Tag Archives: respect

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

I want to review a very useful book today. It’s called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work. To my great fortune, I was turned onto the works of author Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D about five years ago by a close friend. This is one of Elgin’s greatest works, and should be included among the greatest  contributions to the healthy workplace movement.

Elgin, a linguist, goes into great detail about the ways in which language can be strategically employed to both undermine and enhance the mission and culture of the workplace. She begins by examining the power of language and the importance of “cleaning up” the “language environment” in our workplaces, and goes on to explore the concepts of semantic features (the unique impact on different individuals of specific word choices) and recognizing and responding to what she calls Verbal Attack Patterns (VATs).

The most powerful chapter in the book is titled “Malpractice of the Mouth.” In this chapter, we are introduced to the importance of recognizing “verbal violence” and the responsibility we have to recognize and neutralize verbal violence whenever it surfaces in the workplace, especially if we find ourselves the target. The overarching goal in verbal self defense is to navigate the hostile mode of workplace aggressors towards the mode of “Leveling”. In Elgin’s description, Levelers are people who are straightforward and sincere, even if this sometimes involves a critique of the performance or views of a colleague.

The mode of Leveling does not involve aggression -especially covert aggression- and is the preferred communication mode for those who wish to make the workplace more productive and harmonious. Covert aggression, on the other hand, is the preferred mode of those who wish to “get under the skin” and undermine the confidence of their colleagues. In situations involving covertly aggressive verbal attacks, Elgin offers a way out. First, she instructs the reader in how to recognize the tactic of hiding “buried presuppositions” in verbal attacks. A crass example of this can be seen in the following sentence:

“When did you stop starving your parakeets?”

Three “facts” are presupposed in the previous sentence. 1. You have parakeets. 2. You began starving those parakeets at one point in time; 3. You ended the practice of starving the parakeets at another point in time.

If in fact you own parakeets (but have never starved them in the first place), according to Elgin’s strategies for verbal self defense, you will need to respond to the most important presupposition (that you began starving your parakeets) in order to neutralize the attack. She offers several strategies for accomplishing this task in ways that preserve the dignity of both the “verbal attacker” and the target.

I will be presenting hypothetical scenarios in future posts, in which I will explore the various strategies for handling covert aggression in workplaces, social communities, and group projects.

I want to end the post with a final thought.

It only takes a one or two individuals to compromise the mission of an entire organization, and this compromise is almost always built upon the consistent use of covertly aggressive tactics. Most of us care about the work we do, and it would be wise for us to hold these individuals in check. Whether we name the tactics workplace bullying, covert aggression, manipulation, or verbal violence, we need to learn to recognize them and de-fang them if we hope to do great work in a mission-driven atmosphere.

This excellent book will go a long way in that endeavor.

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The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work

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Ten Principles of Servant Leadership

*This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

The following list of principles was s developed by Robert Greenleaf.  The categories are drawn from the literature, but the descriptions are in my own words.  For a more in-depth look at the Ten Principles, please visit this website, which provides a description written by Larry Spears.

Listening – A servant leader truly listens to people, not just to understand but to address needs as they arise and are communicated.  Surprisingly, humility is not listed as one of the top characteristics of Servant Leadership, but can be included here as the close cousin to listening.  Without humility, the servant leader can never learn and certainly has no reason to listen.

Empathy – Compassionate leaders care about people they are working with, the people served by the enterprise they are leading, and the community in which their organization operates, including the larger world community.

Healing – A leader who cares about people is committed to wholeness and healing.  If she recognizes a deficiency or need in a person, she works to find ways for that person to heal and to become more complete.  This is not an annoying distraction from the organizational mission or business bottom line, but an important part of building and sustaining a team of mutually trusting partners.

Awareness – A person who has formal authority in any situation, including a workplace, group project or national organization has enormous power to make a difference.  This is why it’s key to elevate people to leadership positions who have a sophisticated awareness about many things.  Awareness of the impact of their work, the patterns of behavior on their team, and the importance of gathering information from multiple sources to ensure the best way forward.

