February 2019

Balancing Act: Part 1 – The Influence of Belief

Bethany: So you’re saying that having beliefs is a bad thing?

Rufus: I just think it’s better to have an idea. You can change an idea; changing a belief is trickier.

Dogma, 1999

I find humans fascinating. Especially how humans function collectively. Of how our brains and our culture evolved, leading to us operate in some very specific ways. Creating social constructs to make sense of the world. Taking certain things for granted. Things that are not inherently true in any way. We make them true, via our beliefs.

Take, for example, the diamond. Diamonds have some practical purposes. They make good drill bits. The hardness is an advantage. But the most notable aspect of a diamond? It’s shiny. It’s shiny and pretty, and we like it. So we assign value. Diamonds are pretty, we like them, hence they are expensive.

There’s no universal law about diamonds. It’s not gravity. If you’re starving in the wilderness, you’d walk past a pile of diamonds to pick up a banana. And if we all collectively decided tomorrow that we didn’t like diamonds, they’d be worth nothing.

Why am I talking about this?

Because often we are so enmeshed in what we believe, we don’t stop to think about why we believe it.

Ok, let's see what I have on the schedule for today...

When I talk about current workplace culture in America, it’s important to acknowledge that, despite the many different cultures that are a part of this country, most of the things we believe are essential aspects of a professional environment come from one particular culture. And that would be white, male, and Protestant.

The male and white has received a fair amount of attention of late, but one aspect that is often mentioned less frequently is the Protestant influence. It’s less overt, but the influence is still there. It’s about that good old fashioned Protestant work ethic, the idea of personal and moral achievement through hard work and thrift that was a core belief in many of the European immigrants who came to the United States. The concept of the American dream itself is a narrative about Protestant work ethic. Come here, work hard, and get what you deserve.

( I would be remiss in not mentioning that this concept completely ignores the intersections of poverty, race, class, disability, etc, that actually impact someone’s ability to “live the dream”. But we’ll get into that at another time.)

So as American workplace culture was evolving, we had a dominant culture (white European) with a dominant belief (a “good” person works hard) that became ingrained into the very fabric of professional life.

But as harmless, or even positive as it might seem, there’s a vast danger in a core belief like this one. Because what seems like encouragement of putting in time and effort on one hand, can turn into something toxic on the other.

Shoot, guess I have to skip lunch to make this deadline.

Now, to be utterly clear, I’m not saying a belief in working hard is a bad thing. But we have to look at the context of how we use this belief. Having a belief that lifts us up is good. Having a belief that pushes others down is not.

Let’s break down a few of the issues here.

Item one: If you connect working hard with morality, it makes it extremely easy to judge others. We see this all the time with the conversations around people receiving benefits from the government. People with privilege ignore the systemic causes of poverty and assign blame to the individuals. It’s the “ pull yourself up with your bootstraps” viewpoint.

It’s a perspective that completely ignores that 1) because of inequitable systems, people in poverty have to work so much harder than everyone else to achieve even small things, and 2) that not being able to work, either due to disability or circumstance, is not a sign of moral failing.

Item two: Because this mindset conflates success and being a hard worker, people who have achieved success are granted the assumption that they have earned it. This kind of narrative is frequently pushed by those in power, because they get to feed into the bias that they deserve what they have. It again completely ignores the privilege that benefits people within the dominant culture. It’s why you have CEOs with multi-million dollar salaries balking at increasing the minimum wage for their workers. They get to believe they’ve earned those millions, while their workers just need to try harder if they want to succeed. It’s bullshit, but many people still buy it.

Item three: It requires an extremely narrow perspective on what working hard actually means. If I use hard work as a metric to determine if you are a good person, or a good employee, I need to be able to see it. But I can’t see into your mind or measure your effort of thought. So instead I use assumptions, or shortcuts, to make judgements. And like most assumptions, they are very flawed.

And that’s one of the saddest aspects of this obsession with working hard. So much of it isn’t about actual productivity, but like so many things in our society, about the appearance of what we do.

It rewards those who sit at their desks all day and penalizes those who take breaks. It praises people for skipping family meals to spend yet another night in the office. It encourages workers to compete in who has done the most overtime that week. It punishes women for taking maternity leave and scares men from taking paternity time. In the end, it hurts us all.

