Sunday Reflection – Listening, Not Lecturing

Yesterday I was on Facebook, and happened to see a post by the moderator of an animal adoption group that spoke of Martin Luther King Jr, and saying that he “burned nothing, and changed the world”.

Ironically, this moderator has always made a big deal about no political posts, and yet they felt comfortable posting a meme that misused the image of MLK to promote the idea that there is a “right” way for people of color to advocate for themselves.

White people – don’t do this.

Beyond the fact that white people who usually quote or meme MLK actually know very little about his actual beliefs, and just love to promote the white ideal of what he was, posting things like this show an utter lack of understanding of why Black people are angry, and the fact that they have every right to be.

I’ve talked before on this blog about how those in positions of superiority will gatekeep emotions to keep others in check. Once again, there are people who are insisting there is a “correct” way to fight back against a society that dehumanizes and punishes people for their skin color, gender, and sexuality.

It’s supremacist BS. Any group the only does the “correct” means of fighting back, wouldn’t be fighting back at all. Which is, of course, what the supremacists want, even if it’s at a subconscious level.

This is where the listening comes in.

It’s understandable to find riots scary. But fear is no excuse not to listen. It’s no excuse not to educate ourselves, learn what the systemic issues are that have led us to this point, and to understand that constant oppression has a cost for everyone.

So, white people – start listening. You want people to believe you’re not racist? Then you have to be actively anti-racist. Stop clutching your pearls, and really listen.

For a good start, here’s a moving video by Trevor Noah that speaks to how we’ve gotten here, based on recent events.

Crisis, Insecurity, and Facing the Unknown

One of the earliest horror movies I remember seeing as a teenager was The Haunting, the 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel. I don’t remember too much about the actual storyline, besides the customary “people spend the night in a haunted house to test for the paranormal” plot, but what I do remember is the chilling door scene.

Anyone who’s seen it knows what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t, there’s an intensely creepy scene where two of the characters are huddled together in a bedroom while an unseen presence starts to loudly knock in the hallway. The knocks get louder as the presence gets closer to their room, until the bedroom door literally starts to bend inward from the force on the other side.

That scene has always stayed with me, not only because of how well done it was, but because it was the first time I realized how enjoyable being scared can be. 

There’s a lot of people who avoid horror, and I absolutely sympathize. I for one can’t stand any kind of gore, and it’s incredibly hard to find good horror movies that are exclusively based on fear and suspense rather than disgust.

And yet, there is such an incredible power when it comes to fear evoked in a form of media. 

As I spent more time working in social services and witnessing some terrible aspects of humanity, I started to avoid any kind of media that felt too “real”. I couldn’t stand family or legal dramas, especially if kids were abused. I couldn’t handle anything that reminded me of the world I saw at work every day. But what I could handle was fantasy, science fiction, and horror. 

Alfred Hitchcock famously described the difference between suspense and surprise, using the analogy of a bomb going off and shocking the audience (the surprise) versus the audience witnessing the bomb being placed, and waiting for it to go off (the suspense). As he stated, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

And yes, good horror movies have their moments of surprise, but the suspense has to be there too. We know the characters are in peril, before they do. We know something bad is going to happen, while they’re ignoring the signs. When the knocking creeps closer, as the characters huddle in fear, we hold our breath right along with them, waiting to see what will happen.

But there’s another element to good horror movies that is, in my mind, the most important. It’s what truly draws me to them, and why I find them a tempting break from reality. And that’s the magic of catharsis. The moment when the tension finally breaks. The moment where we can finally let that breath out.

And that’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it, with horror in media versus real life? A well-scripted catharsis, that gives us the ability to release the tension, let it all go, and just breath.

"Alright monster, let's do this!"

The Past as Prologue

I’ve always loved history. Despite the extreme bias in who often drives the narrative of what happened and why, there’s so much to be learned in looking at the past. So much has changed over time, and yet so much about humanity remains the same. I find it fascinating.

When I fly in planes, I think of all the people who lived who could never have imagined seeing our world from 10,000 feet above it. When I’m standing in old ruins, whether they be an Anasazi cliff dwelling or a medieval fortress in Germany, I think of the people who lived then, what they felt, what they experienced.

However, there’s an illusion when it comes to history. In order for our brains to process historical events, we tend to break it into pieces. Here’s where the Civil War happened and these were the major players; this was the Depression and the impact on the public. Everything is neatly chopped up into sections, like it was in our high school history books. 

It’s not wrong we do this, it’s a way to make sense without overloading our brains. Yet in reality, history is not a series of events, but a river, always flowing. There’s what we can see on the surface, and the things buried deeply underneath, but it’s all connected, and it never stops. 

We see things like this pandemic as a singular event, a major one, but singular nonetheless. Yet we are only here today because of so many choices and actions, some harking back to generations ago, that set a stage on which we now find ourselves players.

This is not an entirely new feeling, at least for those of us who are trying to take accountability and responsibility for the inequities in our culture. How do you make things right for the actions of ancestors who made choices ages before we were ever on the scene?

In my mind what truly feels overwhelming at the moment is not an awareness of a singular event, but rather the sudden realization that we are a part of this river, and we are being swept at high speeds into an unknown destination. We have always been a part of it, but we don’t always feel it. And feeling it is scary.

The truth is that we didn’t have to be here. We really didn’t. There are countries that took this seriously from day one, took all responsible measures with testing and quarantining. They had strong teams to work on managing the crisis, and strong leadership from the top positions. 

Yet we live in a country where our president understands nothing and cares even less, where some states still have not issued a stay at home order, where people still think it’s appropriate to gather in large groups to celebrate a Christian holiday. Where people claim that “freedom” matters above all, above the health of the most vulnerable among us (as long as everything goes according to their own personal criteria for freedom, and they don’t have to consider the rights of anyone who lives differently from them).