Persuasion – Leaders who care about people do not cause harm.  They recognize that forcing others to act or to take a position is a harmful action, and thus, seek to persuade people with reasoned argument and an appeal to the mission.  They are not coercive.

Conceptualization – Like Transformational Leaders, Servant Leaders provide a compelling framework for the work they are doing in concert with others.  They take care to build concepts that appeal to the hearts and minds of people and that promote values that directly relate to the mission.

Foresight – Socially responsible leaders look ahead to potential fallout and beneficial outcomes of their actions and the actions of the enterprises they lead.  They contemplate not only the ways in which their organization might benefit from specific actions but how decisions and actions impact their people and the community around them.  In other words, they take the long view.

Stewardship – The word stewardship has become a popular piece of jargon, but the principle is profound and important.  Too many stories are coming out that tell the tale of a CEO who comes on board at the eleventh hour of a business and runs it into the ground before walking away with millions of dollars and a large workforce unemployed and destitute.  A Servant Leader comes on board to rescue the business or to work with people to find ways to close the business that can benefit the largest amount of people as possible.  She takes seriously her responsibility to steward the enterprise in a way that helps the micro-community of the business or organization and the macro-community in which the enterprise operates.

Commitment to the Growth of People –  This is a big one.  Regardless of the original mission or reason that people come together, a leader who wishes to serve the common good is first and foremost committed to growing as a person, allowing others to help her grow as a person, and helping other people to grow.  Whether coming together to record a music album, making a full-length feature film, running a public school, or building a legal case, the people with formal authority to set the tone for the community of people always have their eye on the common good as the greater, over-arching purpose.  In this category, stewardship takes on a broader meaning.  What is ultimately and always stewarded is the building of a better world because people have the chance to grow.

Building Community – All of the above principles act in concert to build a positive community.  Because of the principles of listening, awareness, persuasion, stewardship, healing, awareness and empathy, there is little room for a “cult of personality.”  Furthermore, if the conceptualization of the community’s mission is clear and includes foresight, there will be a built-in understanding of the ways in which authoritarianism and “cultishness” can be avoided.  This is partly related to a commitment to the growth of people.  People can only grow if a community isn’t all about the “leader” and if there’s room for feedback and development of the leader himself.  Ultimately, this kind of community is made up of Servant Leaders, all of whom take turns to step into the role of stewarding the community’s process at one time or another.

Taking care of one another is a principle of stewardship in a world of extraordinary need.
The overarching principle that guides a leader who serves is the commitment to use one’s influence and resources to take care of others, at whatever scale.

Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need (Part II)

* This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

The world has always been in extraordinary need, and that’s not going to change.  We live on a planet with natural laws, including weather patterns, ecosystems, and the presence of a large variety of organisms all competing with one another for survival.  The common reality faced by all organisms is the inevitability of death and the desire to continue on with living until that inevitable event happens.

For individual human beings, survival includes the need to be safe, accepted, nourished and happy as defined by each individual.  A significant portion of our survival is addressed by the development of society, which includes the development of local, national and international laws and armed services which protect us, physical infrastructures that transport and house us, agricultural systems that feed us, medical services that heal us, and institutions that organize, educate and serve us.

So, we can’t get away from the fact that human beings need organizations, both small and large to take care of our world.   We are continually organizing resources, building/managing institutions which curate and distribute those resources, and placing people in leadership positions to provide direction in the management of those resources. Leadership is also needed to facilitate the ongoing development and management of abstract resources like scientific knowledge, political and economic theory, moral frameworks and religious/spiritual systems.

Like it or not, we will always need organizations, which means that we will always need leaders.

Put in the plainest possible terms, human beings are called upon to be stewards of our world, and this means we are sometimes called upon to take initiative and to step out in front of others to influence the direction of that stewardship.  In the best possible scenario, those of us who choose to step out possess the fundamental asset that best qualifies us to ask others to place their trust in us: empathy.