No problem, boss, of course I can stay late!

Let’s talk work weeks.

Initially, the arise of the forty hour work week was a good thing. The further back in history you go, the worse workers have been treated. During the Industrial Revolution, abuses were rampant. Thanks to unions, conditions improved over time, and gradually the eight hour work day became standard. Another big change happened when Henry Ford discovered that his employees were more productive working a forty hour week than a forty-eight hour week, and in 1940 it became a part of U.S. law.

At this point in time, there are numerous studies on the impacts of working over forty hours. And the results, like these from the CDC, show that when analyzing the increase in illnesses and mistakes, as well as the decrease in productivity, there is zero benefit to putting in the extra time.

In fact, recently the 30 hour work week has begun to get more attention. Some businesses have started to test it, and again, are finding that the increase in productivity, creativity, and health of their employees are worth it. There’s a big gain in working less.

Unfortunately, these companies are the exception.

So if it has the potential to be profitable, why do so many organizations resist changing their culture?

Because it requires questioning core beliefs. And a belief is hard to change.


Next week: How this impacts work/life balance.

Sunday Reflection – Gratitude Check-In

The end of winter is always hard for me. I do really well for most of the winter months, but the closer we get to spring, the more I start to feel the stress of the long dark.

There’s also been some stress as more and more candidates come forward for 2020. On one hand, I love that we have so much diversity in the field. On the other hand, online communities are already enmeshed in bitter fights over their favored candidates. And the stakes feel so high.

Any of us who care about social justice have to play a balancing act. We have to weigh being engaged while taking care of ourselves.

So this weekend, I want to move to the side of self care.

Gratitude is such a fundamental and powerful tool for self care. It’s not ignoring the bad, but just taking a moment to mindfully acknowledge the good.

Here are some things I’m grateful for this month:

  • I’m living in a new city and loving it.
  • Spending time with good friends who care about what’s happening my life and support me.
  • Feeling my creativity come back more and more after being so firmly squashed by bureaucracy and exhaustion for so long.
  • Indie video games saving me from the greed and annoyance of big game companies.
  • Living alone. It’s nice, y’all. Really, really nice.

What are you grateful for this month?

Amplifying Voices – Kimberlé Crenshaw: On Intersectionality

Recently I’ve been observing some really interesting discussion online in regards to intersectionality. African American women have been pointing out that in many ways, intersectionality is still frequently misunderstood and misused, in particular by white women. White feminism has a history of excluding and marginalizing women of color, and it’s vital to raise the voices of women of color whenever possible.

Kimberlé Crenshaw originally developed the concept of intersectionality, and in this keynote address she gives some important context and details on the term.

This is a bit longer than the videos I usually post, but it’s important information.

**Content warning – towards the end of the video, Crenshaw describes cases of police violence against black women. She goes into specifics starting at 22:50. Please be aware if this may be triggering for you.

The Message Matters

This weekend, a friend and I went to see the local ballet perform Cinderella. And naturally, the dancing was phenomenal. The sets and costumes were beautiful. The symphony was flawless. And yet, I walked away with an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.

For a long time, Cinderella has been a problematic fairy tale for me. Largely due to the concept of the “ugly” stepsisters. Of course the point of the tale is that inner beauty is what matters – the artistic director of the ballet even came out ahead of time to emphasize this.

Yet for the majority of interpretations of the tale, the “ugly” qualities of the stepsisters are not just in their behavior. It’s yet another example of the trope that not being conventionally attractive on the outside equals an unpleasant or immoral inside.

And in this case, the ballet takes this even one step further. They cast male dancers.

Now, to be clear, I think a ballet where men get to play traditionally female roles and vice versa would be amazing. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a rendition of Oklahoma last year with two female leads, and I find that kind of interpretation so refreshing.

But that’s not what was happening here. This wasn’t out of the box thinking. They were cast because it was a shortcut. An easy and predictable way to emphasize the otherness of the sisters. A way to tap into the social assumption that there is something inherently hilarious about the idea of a man with feminine attributes.

