Friday, November 20, 2015

In Pursuit of Dialogue

By necessity I became a pioneer in what is now called “reputation management” during the last half of my now long concluded nearly four decade career in community destination marketing.

This involved standing up for the communities I represented during that span.  In the words of an IBM exec in Durham who came to my defense, I was just insisting on what was “justly due” that community.

With the backing of a grassroots group of residents we called Image Watchers, we turned the community’s reputation around over a span of about nine years.

A turn-around is marked by when a negative positive-to-negative ratio climbs into positive territory.

As you might expect, reaching this milestone was not without a cost to my personal reputation, which to the consternation of friends and supporters, I never defended with the same passion.

There may have been more if you consider the spectrum of sycophants but there were only a handful of detractors that were publicly vitriolic judging by their thinly disguised verbatim comments on community-wide surveys of my performance.

One even passive-aggressively returned a business reply envelope with a hand-written epitaph and taped to a brick hoping to run up the cost to my organization.

You can see the handiwork of one of these detractors who was then a public official if you Google my name.  Though not the one quoted in the story, this official planted the story along with misrepresentations he knew to be false.

Even though it was explained that my severance upon retirement was not a severance but a payout of income that had been earned month by month over two decades but deferred, I suspect the temptation to juice up the story headline and lead in without revealing the source was too much.

During the last decade of my career, I added satisfaction with my leadership to periodic surveys of several hundred civic and business leaders to help my governing board discern if the complaints these individuals were making to them were generalizable.

They weren’t, but one or two board members always worried about the effect those efforts to undermine me might have, so I was annually tasked with meeting with each of them to learn more about their concerns.

But I had already met with each of these complainants numerous times, including one time four-on-one and would continue to do so until I retired, but to little avail.

It didn’t help that I could provide data-driven responses.  It seemed they could never really articulate what bothered them, especially those who didn’t have an issue but sought to curry favor with someone who did, essentially the definition of a sycophant.

But I sensed it had to do with a misunderstanding of roles complicated by misperceptions of power and influence, seasoned with a little envy.

In other words, politics.

Only two or three of these individuals were ever constant.  When a couple would drop out, replacements who were unfamiliar with the facts or previous discussions were recruited, perpetuating yet another round of meetings in pursuit of yielding understanding.

No one likes to have enemies, but meeting with people who disagreed with me and/or the organizational strategic direction we were executing was something I had made a practice during my entire career.

The habit took root when I ventured to meet with a powerful official who had set out to get me fired from my first community destination marketing organization in Spokane.

It was second nature when a clique attempted to do the same in Anchorage.

So it wasn’t a matter of if - but when - a handful in Durham began to take shots at me, for I had learned that truly being a change agent inevitably invites discord and carries risk.’

It is temping to either pander to these interests or to write them off instead with the 18th century French saying “on ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des oeufs” or “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

My goal in meeting with people who were openly contrary or covertly hostile to either me or our mission was always to gather understanding, but often the questions I was able to answer also begrudgingly garnered respect.

It helps to keep in mind when going into meetings such as these that there is a difference between someone being uninformed and ignorant.

You have hope for the former but be prepared to face the latter or at the very least understand that changes of heart and mind take time, often occurring after you are gone.

In the words of Seth Godin, "Ignorant’ used to be a fairly vague epithet, one that we often misused to describe someone who disagreed with us.

Today, because it represents a choice, the intentional act of not-knowing, I think it carries a lot more weight.”

In his short but inspiring book entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Parker J. Palmer wrote of such seemingly inscrutable encounters:

“A movement can be saved…only by openly engaging those who disagree.”

Through much of my career, I made it a practice to meet with at least one person every week who disagreed with me while learning to listen carefully and only intervene when asked a question.

That, for me at least, was really hard work as was learning not to tell myself a story based on microaggressions.

Unfortunately, those habits I learned through necessity and experience are now increasingly rare.

For instance, NPR journalist Alan Greenblatt reported that “Indeed, over the past 50 years, the percentage of people who said they would disapprove if their children married someone from the other party has spiked from 5 percent to 40 percent.”

But just meeting with someone with whom you disagree does not guarantee dialogue even if they are brave enough to be vulnerable and explain why and how they disagree with you.

In an essay published a few months ago entitled “Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Your Political Opposite,” the co-authors of You’re Not As Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong) defined genuine dialogue:

“Perhaps it would be a step forward simply to recognize that genuine dialogue must entail the bilateral, free and un-manipulated engagement of at least two persons, two unique perspectives and ultimately two distinct agendas.”

They continue by writing, “The moment a space becomes, in actuality, a site for unilateral, instrumental and manipulated engagement, it arguably ceases to be “dialogue.”

It is an easy trap to fall into when the answers you get are, “just because,” or “I just don’t agree.”  Over time, I learned that in these encounters I had to dial back my passion and determination.

In the essay, the authors also happen to quote from a book I had been assigned to read back in 1971 while earning a degree in history at BYU entitled The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire an expert in the philosophy of education:

“Dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person’s ‘depositing’ ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be ‘consumed’ by the discussants.”

