very frustrated young man this advice, he protested,

"But, Dr. De Mars, that way, won't the mean people win? And won't I lose?"

I asked him,
"Do you really think so? What exactly do they win? What exactly do you lose?"

Think about it.

While our first two courses focused on courage and honesty, perseverance has seemed to be more and more of an issue in my life lately. Maybe it is because we have now finished our second year of the Tribal Leaders Institute, requiring some perseverance in itself.

Certainly those who are are unethical persevere. Erich and I were discussing this today and he pointed out that people who have an unethical reason to be on a board, whether they are taking a salary, paying a relative, misusing the expense money or just for the ego of it, will fight hard to stay in that position.

In a podcast a year or so ago, What if we succeed?, I asked Erich what would happen if the Tribal Leaders program worked and everything was exactly as he desired. He said,

"We would put aside all the petty fighting that we are doing right now and we would take a place in society that is rightfully ours. Right now, we are kept .... at the bottom of the totem pole because we don't have these values. "

What do you get from living those values - honesty, courage, perseverance and generosity ? If you ever read the Tribal Leaders Forum section on Susie Sainte, you'll see that it doesn't win you prizes every day. Sometimes the Susies of the world are fired, quit, turned down for a promotion, because they refuse to compromise with unethical behavior. Erich has written a number of posts about calling lying what it is , but that doesn't always win you friends. It's callled being "abrasive" or "uncompromising" or "not a team player".

In the long run (and I am old enough to have  had a pretty long run), character counts. Erich mentioned having people support him for a position,
"Because they knew from my reputation that I had more integrity than the  other person."

Several years ago, Erich and I had worked as partners on a number of grant evaluations, and I was also, on my own, having a lot of success writing grant proposals. A couple of people came to me and told me that I would get more business if I didn't work with Erich, since he had made some political enemies at the time. I just shrugged. Erich and I are friends. He had been a support for me my first year teaching at the tribal college, when my husband died and many times I don't even remember any more. It was an easy decision. If I made $10,000 or so less that year, oh well. In the long run, both Erich and I have made many times that amount. And I have the integrity of a person who does not sell out her friends.

It is not just money. I was thinking of what I might want to do as the next step in my career. My husband said, "Well, what do you like to do the most?"

It occurred to me that what I like to do most is spend time with people I really enjoy and care about. I have a LOT of good relationships, with friends I have known for ten years or more, with my adult children, with my husband. Those relationships are built by perseverance. My children are a journalist, an Olympic athlete, a graduate student at a top university and a middle school student who makes the honor role and is on the student council. As every parent, I have made my share of colossal mistakes. It's not the fact that you screwed up once this week (or today) that is crucial; it is the sum of the thousands of times you put your children first, were honest with them, had the courage to say no, the generosity to give them your time.  (Let me add that I have had my days - sometimes years - with each of my children !) It is the perseverance to never give up on them.

That business cliche "at the end of the day" - I hate that. It's not at the end of the day that counts. It's at the end of childhood, career, in the middle of your life, at your 25th anniversary, that's when you can see that ethics wins out.

Two things happened this week, one large, one small, that reminded me of the importance of perseverance.

The major event was the U.S. Department of Interior settling for $3.4 billion the claims of 300,000 Native Americans who were owed payments on trust land. As the article said, this claim lasted through four secretaries of the Department of the Interior, for thirteen years. Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet , was the lead plaintiff in the case. How many times could she have wondered whether it made any sense to go on. Here she was taking on the federal government with its enormous funds for lawsuits, buildings full of lawyers. She didn't give up for 13 years. That is amazing.

retirement_rocks.jpgErich talks about "four tradition values of our ancestors", of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity (actually, as I remind him sometimes, those are his ancestors. My ancestors are from the Caribbean, where the four values are rum, tropical vacations. Miss Universe and oil.) Often, it seems to me that we emphasize two of those values more in our courses, courage and honesty.

Yet, here in Cobell's case we see the great importance of perseverance. The saying, "You can't fight city hall" might be based in this idea that they can just keep on going for what seems like forever. They can have more hearings - 192 trial days - keep requesting documents - 3,600 filings over A MILLION PAGES of documents. And yet, she didn't give up. Ms. Cobell is my new hero.

Two lessons are to be learned here. One is the great importance of perseverance but the second is that unethical people can persevere as well.