The sad thing is that when it came to ugly qualities, the behavior of the sisters was immature and occasionally unkind, but the majority of the joke was how they looked. They danced badly. They fell down. And other men would shudder when they saw their faces.

And the audience ate it up. Why wouldn’t they? Our culture has decreed that men in dresses are for laughing at. Women who don’t meet society’s expectations for attractiveness are supposed to be mocked. If you’re not inherently talented, you’re funny for trying. And we only want to root for the graceful, pretty, delicate “real” woman to win the prize. It’s the message that’s all around us, all the time. Why would we question it?

*cue laugh track*

So what does this have to do with leadership, you may be asking?  A lot, as it turns out.

In the leadership program I ran, we used an activity called “Stepping Into Someone Else’s Shoes”. We would hand out a survey for participants to fill out anonymously. We’d collect the surveys, mix them up, and hand them back out for debrief. This way every person knew they were representing someone else in the room, but didn’t have to disclose any information about themselves.

These were a few of the items on the survey:

  • I have minimized my cultural differences to fit in or get along.
  • I keep my disability hidden to prevent discrimination.
  • I feel pressure to fit in or assimilate to minimize conflict.
  • I have felt excluded based on my race.
  • I am required to use a bathroom that doesn’t match my gender identity.        

And in every session we did, when we tallied the results, every single one of these items had been checked. A couple were checked by one or two people. A couple were checked by nearly half the room.

Do you see the connection? What they all have in common?

They’re all about hiding, assimilating, going with the dominant crowd.

We’ve all done this at some point in our lives. Laughed at the joke that hurt, brushed off the comment that stung, even parroted toxic words to show that we’re a part of the crowd. Because standing out isn’t safe. And this happens in the workplace all the time.

When I was a manager, I learned that one of my employees had been in a stall in the restroom when a couple of other staff had come in, and without knowing she was there, started laughing about her weight. They had talked about how awful they thought it would be to look like her. She had been devastated and taken sick time for the rest of the day.

I was livid. And I wanted to know who they were. But she wouldn’t tell me. They were workers in a higher classification, and she didn’t want to rock the boat. She didn’t want to stand out. She didn’t feel safe. In the end I asked our branch manager to send out an office wide email about unacceptable behavior. But it wasn’t the same as true accountability. And I very much doubt that any behaviors changed. They didn’t get hurt. Why would they think about their message?

Why yes, I was designed by a man, why do you ask?

If you talked to the manager I had when I quit, he would tell you that he cares a great deal about equity and inclusion. And I believed that for some time. Until I had a conversation with him where he asserted that women were as much of a problem as men in the workplace when it came to the issues of MeToo. His evidence for this?  Conversations he’d had with other men in the elevator.

As a woman in the workplace, it was a gut punch to hear that from the man directly in charge of my professional life. But I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t.

Later on, another co-worker who wanted to be supportive ended up telling him I had been upset by this. His solution was to call me into a conference room, with no heads up on the topic. He started by apologizing, then ended up doubling down by saying he had been googling articles on the topic that supported his stance. Needless to say, I left that meeting feeling even more crushed than before.

The sad thing is, that first incident, it wasn’t intentional. He was just chatting. He didn’t think about the bias in his words. He wasn’t considering the message. He was just going with the dominant narrative, his narrative. Why would he question it?

But here’s the thing. If you’re a leader – you should.

We live in a world where you cannot pretend that your messages don’t have an impact. And let’s be clear – they’ve always had an impact. It’s just often been easier to ignore.

And this isn’t just about one joke or one comment. It’s about all of the jokes and all of the comments. It’s about a world where a person in power who is racist, sexist, and corrupt will still be insulted for how he looks more than anything else. Where a woman who speaks out gets called ugly and fat, because that’s considered the worst possible insult. Where people who are trans are misgendered and disparaged. And where, just like at the ballet, children are watching it all.

Casting men in the roles of the stepsisters has long been a tradition in ballet. And most productions follow suite. It’s not due to any malice. It’s just how things are done.

But that’s not a good enough reason to keep doing it. Gender fluidity and trans people are not jokes. How someone looks has nothing to do with their skills, abilities, or values. It’s time for a new narrative.

The message matters. What’s yours?