The stage for all of this was set such a long time ago, when it became the norm that a philosophy of individualism was held above all else. When it was decided to pretend that wealth and safety was only obtained by those who deserved it, and the rest of us were lesser. When people doubled down on using religion as a proof of superiority. And it’s only been enhanced by all the many choices over time that led to a narcissistic and scientifically illiterate shell of a man being held in high power.

How do you get catharsis from that?

"I don't need to listen to scientists, I'm a natural genius!"

When Leadership Matters Most

Not too long after the pandemic escalated, I found myself watching Angela Merkel deliver a national address to Germany. She isn’t my national leader, and I don’t know how much we would align politically, but I felt a desperate need to hear someone in a position of world power speak calmly and intelligently about what was happening.

We all know that during a crisis, leadership is key. Strong leadership is the difference between calm and chaos, lives saved and lives lost. Humans are social, communal creatures, but we also have strong fears, and good leadership helps us manage them.

There is nothing like a crisis for highlighting what both good and bad leadership looks like.

We’ve seen leaders step up in a myriad of ways. Politicians who were struggling with popularity before the crisis started are showing strong skills we couldn’t see in calmer times. Doctors and scientists are being calm, rational voices amidst a great deal of chaos. Managers are being supportive and understanding of the demands of trying to simultaneously work and parent at home. And individuals in every conceivable kind of situation are making sacrifices for the common good.

Then there’s the other side. The CEOs and managers who insist that their employees keep working in inadequate safety with insufficient protection while at the same time, they spend vast amounts of money on marketing to promote the idea that they care. The politicians who try to claim they “just learned” that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, despite it being a known fact for months, as an excuse for lack of decisive action. The people who think they can disbelieve a virus out of existence, or blame it on some random piece of technology, rather than take the science seriously.

The frustrating thing is that although leadership matters at all levels, strong leadership at the mid level cannot make up for inadequate leadership at the top. It makes a difference, absolutely; it saves lives, for sure, but for any organization or group to successfully weather a crisis, you need that strong, committed, intelligent leadership from every level.

All of us can step up and do our best. Yet a poor CEO can sink an entire company, a bad president can traumatize a nation.

"Enough."

Searching for Catharsis

So, here we are. In the midst of an pandemic, with poor national leadership, and a great deal of unknown elements facing us in the coming months.

We are dealing with a huge amount of trauma. People are being laid off, or forced to continue working with inadequate safety precautions. People living in poverty and people of color are facing hugely inequitable treatment in health care and employment. People are trying to work, and home school, and keep sane in our new non-normal. And to top it all off, we are surrounded by those delightful human beings that demand we must continuously be productive with our time or we are failures who lack discipline. (Stop telling me that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, Bob, I don’t care).

This isn’t a story. We don’t get the triumphant moment, where the music swells and we confidently stride into the night, having figured out exactly how to defeat the monster. The monster is everywhere, and every time. The greed, the selfishness, the prioritization of wealth over all.

So how do we deal with this kind of horror?

"Into the bin!"

Holding on to our values

Every year, on the first day of the leadership program I facilitated, we would hand out an activity sheet to help our participants identify their top values. They would start by highlighting ten, and then we’d make them cut it down to five, and then to three. We would always hear a bit of grumbling, some “how am I supposed to choose”, even some creative attempts to find alternate words that would encapsulate multiple meanings. Finally, in the end, they would have their three. And then, as the year went on, they would forget about it. But we didn’t. And at graduation, we presented their values back to them, as a reminder of what brought them meaning.

My co-facilitator had designed the activity based on an exercise in a book called The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism by Michael Lerner. There’s a fair amount of evidence that meaningful work has more to do with employee satisfaction that pure compensation. We knew we couldn’t remove the big stressors for our students. We couldn’t change the reality of working in human services, or save them from bad management decisions. What we could do was provide them with an alternate perspective, a reminder of why they chose to work in this field in the first place.

I recently heard a snippet of a podcast called Every Little Thing, where they talked to a man who repairs label printers. He’d never thought of his job as essential, yet he works with a medical company that does coronavirus tests, and uses the labels to ship all over the country. In other words, him coming in and servicing the machine is critical to saving lives. His dedication to his work has an entirely new sense of meaning.

Right now, we can’t erase the bad decisions that have put us where we are. But we can remember our values, our reasons why. There are a great many jokes being made about saving the world while watching Netflix in our underwear, but regardless, everything we do right now matters. It has meaning.

Whether we are high risk ourselves, or simply love and respect people at risk, we are choosing, every day, to put our community, to put humanity, first.

"I'm sorry I scared you earlier, I only wear this because I'm immunocompromised!"

Finding the Precious Amidst the Inane

My best friend lives in another state, and for many years now we have met online, almost every weekend, to play a game together. It keeps us in touch, we can chat about our lives, and then we can run around with big swords and hit things. I’ve often called it a form a therapy.

Since all of this started, I’ve realized that it’s much more than that. It’s hard to even explain how critical my friend and our sessions are to my mental health and sense of safety, but she is truly an invaluable part in working through loneliness and keeping me sane right now. Meeting up and playing a game may seem so insignificant on the surface, but underneath, it is so much more.

Everywhere you look right now, we are surrounded by the precious. The families finding ways to visit through glass, teachers learning new technology to support their students, volunteers signing up to adopt elders in care homes for online visits, animal adoptions increasing while people are at home, nature being rejuvenated during the break from humanity, health care workers playing joyful music every time someone comes off a ventilator.

I have another friend who is extremely artistic, and will often stop to take a picture of a crack on the sidewalk, or a leaf against a window. She possesses an amazing eye for photography, and the smallest things can suddenly turn into art in her hands. She has such an incredible ability to see the beautiful in the most mundane things.

We’re going to be experiencing a lot of difficult feelings right now, but our other emotions are still right there. We may have to adjust perspective to see it sometimes, but there will still be things that will make you smile, laugh, happy cry, and gasp in awe.

