Posts Tagged ‘clueless’

Global Impact #1 – Is Max Stier Crazy? Countering the Drift

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Ever wonder why so much of what we see and hear drifts toward the negative? 

Conversations.  News coverage.  Even the fact that many of us fend off compliments, explaining away our goodness.

Thank goodness Max Stier stood up to negativity.  And “thanking goodness” is exactly what Max did in a recent editorial in the Washington Post. 

Max Stier is President of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.   From Pew Research polls to reports about SEC workers watching porn to dismal ratings of Congress and even to Saturday Night Live skewering public sector employees, there is evidence out there about the public’s distrust of and cynicism about the federal government.  But Max begs to differ, and in his essay, “The federal government’s quiet heroes,” he cites several examples of “the routine successes, innovative initiatives, cutting edge science, and other amazing work being done behind the scenes” by our government workers in Haitian relief, intelligence gathering, global warming, health care fraud, and aviation safety.  Not a bad start, Max.

What impresses me most about Max’s editorial is that it counters the drift.  Think about it.  Have you ever joined in about how awful “the government” is?  In the DC area, it’s a great and varied sport – we can lampoon the Feds, our state, or, a real favorite target, the DC government.  (I’ve tried to counter that last one over the years by citing the most efficient government agency on the planet, the DC parking officers.  These folks stand tall amidst their well-maligned brethren by being the best at finding you over your meter or, if you dare, parking illegally while you “run in” to pick up something.  Don’t try it.)

One thing good global leaders do is to counter the drift.  When I speak of “global” leaders, I mean people who scale up their influence – and not just overseas.  People who have impact beyond their small store or their lone department in an agency.  

Do you tire of discussions that are so predictable and easy that they don’t really require real thought and evidence?  One of those is the knee-jerk tendency to tear down government.  If Mr. Stier were in that conversation, he’d speak up, and I wonder if we all might think he’s crazy, so accepted is the notion that government = lazy/inefficient/bureaucratic.   But then he’d tell us about Pius Bannis, a U.S. immigration officer in Haiti, who, in 20-hour days, 7 days/week, helped hundreds of orphans find safety, set up a makeshift day-care center, and even drove kids to the airport for evacuation purposes.

Max’s stance, to me, has “global” impact.  He stands in the face of accepted wisdom and gently tells us we might be clueless to the goodness.  He asks us to look beyond sound bites, cliche, and plain old conversational comfort.  He asks us to look deeper, to think, to question stereotypes, and to acknowledge our unsung heroes, where, yes, as the highway signs in New Jersey used to say, “Your tax dollars at work.”

Thank goodness, and thanks Max.

Who do you know who is doing great work in government?

Curiosity Not Furiosity

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

How to Use 2009’s Big News Items about Race
to Solve Cross-Cultural Problems

2009 had its fair share of news items and bad publicity for organizations with different racial and ethnic groups among its customers and employees.  There were several instances where the cultural “clueless” dynamic was at play.

Here’s my wish for 2010:  that we replace denial with curiosity, not furiosity.

What do a swim club in suburban Philadelphia, the Cambridge police department, and an owner of a hotel in New Mexico have in common?

They all gave the same response to big news items involving them and members of other races.

Why should we care?  Because noticing the pattern in these responses is a great Discovery moment for leaders of multicultural customers and employees.  You can prevent and solve many cross-cultural conflicts by tuning in here.

Did you see these news items in 2009?

  • A swim club that had contracted with a Philadelphia camp for kids asked them not to return after they came on June 29.  The kids and the camp director said some swim club members said, “What are those black kids doing here?” and that members pulled their kids out of the pool when the camp kids came in.  The club said, “Allegations of racism are completely untrue,” citing overcrowding.
  • Remember Professor Henry Louis Gates returning from an overseas trip to his house, and the police coming and asking him to step outside his house?  There is much dispute over whether racial bias influenced the policeman, no doubt.  But what struck me most was that very early on, the head of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association said, “We…reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case that they’ve allowed a person’s race to direct their activities.”  So Mr. Dennis O’Connor, the Association’s President, assured us not only was race not involved in this case, but in “any other case” in Cambridge police history.
  • A new owner took over a hotel in New Mexico.  He decided to lay down some rules:  No more speaking in Spanish in his presence (he thought they were talking about him) and no more “Marcos.” Now it would be Mark – he ordered workers to anglicize their names.  The town and employees were upset, the hotel got picketed, and the AP, among others, picked up the story.  Mr. Whitten, the new owner, said, “It has nothing to do with racism. I’m not doing it for any reason other than for the satisfaction of my guests.”

You can pretty much bank on folks denying that race is involved when, well, race is involved.  Now, of course, in all of these cases, we can debate whether the motivation of the swim club, the policeman, and the owner is racial or not.  But after years of these disputes, aren’t you as tired as I am of that debate?

Here’s what I would call a Discovery moment:  if you are a leader or organization dealing with whether an incident or performance or a denial of a promotion relates to race, or gender, or another cultural or diversity dimension:  Don’t debate!  Don’t try to figure out who’s right.

Say “Hmm, let me think about that.”  Or better yet, “Hmm, tell me more.  How are you seeing the situation?”

This not only makes you more thoughtful and considerate, it gives you time to think.  And furthermore:  it will knock the socks off the person who is speaking to you.  Why?  Because they are likely used to years of these debates, too, and they are probably just waiting to dismiss you when you say, “This has nothing to do with race.”

At home, you can argue these kinds of things till the cows come home if you like.  But as a leader of diverse customers, your job is to expand and serve your customer base, not to drive them off.  As a leader of diverse employees, your job is to motivate them, not alienate them.  In both cases, you want to understand the perspective of your customer and your employee.  If you don’t, in today’s world, you can put your business at risk, as Mr. Whitten, the hotel owner, later admitted:  “What kind of fool or idiot or poor businessman would I be to orchestrate this whole crazy thing that’s costed (sic) me a lot of time, money and aggravation?”

And as I point out in my book, Are You Clueless?, we all have our own cultural background, but I believe we are all essentially clueless to the backgrounds of those whose cultures are different from us.  That would argue, I would say, for a bit of humility as to whether race, gender, disability, or any other cultural dimension is influencing a situation.

So for 2010:  how about a little cultural curiosity rather than furiosity?

For more suggestions on cultural conflict and leading a diverse workforce, go to this page, where you can order the book, or find other tips throughout the site.