All in favor of a plus size superhero?


**For a fantastic perspective on this topic, please check out Council of Geeks video on The Problem is Patterns in relation to LGBTQ+ representation.

Sunday Reflection – Doing the Work for the Right Reasons

When I first decided to start this blog, I told myself that it would just be an enjoyable exercise, a way to process some of my past experiences and work on my writing while reflecting on issues I deeply care about.

And that is all true. Except for the “just”.

I’ve only been doing this for little over a month, and yet I’m experiencing some feelings that I didn’t quite anticipate.

There’s more anxiety than I expected. Some of that may be related to it being winter in the Pacific Northwest, a time of year where I tend to struggle a little bit more with feeling balanced. But I know there is also a component of vulnerability, of putting my words out there, that makes the ground feel a little bit more unstable.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I happen to deeply believe that fear is necessary for growth. If doing something new doesn’t scare me, it’s not out of my comfort zone, and I’m not learning from it.

But it’s also interesting to analyze how quickly I started to think about page views, and metrics, and all of these supposedly “objective” markers. Trying to determine what it means when one post gets fifteen views, and one gets five. And realizing how much I still rely on external validation for so many things.

At which point, I have to pull myself back, and question – why does it matter? Whether something I write is read ten times, or one time, or even none.

Because none of those metrics can tap into why I chose to do this in the first place. The fact that writing, even for this short time, has been helping me deal with the chaos of the world. That I’ve been getting more creative in other aspects of my life. That I can feel the growth happening, even amidst the pains that come with it.

So for today – why do you do what you do, whether it be your job or a cause you believe in? How important is that external validation? How do you gain your own sense of worth with what you create?

Amplifying Voices – Brittany Packnett: It’s About Time to Value Young Women of Color in Leadership

When it comes to inclusion work, there is often a lack of attention paid to intersectionality. For example, a person of color will experience institutional racism. A woman will experience institutional sexism. And a woman of color will experience both. Their experiences of racism and sexism are intertwined, and cannot just be examined alone. And solutions to these institutional issues cannot just focus on one or the other. We need to look at how everything is interconnected.

Brittany Packnett’s talk is a fantastic example of viewing something with an intersectional perspective. She’s not just talking about women in leadership, or women of color in leadership, or young women in leadership. She’s talking about all of it. And it all matters.

Leading in the Gray

A few years ago, in one of my leadership programs, we had invited representatives from several different ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) to come and talk to the class. For those of you who are not familiar, ERGs are employee-driven and voluntary groups that provide support to members of various marginalized communities. It was a good opportunity to bring in diverse perspectives on leadership, as well as to familiarize our participants with resources that could help with their development.

One of our speakers was the founder of the Black employee ERG. Another speaker was a leader from the LGBTQ resource group.

Both men shared their perspectives on the organization and the levels of support they’d received while forming their groups. One man shared that when working on the development of his ERG, he’d received very personal mentoring and support from a high level manager. He’d felt incredibly valued by this manager, and was extremely appreciative of his experience.

The second man then proceed to share that he’d also had an experience with a high level manager when forming his group, but it was an extremely negative one. He’d felt that this manager had been dismissive and disrespectful, and he was clearly still emotionally impacted by his interaction.

They didn’t know this at the time, but both of them were both speaking about the same manager.

So often when we talk about good or bad leadership, we hear the extreme examples. Humans love to categorize things. We want to be able to place someone in either the “good” or “bad” category. We want it to be black and white.

But in reality, most of us are not going to be at one extreme or the other. We exist in the gray.

When I was a manager, I was proud that I would always take the time to listen to my staff. I was quick to respond, and would always seek out an answer even if I didn’t know it myself. I genuinely cared about them, and would support them when they sought development or applied for promotions.

But the truth is also that at times I was overwhelmed, and didn’t give them the individual attention they deserved. I kept moving performance appraisals to the bottom of my to-do list, because with all of the demands on my time, it was just easier to not worry about them. At times, I prioritized the current organizational emergency (of which there was always at least one, usually more) over the care of my staff.

Some of them would tell you I was a great manager. Some would not. Neither view would be wrong.