You have no idea how happy this bobcat sighting made my mother.
Taking Action When We Can
 
Our world is filled with contradictions right now. We need connection, but we can’t be together. We want to take action, but we can’t leave our homes. We want to help the vulnerable, but we need to give them space.
 
I’ll be the first to admit that there are days I get absolutely nothing done. Isolation exhaustion is definitely a thing, and there are times that it just gets overwhelming. There’s so many difficult feelings that are completely normal when dealing with something on the magnitude of a pandemic. Anyone who’s previously experienced depression is already familiar with contradiction, in that you often know logically what will help, but there are days you just lack the capacity to make it happen.
 
It’s also clear that we’re all a great deal more stressed and anxious. I belong to a beachcombing group on Facebook, where people will post pictures of our beautiful beaches as well as good finds, like agates or petrified wood. It’s normally quite fun. But lately, every time someone posts a picture of going to the beach, even if they are local, others will start complaining they should have “stayed home” and that this person is “part of the problem”. It’s frustrating, because I think most of us recognize that there’s a balance that needs to be struck between staying inside for community health and getting outdoors for our mental health. And yet these few people are only able to manage their stress by going on Facebook and getting angry at others for doing what they believe is inappropriate. We can have empathy for them, and understand that this is how they are dealing with their anxiety, but it’s not exactly helpful in any capacity.
 
So how can we deal with our feelings in a healthy way? There’s a great many resources out there on ways to self care, such as this list compiled by the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, so I won’t repeat them all. But I think there are a couple things worth highlighting.
 
For one, there’s a lot that we can’t control. The people who comment on those Facebook posts are trying to exert control over others, because they feel that lack of control in their own lives. It’s understandable, but it’s not constructive. Focusing on what we can do, what we can control, is critical.

Credit for this awesome infographic goes to The Counseling Teacher, who even has an editable version you can make for yourself or your family.

The other piece I find essential is taking action whenever I can. It’s not the same kinds of action all the time. There are days where I just clean, because cleaning my physical space helps me feel sorted mentally. There are days where my action is talking to a friend, or writing for just an hour, or finding new recipes online. And yes, there are days where I can be more active politically or engage with our world a bit more. But every day isn’t about saving the world – it can’t be.

It’s easy to feel like we’re not doing enough. I know, because I feel that way all the time. And there will always be those around us who want to criticize and tell us how we should be living our lives. But in the end, it’s about doing what actions we can, in that moment, for ourselves, and those we love.

"I think today is a self care day."

I want to take a moment here, and acknowledge that none of the above is easy or simple. There’s people right now who feel frustrated at being told “put it into perspective” when they’re dealing with a lot of anger and sadness. If someone just lost their job, thinking about appreciating the beauty around them is not going to be as vital as thinking about how to feed their family. If someone has a loved one who is sick, trying to force them to be optimistic is not going to help.

Dealing with trauma is very personal, and we all do it in our own way. Find what works for you. Just remember to ask for help when you need it.

"Feeling a little down...maybe I'll call Etta."

It’s taken me a long while to find the words to write about what’s going on the world right now. I knew I needed to write about it though, because writing is how I process, and I have to process to cope.

I wasn’t held back by writer’s block by any means, rather it was more a writer’s flood, a torrent of feelings and thoughts that were so interconnected and convoluted, I could barely get them out through my fingers for the longest time. And what I could get out was in fits and starts.

But the longer I’ve been sitting at home with my thoughts, the more I knew I needed to get the feelings out. Keeping it all in isn’t healthy, not for anyone. So here we are.

I hope you all get a chance to start processing your feelings. Whether you write, or talk, or make art, or chop wood, or whatever it takes.

As John Oliver said in his most recent segment, “The real test here isn’t whether or not our country will get through this. It will. The question is how we get through this and what kind of country we want to be on the other side.”

We live in an individualistic society, but we don’t have to be individualistic people. We can value our own needs and happiness while respecting the needs and happiness of others. We can suffer through this to become less, or we can survive it to become more.

Let’s remember to breath and find catharsis when we can. Have grace for ourselves when we can’t.

And if you do nothing else, remember to vote.

Leadership that Makes a Difference

One of biggest challenges when writing a blog about leadership is that it’s very easy to get laser focused on all the bad. Which, to be sure, there is plenty of. Yet if we always focus on what’s wrong, then it can start to feel insurmountable to actually change it. If everything is broken, then how can it ever be fixed?

It can be hard to see sometimes, but there is a great deal worth appreciating and encouraging. There are some amazing assets to the workplace, that hold the line against chaos, advocate for a better environment, and create change in a myriad of ways every day.

I’m talking, of course, about people.

Last time I talked about the bad leaders. But today isn’t about them. Today is about the good ones. Let’s talk about how good leaders make a difference.

I know I’m a broken record with this point, but I’m a huge believer that good leaders can be found at every level of an organization. No matter the level of formal authority, there are always those who make a difference, help people, support important change, and leave a lasting mark.

This list is not about positional power, but acts of true leadership.

It’s too easy and too common to focus on our flaws, but I hope everyone reading takes a moment to acknowledge that you have definitely done all the things on this list. Some of them you do every day. There has been someone struggling who gained hope through your words. There has been someone who was overlooked that you helped feel seen. There’s someone who thinks about you, and the impact you have had on their lives, more often than you can ever know.

This is not just about the good leaders out there, but also the good leaders right here. I hope you own it.

"Hell yeah, I'm good!"

Item 1: Listening.

When it comes to skills that people take for granted, listening is at the top of the list. There are a lot of lovely people out there who I only see occasionally, because I will spend the entire time listening to every little thought they have. They may be charismatic or humorous, but small doses are best.