In optimal circumstances, people in leadership positions care about people and act in good faith to actively serve them.   But, even a cursory glance at the leadership landscape reveals to us that many leaders operate out of narcissism, ego-centric agendas, and short-term gains at the expense of others, and frequently act with a destructive, even sadistic need to triumph over people.

The world is burning, because we fail to recognize the traits of narcissistic leadership and continue to promote narcissistic leaders into positions of power throughout the entire maze of society’s institutions.  We need to learn how to spot these people before elevating them.  But, more importantly, we need to learn how to spot those we can trust to take responsible stewardship of our resources.

It’s time for us to identify the traits we should expect from  genuinely caring leaders and to promote the understanding of those traits far and wide, if we hope to adequately attend to the extraordinary needs of the world we share.

We can start by examining the characteristics and behaviors of Servant Leaders.

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Leaders who are servants first, will work with others to provide stewardship in a world of extraordinary need.

Servant Leadership in a World of Extraordinary Need, (Part I)

*This is an excerpt from the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

 

In early October, I was walking with a friend.  We were discussing the topic of compassion, and he said something striking.

“Compassion is not boundless.  To be effective, it needs to be channelled into a specific locality or sphere in which you have the influence to make at least a part of the world a better place.”

This quote is a good starting place for introducing the concept of Servant Leadership, because the sphere of influence and the compassionate vision of a Servant Leader is broad indeed.

The term Servant leadership was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, who founded the “Center for Applied Ethics” in 1964.  After he died in 1990, the name of his organization was changed to the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.  At the present time, the Servant Leadership movement representing the ideas of Robert Greenleaf is under the stewardship of Larry Spears.

 

What is Servant Leadership?

 

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture.  Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

In the Essay that started it all, Servant as Leader, Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second.  Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large.  They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

Before I elaborate on the conceptual framework around Servant Leadership, I want to say a few words about the title I chose for this section.  The wording of the title was borrowed from an article by legal scholar David Yamada, the author of the Healthy Workplace Bill.  His title is “The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary need.”  The article is worth a read, as are most of the articles David has written.  I do not know David personally, but at the present time, he is one of my favorite authors in the area of workplace ethics and social responsibility.

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Thoughts on facilitative leadership

By Steven J. Lawrence © 2014

 From chapter 2 of the essay All Shine: How Stewardship Built a Vision

Facilitative/Participative Leadership  Now, we’re getting closer to a style of leadership that takes people and innovation into account.  Leaders who take the facilitative approach encourage the participation of all members of an organization/project in key decision-making while retaining the formal authority to cast the tie-breaking vote at any time.  The idea is that those closest to the action have information that is vital to informed decision-making.  Thus, dialogue and input is consistently sought and then actions are taken which take into account the information that is learned.

It should be easy to see how gratifying this can be for participants in any group endeavor, whether a rock band, a hospital, or a public university.  For the most part, we can expect those closest to the ground to have developed more specific expertise in their particular skill (or job) than the formal leader.  Thus, it’s important to get their input for the success of the organization.  Moreover, failure to get input can also cause considerable frustration and even resentment throughout the organization.  If this were to persist, the organization or group project would eventually suffer from high turnover, lack of buy-in or investment, and the potential demise of the whole enterprise.

So, participation is key to morale and mission.  But, sometimes, this democratic approach is not enough, and can often lead to “analysis paralysis.”  At some point, after seeking the insights of others, the leader must provide explicit guidance and direction, even if some of her decisions are not universally appreciated.  Pointing the way forward from the “bully pulpit” of formal authority is especially key in times of change or crisis.

Facilitative Leadership
Leaders that build a culture of participation engender a sense of mutual trust, appreciation and investment throughout the organization. They respect and implement the insights and ideas of those closest to the action.

Thoughts on “laissez faire” leadership

I have been writing an essay about collaboration, using the process of making the album “Eleventh Hour Shine” as a case study.  To my surprise, the essay has taken a turn towards the study of leadership.