The smaller issue that came up was on a board of which I was a member. There had been concerns about people getting promoted because they had connections, knew the right person (sound familiar?). The new promotion committee was charged with enforcing policies, no matter what, and were told the board would be behind them. When they turned down someone close to a board member for promotion, that was brought up over and over by the member. The majority of the board supported the committee.

Here is where I screwed up. That member asked me about bringing the issue back to the committee and my response was,

"It couldn't hurt. You can approach the committee and give them your side of the story."

Now, I realize, I was wrong. The committee acted on what they believe was right. The board supported them. What I should have told this board member was,

"No! The committee made a decision, the board supported it and that is final."

Unethical people show perseverance as well and we need to show perseverance in standing up against them.
The "not-so-innocent" by-stander is a topic covered in our courses, but not often enough, in my opinion. I just had this experience with an organization I work with. They had promised to meet some deadlines - and didn't. I spoke to one of their managers, Fred, who said, basically,

"You are absolutely right, but it's not our fault. You needed to talk to Joe, not me. Just speak to Joe and fill out forms A, B & C and we'll get our part of this project done."

So, I speak to Joe and he says,

"You shouldn't have waited on Fred. Next time come to me personally. I'll get this done right away."

A month goes by. I email Joe. No answer. I call Joe. No answer. I meet with Fred again. He says,

"The problem is we have procedures that need to be followed, you did not involve me in your meeting with Joe. You should have included me. What you need to do is call Sam."

I am not a particularly tactful person, so I tell Fred,

"That is b.s.  I did EXACTLY what you told me to do and our project is no closer to being done that it was a month ago. How can you possibly say it wasn't your fault when I did exactly what you told me now you are telling me something else?"

[Incidentally, what I think is going on here is that Fred is afraid to make a decision. He is afraid if he fires Joe for not following through, or if he assigns someone else to the project, or really if he does anything, someone will be mad at him in his organization. So, he just comes up with one stalling tactic after another hoping somehow, the problem will get solved eventually. Maybe we'll just do that part of the project ourselves even though we have already paid them for part of the work. ]
So, I call Sam, who, it turns out has no idea what I am talking about or that this project is his responsibility. So, I schedule a meeting with Sam, Fred, Joe, Tom, Dick & Harry. During the meeting, Fred says,

"It is Susie's fault. She was in this position six months ago before Sam and she should have let him know it is his responsibility to get this work done on time."

At this point, Tom and Harry very sincerely tell me,

"You are absolutely right, but it's not our fault. We didn't know about it, but now that we do,  we'll get our part of this project done."

They think I am a rude, terrible person when I reply,

"To hell with you! If you don't have this project done within a month, we aren't working with your organization any more."

Tom and Harry seem like really sincere, competent, ethical people - but so did Fred, Joe and Sam. Here I am months later and no closer to getting what I need. Why is that? How could it possibly be Tom and Harry's fault ? Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but here is what I am thinking. Unless I had the most incredibly bad luck in the world, this isn't the first time this has happened. In fact, in talking to other clients of theirs, I find this has happened many times. I do know that I am one of the few people to tell Fred to his face that he is lying.

Erich's latest blog is on "Cheating and lying is wrong and should be recognized as such." We really don't coordinate our blogs but this just happens to fit with what I am talking about.

Let's say Tom and Harry really are good people. Why did it take months of this kind of behavior and someone from the outside to come in and say,

"You said one thing to me and now you are saying something completely different. I don't believe you now."

If Tom and Harry really are good people, what will they do now? I would assume that they will find out why they are behind schedule and actually get the work done. Will I trust them then? As unfair as it seems, the answer is no. They work for an organization that has proven itself untrustworthy.  Unfair as it seems, THEY are part of the problem in my view, because they did not speak up before. They are not so innocent by-standers, even if they tell themselves they are.

What is my challenge now? To not become a not-so-innocent bystander myself.  I need the courage to go back to our board and say,

"Yes, we have a long-standing relationship with these people but they have proven to be not trustworthy. Tom and Harry seem like they might be ethical people but if they do not meet this new deadline, I propose we end our relationship with this organization."

So, that is exactly what I did.   It may turn out that our new partner is even worse, or that we can't do the work ourselves. Some board members may blame me for this not working out with Fred's organization.  I actually understand Fred. And I don't want to turn into him.