Then there are those who listen only until they can interject with their own story, or opinion, or advice. For example, the manager who “empathized” with hearing about my chronic migraines by telling me about the time he had to go to the hospital for a completely unrelated medical issue. They can appear to be listeners, but it’s not a true give and take.

True listening, with empathy and compassion, withholding judgement, and not jumping straight to advice, is difficult. Some of us come by it naturally, and some of us need to work on it, same as any other skill.

That’s why it’s so valuable when you find someone who does listen. I’ve had co-workers pull me out of the office for a walk around the block or to grab a coffee because they could tell I was upset, and wanted to give me space to share. I’ve had managers take me out to lunch so I could talk freely about my feelings in a neutral environment. But even the small moments, a five minute chat to vent a frustration or run through an idea, make a huge difference.

I’ve always hated crying at work (a feeling that is common for working women who are often criticized for having emotions), but I remember the first time it happened. I was being treated very passively aggressively by the woman I was supposed to assist in the office and it was starting to take a toll. I went to our mutual manager to talk about what was happening. I think what felt truly remarkable in the moment was that she immediately believed me and cared deeply about my experience. Passive aggressiveness is something that is so easy to gaslight, and a lot of people would have dismissed my concerns as “being too sensitive”. When it came to action, the wheels of bureaucracy turned extremely slowly, but just knowing I had my manager’s support made a huge difference.

The truth is, when you have people in your life who authentically listen, you feel validated and seen. You feel less alone, even when some new sort of bureaucratic insanity makes you question your judgement. The ship may be taking on water, but you’ve got someone in your corner to help you bail.

"And then she said it was normal for interns to pick up her drycleaning and buy her coffee..."

Item 2: Providing a feeling of safety for people.

On my last day facilitating a particular leadership program, one of the students came up to talk to me at the end of class. He told me that on the very first day, we had been doing a small group activity, where I was facilitating his group. He was trying to make a point about something, but it didn’t come out the way he meant, and a couple of others in the group had pushed back. He told me how at that point, I spoke up, clarified his meaning, and smoothed over the conversation. He said he had been really nervous about class up to that point, but that made him feel like our program was going to be a safe place.

The funny thing is, I have zero memory of this experience. It’s a pretty normal part of facilitation. But I was so touched that this student not only remembered it, but that he talked about feeling a sense of safety.

It made me realize how often others have done the same for me. It’s easy to remember the unsafe experiences, the managers who have clear biases, the meetings where you are ignored or dismissed, the conversations where you are marginalized.

But the truth is, I developed from someone terrified of speaking out in class as a child to someone facilitating classrooms. That was only ever possible because of the people who made me feel safe as I developed my career. Safe to make mistakes, safe to laugh at myself, safe to try over again and do things a little bit differently.

Safety is incredibly important, especially for those who are part of any marginalized community. Even in the most well-intentioned workplaces, unconscious biases can lead to men speaking over women, or white workers dismissing the concerns of workers of color. Good leaders help everyone feel like they have a voice.

Interestingly, as I was working on this post, a former co-worker posted this article on cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace. What I think the piece really nails is how many organizations want to look at diversity in terms of metrics. They think that if you have x number of a particular kind of employee, then hey, problem solved! Yet this honestly means very little, especially in cultures that have been entrenched in biased behavior for decades. What truly matters is if all people, of all backgrounds, feel like they have a voice.

"I am so sorry, I had no idea I wasn't hearing you all equally! Thank you so much for speaking up."

Item 3: Being optimistic yet transparent

I have to be honest, I am very skeptical when it comes to the use of positive language. This is not about attitude or perspective, but about how some people use positivity as a cudgel. I used to have a friend who would chastise me if I ever dared to voice a worry out loud. “Don’t put it out there!”, she would scold. It was extremely frustrating, because she was essentially telling me that if my worry came true, it was my fault for speaking about it.

It’s very similar to the kind of language you see represented so much in Multi-Level Marketing scams, where people are told that their lack of success has nothing to do with being caught up in a pyramid scheme, but is entirely their fault for not being positive enough or working hard enough.

And this kind of language has sadly infiltrated a great number of workplaces. The idea that “we’re all a family” so it’s ok for you to be asked to do unpaid overtime. The concept that you shouldn’t complain, because other people have it so much worse. That you should be grateful for having a job at all. Even the rampant escalation of buzzwords, where your valid concerns are met with a “Oh, we plan to maximize our motivation metric with an optimization of emotional validity and economic incentivization”, which let’s face it, is a management trick to essentially say “eff you, dude, we’re not doing a dang thing to help you.”.

Which is why I really value leaders who are both optimistic and transparent. I think the combination is incredibly important.

Real optimism is not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, or throwing out positive language to avoid actual accountability. Actual optimism is saying that I see the best in you and what you are capable of, and I think we can work together to overcome this next obstacle. We don’t pretend the obstacle is not there, or that there won’t be unpredictable challenges coming our way. That’s where the transparency comes in. But we know that together we can do our best, and our best makes a difference.

I often think of the manager who recruited me into the training unit in the first place. I met her when I interviewed for a position, and didn’t get it. Yet she called me afterwards, and asked if I would like feedback. We talked for a long time, and she had extremely helpful suggestions for getting additional experience. She didn’t sugarcoat anything, but was also able to tell me about all the strengths she saw in me, and why she thought there was value in helping me get closer to the qualifications she was looking for. Then later on, when she needed to fill a new position, she called me.

She was always encouraging, always interested in my development and success. She had also worked for the agency for forty years, and knew exactly what challenges were likely to arise in every new situation. She never pretended that the agency was some shiny happy place where we could hold hands and sing like happy little elves if we just had the right attitude. But she always let us know that she had faith in us. That’s the source of real positivity.

"This new policy is going to be a challenge for us. But let's brainstorm some solutions together."

Item 4: Never giving up.