I’ve decided to post different portions of the essay in individual blog posts.  Today, I’ll present a brief passage about a style of leadership called “laissez faire” or “Delegative” Leadership.

Laissez Faire/Delegative Leadership  This leadership style seems to be the most prevalent in large bureaucracies.  The words laissez faire come from the French and mean “let” (laissez)  “do” (faire).  The phrase was born from a French economic philosophy which champions the idea that an economic system should take its own course without regulation or interference.

As far as leadership is concerned, this style has some merit in that the leader chooses not to micro-manage or interfere with subordinates.  Rather she allows the activities of the organization/project to take their own course and trusts people to do what is needed.  If the right people are hired or brought onto a project or organization -people with an internal locus of value and intrinsically high standards- then this mode of leadership might be effective.  Problem is, this is rarely if ever achieved.

Projects, businesses or organizations with this style of leadership are destined to fail because this mode of leadership doesn’t take into consideration the following factors: 1) There are certain personality types that thrive on clear and directive guidance from people with formal authority.  2) The lack of direction and oversight almost always breeds a power vacuum in which informal authority can be seized by unscrupulous individuals with psychopathic tendencies.  This is why workplace bullying is so prevalent in public bureaucratic institutions.

Laissez-Faire Leader
Laissez-Faire Leadership can lead to organizational malaise and potential chaos.

Paying attention in the teaching situation

The other day, I had an interesting experience that reminded me why it’s important to be aware and hopefully even caring when working with people -especially in a teaching situation.

On a warm October morning, I was training a mother and her two teenage sons in how to use a Segway properly and safely.  As the Director of Training, I have been developing a curriculum for tour guides that includes the ability to recognize the basic psychology and learning styles of the people we are training and the appropriate training responses available to us.

Segway student

Her older son, 15, who I will call Reynold, exhibited a lack of energy and appeared not to notice me even as he stood on his Segway and looked straight at me.  I knew right away that he had a learning disability and that I had to use very specific instructional strategies to teach him.  I recognized that if I failed in teaching him, he could fall off the Segway and get hurt.

The younger son, 13, who I will call Justin, lacked a strong sense of self – what some psychologists and educators would call a sense of agency, the feeling that “I can, and I will”.  I was not aware of any learning disabilities in Justin, but I recognized that his educational background was poor, as he did not know important words that I regularly use in my training, such as “come to a gradual stop.”  He did not know the word gradual, and I could tell that he was embarrassed about it.  For him, I felt the main issue was confidence and self-esteem.

In both training situations, the safety of my guests very much depended on my resonance with their particular learning style.  It was less important that they understood the narrative of the city’s history, and so much more important that they mastered the use of the motorized vehicle they would be operating.

I succeeded in training them, because I cared.  I paid attention.  And I responded to their specific needs.

For Reynold (who I later found out had Asperger’s Syndrome), I had to use re-direction and hard, physical reality-based instruction.  For example, “on the left, we have a big, red building”  or “look at your left wheel as you turn left” and “don’t let your wheel touch the bright orange cone”.  Using modifiers and repeating words was an important strategy for keeping Reynold focused and safe.

I also made sure to place the responsibility of learning on Reynold himself.  I did this by asking questions that would guide him to come to make decisions on his own.  For example, I asked him “Why did you take your hand off the left handle bar as you stepped off?”  He answered that he didn’t want to jerk the Segway to the side.  Questioning helps students to develop an ownership of whatever material they need to master, as they come to grasp the “why” and “how” rather than try to remember an abstract “right answer.”

Justin required only two things.  Paraphrased instruction, in which I used big words and their simpler cousins (e.g. gradually and more slowly); and consistent public praise, while using his name.  I could have just used the word slowly, but I felt responsible for helping build his vocabulary, which is why I introduced a few ten-cent words into the training.  “Great, Justin, you carefully rolled over the speedbump, just like we trained you!  Well-done!  You’re becoming an expert.”  All of my responses were designed to build a sense of agency and confidence in Justin, something I dearly hoped he could walk away with…. just enough that it might carry over into his next endeavors.