It is unfortunate that this book might not now be permitted at BYU.  Freire felt that education could not be neutral.  It either functions to bring about conformity or functions to develop critical thinking which can lead to transformation.

Transformation was inherently my job during my entire career.  But in the words of a 13th century Monk and later adapted by President Abraham Lincoln:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”.

Friday, November 06, 2015

My “Fortunate Son” Myth

While delving into family history I am often reminded that I am the only son of an only son who was a fourth generation Idaho horse and cattle rancher.

This meant that I also carried the weight of what I came to call being the “Fortunate Son,” by my 21st year after the late ‘69 Creedance Clearwater Revival hit.

It’s an “anti-war” anthem, a cause I wouldn’t embrace for another two years yet.

For me though, the feeling of being a fortunate son began almost as soon as my parents brought me home to the ranch in 1948.  I grew up with the sense that I was treated differently.

By that, I mean that my patriarchal grandparents treated me differently, as did my aunts on both sides.

It was different than how it seemed they treated cousins who were both older and younger, male and female and different too than my two sisters when they came along.

Maybe it was just a response to the patriarchal ranching culture along the Rockies but to me the feeling came to symbolize getting things I didn’t deserve.

It is a feeling that revisits whenever I receive recognition as I did a few days ago with an award named for Charles Kuralt.

He was from North Carolina where I’ve lived for going on 27 years but his heart was along the Big Hole River in Montana, just across the Centennial Mountains from the ancestral Idaho ranch where I spent my early years.

Through his One the Road series, Kuralt happens to also be one of my influences  to follow a four-decade career in community destination marketing.

The sense that I was a fortunate son also meant that to me people expected things I couldn’t deliver, such as being a three sport standout in school like my father.

To their credit, my parents -- especially my mother – worked hard to instill humility in me but that came soon enough with the embarrassment, if not shame, of failure.

I failed to have my father’s bone structure or speed for that matter.

I was also left-handed which presents some learning challenges beginning with tying my shoelaces or lasso a moving steer from horseback.

These and many other tasks were complicated by an essential tremor in both hands which, in and of itself, was embarrassing enough.

Still, it took a while before I fully grasped that “fortunate son” was a myth.

Failure was an option with my parents but giving up and especially not trying were not.

In retrospect, I look back at my life through a lens of grit, determination, perseverance and success because it felt that way and people have reinforced those qualities and outcomes.

But closer examination reveals an incredible number of failures, including failed relationships, but they were not for want of trying.

But for fortune and luck, there would have been more I am sure.

But as an exercise in memory and to reinforce humility and empathy for my less fortunate, from the safety of distance I look back at the failures now.

Failure and shame seem closely associated for me.  Each one played a role in propelling me forward just as for many others they seem a permanent disability.

Having been invited by third graders to play tackle football during recess, I picked a fumble up as a first grader and ran the wrong way.

I was called out as a fourth grader by my teacher for using my finger on each word as I read.

I was cut from my little league baseball team as a fifth grader.  I got a C in P.E. as an eighth grader and quit the football team only to come back as a ninth grader.

I screwed up as a senior and let my grades slide and flunked my renewal drivers license exam test for using my left foot on the brake.

I’ve lost any reliable count of how many times I disappointed my parents.

I failed my military draft physical due to a football injury, and then failed five different times over the next four years as I relentlessly attempted end-runs to enlist in other branches of service.

I got fired from three different jobs before I turned 40.  Oh, and then there were those failed marriages.  As I retired in 2009, I read a great book by essayist and poet David White entitled, The Three Marriages.

The book’s subtitle is “Reimaging Work, Self and Relationship.”  It is not a book about balancing the three but for me especially it explained why I was so successful at the first and until late in life a failure at the third.

My take away was that only when I understood the marriage to self was I able to transfer my success at work over a four-decade career to an enduring relationship, which now seems so effortless.

One of Whyte’s most memorable metaphors is that “We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory we travel.”

In his book of essays entitled, “WHAT ARE People FOR?” Wendell Berry wrote about solitude that “Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness.”

I needed a lifetime of relationship-“exile and loneliness” as a part of consummating my marriage to self.  I simply had two of Whyte’s marriages in the wrong order.

He observes that “We often enter a marriage with images of how it will enhance our sense of self, increase the happiness we already possess and end a sense of loneliness.”

But, Whyte continues, “After the initial euphoria, we just as often find that in the marriage itself our sense of self is obliterated, our previous sources of happiness disappear and our sense of isolation is made more acute…”

Those failures of relationship were at most, a failure to know and understand myself enough.

Work was another matter for me but again fortune played a role.

I set out to be a lawyer and backed into the perfect career: community destination marketing.

I was always highly “engaged” in my work, as is 30% of the workforce according to Gallup, give or take a point or two depending on the year. 

But I believe much of that engagement was due to being and finding a line of work that was “purpose-oriented.”

This is the good fortune currently shared by 28% of the American workforce according to a study by Imperative, a company founded by Aaron Hurst, author of The Purpose Economy.

It is probably part of what made me so much more successful than many peers.

Purpose-oriented employees who pursue work as fulfillment and as a means to help other people are found distributed across the workforce and in every occupation.

I feel it is a mistake for those who aren’t to see themselves as a victim and look to management to fill them with purpose and engagement.

Tom Rath, a best-selling author and senior scientist for Gallup has written a new “must-read” entitled Are You Fully Charged?

He concludes that if you seek engagement or purpose directly you may not find it.  But if you seek meaning you will find happiness and engagement.

As in a sentiment my daughter forwarded recently, “Do what you love, love what you do.”

Find meaning and purpose in whatever job you do and you will find engagement, something I realize was one of the early values embedded by my parents.

For me the stars just aligned more closely than for many not because of the “fortunate son” myth but thanks to parents who put the emphasis on trying.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Underlying Our Fear of Crime is a Paradox

The news media often rationalizes its obsession with violent crime by purporting that this is what people are interested in and/or concerned about.

A new Gallup poll once again dispels that notion.

It is true that 17% of Americans frequently or occasionally worry about getting murdered, as do 16% who worry about being sexually assaulted.

However, many times more Americans are worried about being the victim of theft, which is borne out by reactions on neighborhood listservs or increasingly now related apps.

Over the last ten years, the proportion of Americans who perceive that crime is going up has roughly climbed back to what it was in the mid-1990s.

This has been true while the violent crime rate has steadily trended downward.  The misperception disconnect is as likely among Americans who have not been victims as it is among those who have.

Puzzling is that this misperception is far higher among Republicans than Independents overall as well as Democrats, and 23 points higher among conservatives than it is among liberals.

What makes this relevant is that Republicans are more likely to be “cocooned” where they live.  The news media sees politicians in states such as where I live as pitting rural areas against cities.

But for several years, analysts have noted a “Red State – Blue City” divide.  As shown by Josh Kron in The Atlantic, “people don’t make cities liberal – cities make people liberal.”

Some of “America’s bluest cities are located in its reddest states.”

Only 37% of Americans live within a mile of an area where they would be afraid to walk alone at night which is roughly what it was in 1965, even though the proportion of Americans living in cities has increased over that span from 69.9% to 80.7%.

This is why examining the role of the news media and news outlet proliferation during that span as related to what we fear is important.

In 1999, then USC sociology researcher and now Lewis & Clark College president Dr. Barry Glassner published a book entitled, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.

Using data that is even more relevant now, he took to task politicians, advocacy groups, and news media for being “peddlers of fear.”

As tragic as the circumstances were in Ferguson, MO, as well as a series of subsequent events, the rush to judgment over the past 16 months in the news and among advocacy groups regarding law enforcement is an example of what Glassner was writing about.

Many researchers too have been enablers by failing to explain in news reports that correlation is not causation nor even always very useful.

Race isn’t always a factor, but for many violent crimes it is sometimes relevant.

For example, 48% of Americans who are parents of school age children fear their children will be physically harmed at school.  This is an underreported reason “Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools.”

Even among liberals, according to author Abby Norman, “They want diversity, just not too much.” 

But most school shooting are committed by white males.  That fact should naturally end up a factor while delving into solutions just as race as well as parenting should not be off limits while studying other types of crime.

Geo-studies of gun violence have found that 50% trace to just 3% of a community’s street segments and intersections.

Half of the overall crime in a community, including the break-ins that most concern Americans, traces to just 4% of street segments and intersections.

Sociological researchers such as Harvard’s Dr. Orlando Patterson, who happens to be black, have found that between 12% and 28% of the youth in neighborhood hot-spots such as these has a contempt for laws and institutions.

He notes that they are infected “with a threatening vision of blackness openly embraced as the thug life.”

He also notes that in tackling the present series of crises “it is a clear mistake to focus only on police brutality, and it is fatuous to attribute it all to white racism.”

It is, he contends, “a culture reinforced by contemporary conditions like poverty, racial discrimination, chronic unemployment, single parenting and a chemically toxic, neurologically injurious environment, like lead paint.”

But it is a culture nonetheless.  Certainly not black culture per se, but a culture fostered among a very small minority in these specific locations where a majority of inhabitants happen to be black, hard-working and lawful.

This is also why researchers who assume traffic stops or resulting fines in certain areas should reflect the overall make up of a community are misleading the general public when commenting during news reports.

Just as with whatever is leading disturbed white males to shoot up schools, the culture Dr. Patterson is citing is not evenly distributed.

News reports often not only generalize crime to an overall community, but misperceptions are often exaggerated by double coverage when the media in nearby communities jump on the same stories rather than shining a balanced light on similar issues at home.

The answer is more coverage of crime, not less.

But headlines and reports should be far more geographically specific and as quick to signal why some crimes should not be a source of generalized fear.

It would also help if editors were a eager to provide details such as property that is left unsecured or the role of underzealous parenting in addition to overzealous enforcement.

It would also help if news stories called out politicians and groups seeking to capitalize on misperceptions and geo-generalizations.

Seth Godin recently said something that could as easily be applied to this which was, “as with pollution, because no one owns the problem, no one is working very hard to solve it.”

But journalists who are concerned about this paradigm and accept some responsibility can not only set an example but begin to raise the bar for others.