When I think of the amazing leaders who have influenced me, I think of how they listened, encouraged me, made me feel safe. But above all else, what stands out most clearly for me is the tenacity with which they keep fighting the good fight.

Now, let’s be clear. I know I’m biased as someone who has quit a job, but I don’t believe that quitting equals giving up. I will never regret prioritizing my mental health, and having left an unhealthy workplace has encouraged me to advocate for others who are dealing with the same thing.

So I don’t want anyone who has left a bad situation to ever feel guilty for that. In fact, protecting ourselves ensures that we have the energy and mental fortitude to keep doing what needs to be done.

When I talk of never giving up, I’m talking about the big picture. About the things that mean more than any one job or office. I’m talking about trying to make the world better, bit by tiny bit.

Often, when I want to be inspired by leadership, I look at some of the young people who are fighting for stronger environmental policy or better gun control. These are literal children, still in school, and yet they show more meaningful leadership than our actual government. They get called names, accused of being plants, and are bullied by people twice or three times their age, and yet they maintain such steady, consistent, thoughtful dedication to doing what is right.

Having leaders who will step up, speak truth to power, advocate for everyone, and refuse to engage in toxic conduct can make a world of difference. Often these people are not the ultimate authority. Often they are holding the line against those who failed upwards, who promote their own self-satisfaction against their employees’ well-being. But their influence is immeasurable.

I’ve been so fortunate to have many amazing mentors in the workplace, all at very different levels of power. These are people who have definitely been hurt by the system, and yet they maintain the integrity and moral fortitude to keep advocating for change. They don’t just want to make things better for themselves, but for everyone. They may get knocked down, but they never get knocked out.

"Just catching my breath, but don't worry...I'm just getting started."

In many ways, writing about the positive is harder than writing about the negative. But when I think about what keeps me going, it’s the examples of leadership that inspired this post.

To play my geek card, and quote Doctor Who, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”

Thanks to everyone who’s added to my list of good things.

Amplifying Voices – Chaya M. Milchtein: Don’t Call Me ‘Baby’

The more I learn about leadership and running a successful workplace, the more baffled I get at people who are so entrenched in their sexist views, they will tank their own business to keep these archaic beliefs alive. Keeping women out of an industry simply for the fact of being women is such a stupid thing, but sadly, still so prevalent. And yet, as Chaya Milchtein points out, there are industries that would greatly benefit from becoming more welcoming to women. Here’s the link to her article, “Don’t Call Me ‘Baby’: How Sexism is Fueling the Employment Crisis in the Auto Repair Industry”.

I remember being greatly relieved after I moved recently, and visited my local dealership for the first time. As soon as I walked through the door and saw not just one woman, but many women, working there, I knew I would be treated more appropriately and respectfully.

More women are opening their own shops, and more women are deliberately seeking out women-owned places, or male-owned shops that make treating women well a priority. Women are tired of dealing with “honey” or “baby” or “sweetie” or being asked where their husband is. Women are making a choice to prioritize their own well-being and safety.

There’s still a long way to go, but women have more options then ever before. And we owe sexist businesses nothing. Want to stay open? Here’s a helpful tip – grow up and join the 21st century.

Side note – Milchtein also runs a website to support women and LGBTQ+ with car maintenance – check it out here: Mechanic Shop Femme.

 

Sunday Reflection – The Gift of Hindsight

I was talking to my mom this weekend about my last blog post. I talk to my parents frequently, and they often were my major source of comfort for some of the events at work that left me so frustrated.

But despite that, when we were talking about the post, my mom said, “I had no idea it was that bad”.

Which is exactly the point. Neither did I.

When you’re in the midst of an experience, you can’t see the big picture. You can feel what you’re feeling at the time, you maybe can add context if you have some history, but it’s still a very narrow focus.

And frankly, most of the time I was just too darn tired to even be capable of thinking about it in broad terms.

It wasn’t until I was no longer in that environment that I could step back, look at my cumulative experiences, and make connections.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between a few big terrible actions, and a lot of small terrible ones. Whenever films or TV portray something like domestic violence, they like to go for the big, intense, shattering kind of representation. Broken furniture, physical violence, calls to 911. Which does happen, and is utterly horrible for the victims.

But what we never see represented are the small insidious abuses, often emotional or mental. The kind of thing where if you complain about it, people will shrug, and say you’re probably overacting. And if it only happened once, maybe you would be. But it doesn’t happen once. It happens over and over again, little bit by little bit, until you’ve spent twenty years with someone hurting you, and you haven’t even realized it.

Managers who break things and shout curses are getting pretty rare these days. Because it’s a behavior that can get them in trouble.

But gradually devaluing people you don’t care for? So much harder to point a finger at. Even for the people you’re doing it too.

Until they have a chance to stop, and look back.

I don’t know what my point is exactly. Maybe just that I hope people give themselves grace for not seeing the big picture sooner. I hope we all get better at acknowledging the small things that are not ok. That we understand we do not owe it to anyone to keep excusing behavior just because it’s not as bad as something else. And that we can draw the line in the sand, anytime we’re ready.

What’s something you saw with perfect clarity, only with hindsight?

In hindsight, pants would have been really nice.

For All the Bad Leaders

I know the chances are slim that you will ever read this. Reading reflections on poor leadership would require a kind of humility that I don’t think you possess. Even if you did happen to come across it by accident, even if you possibly agree with some of the things I say, you don’t have the self-awareness required to know that I’m talking about you. 

I know you don’t look inward, because of how you behave outwardly.

See, self-reflection is hard. And it’s sometimes painful. If there’s never pain, you’re not doing it properly. True self-reflection means looking at your flaws. Looking at the ways you may have hurt people, deliberately or not. Owning the part you play in maintaining the biases and inequities of our entire society. Acknowledging that you are where you are in part because of privilege. 

It means recognizing that you always have the capacity to be better. That there is still much you don’t know. That you’ve made many mistakes. That you have a lot of growing to do.