So, the key here is that I succeeded because I cared.  And, because I cared enough to respect the actual teaching situation, paid attention to the details of the situation, and responded appropriately, these young men not only enjoyed themselves but avoided potentially serious injuries.

So, it’s important to be aware.  This is the simplest essence of the teaching situation.  It is the essence of cultural sensitivity, attunement to different learning styles and abilities, and concern for the well-being of the person we are serving.

Nothing satisfies me more.

 

What I’ve learned about “positive politics”

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I miss graduate school.  The UMASS Boston program’s training in pedagogy was excellent, but the dual degree also focused on organizational change and dialogue, which I fell in love with.

The following list is a guide for managing the political aspects of effective management and community organizing.  It was developed during my graduate work, and the original title was “The Key Elements of Effective Representation”.

I adapted the title and language to include the broader domain of both formal and informal leadership in communities, projects and organizations.  The basic point is that leadership requires the consistent quality of trustworthiness and the intentional effort to maintain healthy relationships with colleagues, subordinates, superiors and all other stakeholders.  Some organizational scholars have called this approach “positive politics.”

KEY ELEMENTS

1.  Adopt a healthy attitude about “politics”

Politics is a neutral word. It means nothing more than a group of three or more people negotiating the ways and means for distributing resources (money, time, people) and determining who gets to have influence and how much. Positive politics, if played fairly and ethically, can create mutual respect and harmony. Without active and positive political management (see elements below), the politics of any community or project can descend into defensive maneuvering and unproductive conflict. So, adopt a healthy attitude towards your political role. It is needed.

2.  Maintain collegial relationships with all stakeholders

Even if you are not actively seeking support for something or gathering input, informally check in with colleagues, managers, subordinates, partners and other stakeholders in your community.  Most importantly, treat all with equal respect and dignity -even those who have disagreed with you or have opposed ideas and/or initiatives you have proposed in the past (see number 5). Please keep in mind that those with a lower-status position in your organization could one day be a huge resource for an initiative, so try not to slight them or exclude them.  Of course, they matter in their own right, so treat them respectfully for its own sake.  Finally, try not to adopt the anger or hardline stance of any particular faction in difficult situations (even if you share their point of view). You will need to keep your relationship with the offending party intact during these challenging circumstances, so try to remain as neutral as possible.

3.  Circulate, circulate, circulate!

Simply put, try to circulate throughout the  organization on a regular basis.  This is especially important when trying to generate support for a project or when you need input from colleagues, manager/directors or other stakeholders. But, it’s important not to feel entitled to anyone’s time. If someone is obviously occupied, politely stand aside and wait for the right moment or return at a later time.  People will appreciate it when you respect their time and space and will more readily give you their time when you come back.

4.  Distribute leadership and responsibilities

“Power” and influence are neutral energies. Over time, if they’ve been at it long enough, individuals or groups could come to acquire one or both. It is well known that power can corrupt, but the softer version of “influence” can cause burnout (people of influence are go-to people, which can take up a lot of their time and mental space). To avoid corruption and burnout, distribute leadership and responsibilities as much as possible. Share the tasks of writing letters and emails, facilitating meetings and circulating. The added bonus of sharing these responsibilities is the increased investment of others in the organization.

5.  Embrace the opposition

Every “battle” comes to an end. Sometimes a project or initiative you have proposed fails or never gains ground. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Don’t make anyone your permanent adversary. Someone who opposed your idea(s) in the past could one day become your greatest ally for an even better idea in the future. The most valuable thing about embracing the opposition, however, is not limited to maintaining a politically viable relationship for future endeavors. The simple fact is that sometimes the opposition is right. Listen carefully to the opposition in all circumstances. Even if you decide to stick to your position, their views will help inform you about the best way to proceed.