So many articles on leadership like to talk in absolutes. And I’m sure I’m also guilty of this. “Just do A, and you will get response B!”. Just be authentic. Just be compassionate. Just be supportive. Just be direct.

And there is a lot of great advice out there. But from time to time, I think it’s also important to remember that it’s not just a team that you’re leading. It’s a collection of individuals. And each of them has a unique perspective on you.

If you google “how to communicate as a leader” most of the top articles will give the advice to be a direct speaker. They may frame it as being concise or to-the-point, but the end result is the same. “Leaders should be direct”.

Except that’s not true. The truth is you should be direct with employees who respond well to direct communication. If they don’t like direct communication, then you need to be more indirect.

I taught classes on feedback, and I can’t tell you how many employees insisted they liked direct communication. Until we asked them about receiving “constructive” feedback that might be challenging. And which point, about ninety percent of them changed their preferences.

So it’s not even just about individual preference. It’s individual + situational. Who am I talking to, and in what context.

At this point, I know it’s tempting to throw up your hands and argue that being this aware is impossible. And you’d be right. Or you would be, if you were in this alone.

So often we portray leaders as being these isolated figures, off alone on the top of the mountain. But leadership is a relationship with others. You’re not in it alone. Your people can teach you so much, if you’re just willing to engage and listen.

And that’s the best part about being in the gray. If it’s always black or white, just one way or another, you’re stuck. There’s no place to grow or change. But being in the gray is an amazing thing. It means that you have room to move.

Being in the gray means that you sit down with each member of your staff, and talk about what works for them and what doesn’t. And that’s where you set the standard that if someone gives you feedback that you need to change your approach, or that you have a blind spot, you listen and adjust your behavior accordingly.

You can learn that what you’re doing is amazing for someone and works great for them. You can learn that you’ve been unsupportive or ignorant to someone’s needs, and you can change. You may even learn that you have some trust-building to do before you ever really hear the truth.

Being in the gray is accepting you will never be the perfect leader. Just a leader. And that’s enough.

Sunday Reflection – Embracing the Challenge

Joining Twitter is both an interesting and horrifying experience. There’s a lot of extremely intelligent and capable people talking about important issues. There’s also a lot of…let’s call it noise.

One thing that I find particularly interesting and horrifying are all of the discussions about race in America.

I’ve been seeing repeated instances of a person of color sharing their perspective, only to be told by many people in the comments, primarily white people, that they’re wrong and their perspective is invalid. They’re being told they’re overreacting. “He didn’t mean it like that.” “Stop being so sensitive.” “Stop bringing race into everything.”

About four years ago, I volunteered to work on a project developing and delivering diversity training at my worksite. As a part of the process, I was sent to an outside training, called Undoing Racism. The training was by an organization called The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond. And it changed my life.

I won’t go into details, because if you ever have the opportunity to take this training, you should. But I will say that there was a moment, at the end of the first day, where the trainers said something that challenged me deeply. As someone who prided myself on how much I cared about inequities, it was really hard to hear. It confronted my identity as a white woman, and my role in being a part of a society where oppression was a reality.

As we did our final thoughts of the first day, I shared that I would have to think about it some more. That’s all I could say in the moment, because I certainly didn’t feel ready to accept it.

So I went home. And I thought about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And by partway through the second day, I realized they were right. It was a painful realization. But it was a necessary one.

But the key thing was that in acknowledging that they were right, I was also acknowledging that in the end, it wasn’t about me. I’m not the center. It’s not about me feeling like I need to be seen as a good person. It’s not about me feeling hurt if I get called out for doing something that feeds into bias or oppression. It’s not about me.

We all think we're in the spotlight. But what are we missing?

So often when we hear something that pains us, our reaction is to push it away. But we have to consider who we’re pushing against. What are we trying to prove?

What would happen if we took the time to think about it? What if we embraced the challenge? Maybe in the end we still wouldn’t agree.

Maybe we would.

When’s a time in your life when you were challenged by something that you were told? What happened? Has anything ever shaken your beliefs? What was the result?

Amplifying Voices – Time Magazine & Ava DuVernay: The Art of Optimism

Normally my goal with Amplifying Voices is to look for material that may have had limited exposure. However for today’s choice, this is clearly not the case. Time Magazine is one of the most famous publications out there, and Ava Duvernay is rightly becoming quite well know for both her amazing work and activism.

But I woke up this morning feeling a little sad. It’s important to be informed about current events, but it’s also easy to get overwhelmed. Which is why I found Time’s latest issue, guest-edited by Ava DuVernay, especially timely.

The issue is called The Art of Optimism, and I highly recommend it. I love the range of voices and perspectives included, but also the reminder that art is a powerful force. To quote the magnificent Carrie Fisher, “Take your broken heart, make it into art”.

The Myth of the Nonpolitical Workplace

Shortly after the election of November 2016, the director of the organization I worked for sent out an agency wide email. I don’t remember how long the email was, but I do remember the core message – “don’t discuss politics at work”.

This is a stance we see frequently in the workplace, particularly in government agencies. It’s a stance that reinforces the concept that it is possible to be nonpolitical in the office.

This concept is a myth.

It’s a comfortable myth. Well, it’s a comfortable myth if you are a part of the dominant culture. By that I mean, if you are white, male, cisgendered, straight, and able-bodied.

Because not allowing anyone to talk at work about what had just happened in our country? Sent a very clear political message to a large number of people.

I went to a diversity training a few days after the election.  It was a voluntary training, so everyone there was invested in ideas of equity and inclusion, and eager to have conversation.  There was a wide range of races & ethnicities represented, as well as a number of individuals from the LGBTQ community.

The trainer, being a highly experienced individual, knew we couldn’t do the work unless we addressed the elephant in the room. So he allowed space for people to talk about the election.

I don’t know if I can adequately express what it felt like to be in that room. It was a safe space, and that meant that people spoke their truth. And their truth was fear. Intense, heart-breaking fear. Fear of what the future held, fear of losing family members, of continuing to be treated as less than, of increased violence or disenfranchisement.

But what particularly stood out to me was a woman who spoke of going to work the day after the election. She was devastated. She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about it. “No talking about politics”. So she stayed at her desk all day, with her hoodie over her head, to make sure her co-workers couldn’t see her crying.

I belonged to a diversity discussion group at work as well. One day, we met shortly after the news came out about two separate police shootings of young black men. One of my colleagues, himself a black man, had to force himself to leave the house in the morning. And as he shared his heartbreak with us, he said something that has stayed with me. “I had to go to work and pretend nothing had happened,” he said. He knew talking about it it would make his staff uncomfortable. He knew they would call it unprofessional. He knew they would call it political.

I taught conflict navigation classes at work, and during the class we would show a video related to having difficult conversations. The video highlighted that silence did not mean safety. That if you didn’t say anything, you were still making a choice that would impact your relationship and ability to work together. We never had a single person question this concept.

So why do so many people think that silence equals safety when it comes to politics?

It’s the exact same concept. By not speaking, you are saying volumes.

In recent years, any time a casting announcement goes out about people of color or women being in lead roles in a big movie franchise, there is a very predictable response from a large number of people.

“Ugh,” people will say in the comments. “Why do they have to make it political?”

It’s such a common and exhausting refrain. They are calling people of color and women political. And implying that the default – white male – is not.

And that’s why being nonpolitical isn’t possible. Because the dominant culture has decided that if someone who is marginalized speaks up, or even just exists in a space that has not previously been acknowledged as theirs, they are being political. If you are political by existing, than they sure as heck are political by not wanting you to exist.

Does this mean I think we need to be debating government policy at work? Of course not. There’s a good reason we can’t hang flyers for a particular party or politician in our cubicles, or walk around gathering signatures during work time.

But we live in a time when politicians are literally trying to deny or erase the existence of some of our communities. And pretending that politics doesn’t infuse every aspect of our lives is both naive and damaging. There comes a point where a line does have to be drawn. You can choose to make space and advance those who are marginalized. You can choose to support communities that are being oppressed. You can choose to be a part of an organization that prioritizes what is right over what feels comfortable.

But if you believe in silence, just know, you are reinforcing a state where dominant voices are the only ones heard. Disengaging supports the status quo. It’s a choice. And it has an impact.

There’s no such thing as nonpolitical. Not right now.

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