It means using your understanding to take purposeful action. To walk the walk, every day, even when you sometimes slip.

And it requires a kind of courage that you have never possessed.

To be sure, you are an expert at talking the talk. You can speak quite confidently about leadership, about the qualities that are necessary to support your employees and drive growth. You know how to discuss the institutional issues that contribute to the demoralization and depression of staff. You’ll make lovely speeches, about how much you appreciate your employees, about the value of respect and collaboration. You have the capability to sit down with your employees, look them in the eyes, and tell them that you care deeply. Yet it’s all an empty sphere, a shiny coating over a hollow middle. You are a master at the fakery of empathy.

Talk is easy. Change is hard. 

You always take the easy way.

In fact, change is more than hard. It’s a threat to your very existence. When you have learned to play the current game so well, to leverage your privilege and your gift for manipulation into gain after gain, and to convince yourself that you have deserved it all, change would be a disaster. Change would mean that your incompetence would no longer be overlooked because of your fast-talking. Change would mean that talented women and people of color would be recognized over you. Change would mean no more promotions just for talking a big game. Change would mean no more failing upward.

Change would mean taking an honest look at who you are and how you got there.

I can see why that scares you. If I had bodies in my wake, it would scare me too.

You are racist and sexist. You will never admit it, and will act deeply outraged if you are ever called out, but once again, your behavior speaks for itself.

Despite publicly acknowledging the prevalence of institutional issues, you continue to make choices, day after day, that reinforce the status quo. You’ll claim that it’s not up to you, that you’re being fair and unbiased. That it’s just the way things worked out. It’s not bias that led you to repeatedly hire white men over women and people of color. They just had better resumes and interviews. It’s not your fault that it turned out they had no experience.

You’ll encourage diversity trainings because you know it’s a way to provide the appearance of caring, and that they don’t make much difference without cultural change.

At the same time, you’ll ignore that workers of color leave your organization at much higher rates than your white employees. When a woman of color sends you a document for review, you’ll complain about how it’s written, despite the fact that her co-worker, a white man, sent you the same document weeks before and you thought it was wonderful. When a woman comes up with an idea during a meeting, you won’t hear it until a man repeats it. When people of color come to talk to you honestly about their experience, you’ll condescend, and make them leave feeling smaller than before.

You’ll use your position to undermine and dismantle women who are trying to take initiative and improve staff development, while promoting yet another white man who talks well and has more charisma than ability.

You’ll profess to care about everyone in the team, but only take the complaints seriously when they come from a man. You’ll tell them that you wish you had more resources, yet magically find money whenever you need it for a pet project or a pet person. 

You’ll ignore who has power and who doesn’t, because to dismantle racist and sexist practices would be to dismantle your own tools for success.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you genuinely believe in your own myth or if you just believe that the rest of us are too foolish to see your hypocrisy. Maybe it’s both.

You certainly seem to think that your veil is perfect, that we’ll never see through it. 

And the truth is, often, we don’t. Not because of you, not because you’re so smart or so special. You’re not. 

It’s because of us. Because we are people who care. We are people who do the work we do to make a difference in the lives of others. To try and make the world just a little bit more bearable. We walk with hope and genuine empathy, and to you this is a gift that makes us the perfect victims for your abuse.

To our faces, you will be charming and supportive. You will make sure that each little cut is as tiny as possible, so that we can’t see how much we’re bleeding until it’s far too late.

Yet the thing about veils is that they are fragile. They tear easily. There are gaps that the truth is able to slip through. It may take time. We have to overcome our own doubts, our own hopes. We have to learn to trust our gut, to have faith that our inner disquiet is justified when we’re in your presence.

Even once the veil starts to slip, we still wish for the best. We are beings of hope, after all. And our boundless hope includes even you. As the truth becomes clearer, we even gaslight ourselves, because maybe, just maybe, you mean it this time. So when you come in, and tell us you care, that things will change, that you’re working on making it better, we believe. Because we want to. Because we have to. This time, maybe you’ll really listen. This time, maybe you’ll really change.

Despite all that, eventually, we will see you. Completely. For what you truly are.

We see you for the damage you cause. We see you for the way you prise off our sense of self-worth and value, one tiny sliver at a time. We see your lies, and your manipulation, and your complete lack of anything resembling integrity.

We pretend that we don’t, because we want to keep helping those we work with. We pretend, because we have bonded as a team through our trauma with you, and we want to be there for each other. We pretend, because we need a job to survive. But we still see.

It bothers me a lot that you won. That your devaluing of me as an employee, first in subtle, than not so subtle ways, eventually accomplished your goal. That I’m not there to speak up for others because I had to save myself. That all the good I did gets disappeared a little more every day, until there will be nothing left of me there, and it will be like I never made a difference at all. 

It bothers me that you win, every day, in every industry, by being small and petty and mean, beneath your veneer of “caring manager”.

But I regret nothing. Because I learned so much from you. I learned about the kind of person, the kind of leader, that I will never be. You made me feel sad and small, but I’m still here. You hurt me, but you couldn’t stop me from seeing the truth. You didn’t like my anger, so I’m learning to embrace it. You didn’t like my voice, so now I speak up where you can’t stop me. 

I wish I was still the kind of person I was twenty years ago, who would have genuinely believed that you were capable of change. Maybe you still are, I have just never seen it. I’ve stopped believing that we can wait for you to change yourselves. The world just doesn’t have time.

I hope for your sake that someday you do have a moment of clarity. Living your whole life without growth is a desperately sad thing.

For now, your legacy gets to be one of a bad example. And I’ll use it often.

Amplifying Voices – Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace

I love how many amazing podcasts are out there right now. I subscribe to more than I can reasonably listen to, but they give me access to so many fantastic ideas and perspectives.