6.  Provide framing in difficult situations

As a manager/director or a community organizer, you will have developed relationships with a number of people from different sectors of the larger community.  At times, you may find yourself navigating divergent views and representing the entire spectrum of opinions around an issue, procedure or policy.  Because of your many relationships, you may able to provide the framing around an issue or decision because of the fact that you have all of the information and perspectives.  Whether you choose to take sides or to remain neutral about something, try to find a way to respectfully surface each point of view in an open forum. You can do this during meetings or in the writing of letters, proposals or memos. However you choose to proceed, frame all points of view in a clear narrative and connect them to the shared values, goals and vision of the  community.

7.  Gather input to make buy-in unnecessary

If you want a project or initiative to be successful, your colleagues and other stakeholders will need to know that you have consulted them every step of the way. Gathering information and input is the best way to generate support. People love to support projects in which they have served as one of its architects. This goes for writing, too. Jot down the phrases, metaphors and tidbits that you gather from those you’ve consulted and include them in the writing associated with the project. However small, staff input in the writing and framing goes a long way in shoring up support.

8.  Tell the truth always, but know your audience

Lying will get you nowhere and will erode your informal authority and influence in a New York minute. The fact that you were untruthful can circulate very quickly no matter how sophisticated you are in presenting a favorable image. If you have formal authority (such as a CEO, manager or administrator) you might have some more leeway here, but, in most cases, it is best to avoid deception and trickery.  Once you lose trust with people, it’s difficult to get it back.

However, be strategic about who you share information with. A gossipy colleague who enjoys ridiculing others may not be the best person to communicate with in certain situations. While maintaining transparency and stating your intentions are laudable goals, use caution, discernment and balance in your communications. Not everyone is an honest broker.

Always remember, too, that there will be circumstances that require confidentiality. Never repeat anything told to you in confidence. It will be regarded as a betrayal, and if word gets around that you betrayed someone’s confidence, nobody will trust you.

Finally -resist, resist, resist the temptation to ridicule others or to gossip about them. A “juicy” or entertaining piece of information might offer the satisfaction of one-upping a potential adversary in the short run, but it will sully your professional reputation in the long run. Besides, it’s mean, petty, and just plain wrong.

 

Tell the truth and be respectful always. As a leader with formal or informal authority, your reputation around issues of honesty and trust is the highest political capital you have. You don’t want to squander that.

9.  Respect that politics is often about perception

Five words. How will this be perceived?

The following bullet points will help you to navigate the stormy waters of the perception game.

  • Use language strategically and constructively. Avoid making absolute statements when possible by using the following words and phrases: might, may, could, possible, possibly, potential, potentially, commonly understood to be, general consensus that… When possible, make general statements about issues that commonly surface in the arena in which you are operating.
  • Connect your ideas and concerns with the organization’s mission as much as possible.  Try to avoid confusion by being explicit about your intentions in all matters.  When possible, connect those intentions with the intentions (purposes and goals) of the organization.
  • Share the credit and tasks of writing emails, letters, action plans and reports. This will help to maintain the collective spirit of personal investment among the organization’s leadership, workers and stakeholder partners.   It also keeps the focus on the organization and its goals, rather than on any single person.

10.  Don’t make it about “you”

Don’t take anything personally. You could be lionized as a hero, maligned as a phony, or tolerated as a nuisance. You might even  be ignored. No matter what, don’t make it about you and try not to let others make it about you. Of course, if someone expresses gratitude for something you’ve done, graciously accept it and walk on. Remember, everybody loves a hero, but not nearly as much as a fallen one. Don’t buy your own press. And make it about others.

The arts as potent meaning-maker

Good afternoon.

I’ve read this quote from Kurt Vonnegut before.

The arts in my own life, of late, has been a potent meaning-maker… aside from good people and their kind acts.

What I love most about my current projects is their inherent collaborative nature.  Working in the studio on recordings with my co-producer is like going into a magical workplace where mutual respect, creativity and vision is the order of the day.

It certainly helps that we and the musicians of Pragnus Gray Collective believe in what we are doing.

Nicely put, Mr. Vonnegut.

Kurt