Recently, a friend recommended Battle Tactics for Your Sexist Workplace, and it is fantastic. I still sometimes question my experiences or perspectives, or wonder if I was reading too much into occurrences. It is incredibly validating to find out that my experiences are in many ways, universal. (Also a bit depressing, but we have to be able to talk about it to work on making it better.)

The hosts Jeannie Yandel and Eula Scott Bynoe use their platform in such an effective way, talking to wide variety of guests. I started with the episode on “The reason why so many IRL Michael Scotts are bosses”, but wherever you begin, I think you’ll find some very interesting listening material.

Welcome to the New Year

I had such good intentions of posting before the year ended. 

And it’s been far too long since I last posted, due to a combination of travel, holidays, a random dental emergency, and illness. I really wanted to write something as a wrap up to my first year of blogging, and yet, just didn’t manage it.

But I’m also a big proponent of the “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” path of life, so although I didn’t meet my goal, I’m just going to keep on keeping on.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this blog will continue to be something of a therapeutic lifeline for me. Writing is how I best process the world and my place in it, and I think I’m going to need to do a lot of processing this year. We’re only a few days into 2020 and the headlines are already in horrific territory. The uncertainty of everything feels like it continues to climb, and I think most of us would agree it’s already at a pretty unbearable level.

There’s so many new things I would like to try this year, and yet there are moments where it feels pointless. When part of the world is literally on fire, and we have a president attempting to start yet another endless war to distract from his own incompetence, it’s hard to feel like my little creative pursuits make much difference.

But when I think about how little time we all have in the grand scheme of things, and how little control we have over so much, it reminds me that my creativity is everything. Each of us have the capability to either take from the world or add to it. My corner may be small, my impact may be mostly on myself. But that’s ok. I’m still making a choice about who I am, and how I interact with the world around me. I’m choosing creativity, and kindness, and allyship. I hope you do too.

Happy New Year. Let’s do this.

Sunday Reflection – Success is a Spectrum

I’m not tech savvy enough to know exactly how computer algorithms work, but I do know my phone (and hence Google) pay a great deal of attention to every link I click. So I’ve started to see a number of recommended articles surrounding workplace culture and personal development. Which fits. I don’t love that I’m being stalked by a tech company, but in this case, they are at least somewhat accurate, and I do occasionally get some good recommendations out of it.

However, this past week the algorithm failed greatly when it suggested an article called “Why Most People Will Never Be Successful“. I’ve linked it here, because I try to be open about my sources, but I honestly don’t recommend it.

It essentially breaks down to, “I have a very narrow definition of success, everyone needs to be exactly this same way in their own lives, and if you waste time on anything not deemed hugely important by others, it’s your own fault for not having everything you want”.

I probably don’t have to specify the author’s demographics here. You already know.

At one point, I was tempted to write a line by line reason for why this article was so off the mark, but then I realized this gives it too much importance.

So some blowhard thinks he’s got special insight into success. So it just happens to fit with the way he lives his life. There’s a million more like him. Our society as a whole has a very narrow definition of what success is. It’s a extremely biased definition, that ignores real world challenges and difficulties for those not born at the pinnacle of privilege.

It’s frustrating, and yet it’s also tiresome to go ranting and raving about the obvious inanities of trying to define something as nebulous as success for the billions of humans in existence.

So for today, as one of those humans, who is trying, day by day, to dismantle all of the internal insecurities foisted on me by the culture in which I live, I just want to say this.

I believe that our success is up to us. I believe that you, and I, have inherent value that is completely separate from what we produce. I believe that a person being a good friend puts more value in the world than someone inventing an app that makes millions. I believe that others will always try to bring you down because they’re scared of their own inability to measure up. And I believe that there will come a day where we learn to drown out those voices and just enjoy being who we are, without tearing ourselves apart over who we one day could be.

What do you believe about success?

Hiring for Diversity

I imagine that most women are familiar with the feeling of reading an article, whether it be on women in the workplace, or women in sports, or women in media, and just having an immediate feeling of exhaustion. 

Bone-deep, weary, how-long-do-we-have-to-keep-hearing-this-same-BS exhaustion.

Here we go again...

Last month, at a computer graphics conference, two white men sat down to talk about the lack of women in the video game industry. They plaintively discussed how very hard it is to find qualified women, and how much it distresses them to have so few women on their team. They even talked about how they put out job announcements with “heavily feminised wording”, and yet it still didn’t work! 

Side note – I would really love to see their interpretation of feminised wording. Because of course, all women are exactly the same and want the exact same thing, and we are just like a video game character, where if you select the right dialogue options, you will get exactly what you want from us!

Next, reportedly, they mentioned how a different group at the conference expressed a desire for 50/50 representation within a couple of years, and how it was so very “interesting that they set themselves such harsh challenges, instead of letting it more naturally grow”. 

Yes…so interesting that a company would set goals rather than rely on something naturally correcting itself. Because women patiently waiting for our patriarchal societies to self-correct for equity has proven to work so very well in the past, and we have never, ever had to fight for what we wanted.

Don't mind me, just patiently waiting for the patriarchy to go away all by itself!

Both men did acknowledge that the problem runs deeper that job announcements, and solutions must be implemented at a deeper level. At which point they apparently decided that the answer was education, and better diversity in schools. “And then, hopefully, in a few years we’ll start seeing the results from that.”

So close…and yet, so far. 

I’m using snark because otherwise I’d be banging my head on my desk, and that’s a much more difficult way to write.

I just can’t believe we’re almost to 2020, and we still have to put up with this kind of “dialogue”.

But we do. So let’s talk about hiring for diversity.

Every time the conversation turns to improving representation within organizations, a contingent of people, usually primarily white men, will cry foul. The popular argument is that you should just “hire the best person for the job”.

There are certain phrases in our culture which are immediate signs of someone’s understanding of institutional inequities, and “best person for the job” is a huge one. As soon as I see or hear that phrase, I know I’m dealing with someone who thinks that white men are dominant in the workplace because they just “happen” to be naturally better at everything (hence why it’s usually white men saying this – who wouldn’t want to believe they’re just naturally superior). 

“Hire the best person” is on the same plane as wanting something to “naturally” correct itself. It completely dismisses bias, systems built to exclude, lack of opportunities, and straight up harassment. These issues are present everywhere, and are absolutely present in education as well, hence the ridiculousness of relying on schools to correct the problems of industry.

It takes so much more to build representation. It takes work.

"Hey, I used female words in the posting! What more can I do!?"

Who makes the rules

The men in the interview above talked about how they couldn’t ask for women specifically because of hiring laws. This is a very common response to accusations of discriminatory hiring practices. A stepping back, a brushing of hands, a “what can I do” kind of attitude.

It’s a good reminder that many of these laws, well-intentioned or otherwise, are still in service of the status quo. It’s the kind of attitude that claims that colorblindness is a good strategy, that no kind of assumption ever kicks in when seeing the name on an application, that the people conducting the interviews are completely and utterly devoid of bias.

I should note here that even with these anti-discrimination laws in existence, they vary greatly depending on location, and there are still a number of very vulnerable groups that are often unprotected, including LGBTQ, disabled, and fat individuals.

But whenever someone talks about following the law, it’s important to ask – Who made the law?

"It's just all so baffling! They should be applying in droves!"

Last year, there was a really interesting interview with Stephen Colbert. Like the games industry, the late night talk show realm is highly dominated by straight white men. And like the games industry, many of these white male hosts talk about how much they want a diverse writers’ room, and how hard it is to get it.

Jay Leno was recently questioned about the fact that he had zero female writers when he left the air, and responded, “I hire them based on material,” Leno said. “People just come up and give me the jokes and I read them and I decide whether to hire ’em or not.… One guy was so handicapped he couldn’t leave his house, but he wrote good jokes so it didn’t matter to me. A lot of times, I got a few female writers out of it.”

It’s the good ole “what are ya gonna do” argument, the “hire the best person” practice. And it’s trash.

Contrast this to Colbert’s discovery, when he actually committed to hiring women writers.

We would say, you know, it’s very important, we want writers of color, we want women, and you would get 150 packets and there would be eight women. And we’re like, ‘God, that’s so frustrating.’ Until I said, ‘No, only women’—then I got 87 women. And I thought, ‘Where were these people before?’ And that was sort of the realization of my naiveté, that it’s not enough to say you want it, you have to go to the not-ordinary step.”

Colorblind doesn’t work. Genderblind doesn’t work. Every part of the process, from who has the connections, to who gets taken more seriously, to who gets the interview, to who is hired, is all tainted. And it has to be consciously dismantled. The “non-ordinary” step.

Listening to the right people

I think what mostly makes me want to headdesk myself after reading the game conference dialogue is that both men talk in theoreticals about why women aren’t applying, and yet not once does either one of them mention actually talking to women about it. They talk in broad terms about industry and education, but they’re not talking to the people who are most affected. They mention adding “feminised” language, but they don’t mention who’s writing these announcements, who’s reviewing applications, who’s conducting interviews. 

This reminds me of all the times we see conference panels on gender that are entirely made up of men

At no point do they talk about the rampant sexual harassment and discrimination that infuses the games industry. They don’t talk about the fact that women developers are harassed online much more than men. They don’t discuss the crunch culture of the industry, how workers are being driven to extremes of mental health to keep up with corporate goals. They don’t talk about how women leave STEM education paths due to a variety of cultural, social, and economic factors. They don’t even remotely acknowledge how these factors are enhanced for women working through intersectional oppressions, whether it be based on race or disability or gender expression.

But if you had a diverse panel of all women on the stage? They could tell you a great deal about all of these things.

So why are we talking like there’s no way to know what’s going on?

"How in the world will I ever find out why women don't want to work for me?!"

Just making excuses

Shortly before I left my job, there was a great deal of talk about improving the equity of the organization. It was great talk and I loved hearing it, until I realized there was very little to back it up.

This was highlighted when a special high level management position was designated to be focused on diversity. And they hired a white woman.

Now, I am a white woman. And I like to think that some of us are capable of understanding a great deal about oppression and bias. 

That being said, we cannot be truly intersectional when it comes to gender and race. Sorry if that’s disappointing to hear, but that’s part of what white women have to come to acknowledge. We can support women of color, we can make space for them, we can ally with them, we absolutely cannot be intersectional in the same way that they can.

And if you are hiring someone to be in charge of diversity for your organization, it should not be someone white. Not now.

When questioned, the director who made the hiring decision said that the diversity manager was hired because they “couldn’t find anyone who wasn’t white”. 

Look, I know I live in a very white state, but this is just a completely asinine response.

It’s an excuse, just like saying you’re following the law, or hiring the “best person”. You can find qualified and talented people in all arenas of life.

You just have to put in the work.

"Look, I know you have excellent skills and graduated top of your class, but I don't know if you quite fit with our office vibe."

In the end, it all comes back to the same thing.

Do these people bemoaning lack of representation truly want to create change, and make life better for people of all backgrounds?

Or are they actually comfortable in the status quo, and with the privilege they enjoy, and just see the benefit in sounding aware?

This is why I wrote about ethics last time, because these are things that every person has to answer for themselves. We all make the choices that lets us look at ourselves in the mirror, and if someone doesn’t truly believe equity matters for all of us, nothing I say will change that.

But what I’m really done with are the people who are half-assing this entire process. Talking the talk, and yet walking the path that just keeps reinforcing the status quo.

If you truly want more women on your team, hire more women. If you want more people color, hire more people of color. Stop passing the buck, stop waiting for “natural” progress, stop relying on systems outside of your own to create the fixes.

Do the work. Or stop talking.

 

Scroll to Top
Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap