After ten weeks in this city, I have a lot to reflect and think about on my last day before I embark on my next journey. This post has no clear theme other than what’s been going on my head. Thoughts about New York, about being lost, about feeling useless, about feeling useful, about adventures, about learning, about healing, about loving, about everything and about nothing. Hope you enjoy the thought ramble :) ...."
Oh wow! A problem.... let's go solve it! It's our first reaction, right? It's human. We see a problem and our instinct is to start fixing it, solving it.
What if, instead of rushing to solve it, we rushed to discover as much as we could about the problem - like, why is it a problem, why is that a problem, why, why, why? What are people doing when this is a problem? Is it only a problem when they are doing that? Where is it a problem? Only there? When is it a problem? Only then? What is the weather when it's a problem? What mood were they in when it was a problem? See? You learn so much when you Rush to Discover first. You learn what really matters and why. And guess what? Then you can work with the people who have this problem together - to create solution(s) that will really make a difference - that will work when, how, where it's a problem.
So, next time you see a problem, stop, discover and learn....
Yup, I said it and mean the double entendre.
What company doesn’t say people are their greatest asset? How many companies really treat their employees like assets? Not as many, and less than we’d like to think. Too many companies still treat employees like Asses –beasts of burden, tools for labor. And then, managers* get surprised (duh!) when employees act like asses – non-caring beasts of burden and seemingly stupid, stubborn people.
How employees act and engage all depends on T – on how you Treat them. Remember the golden rule? Guess what, it’s a rule, not an exception. Try Treating everyone you encounter this week, especially your employees, as an asset. You might see some Asses become Assets (even you?).
* Not leaders, cuz real leaders don’t treat their employees like asses.
The social impact sector does a lot of harm. Often, our victims are those who we set out to support -- the people and communities that are already vulnerable in our society. This is not something we like to talk about. As practitioners, funders, and do-gooders we want to believe our good intentions and good technical skills have prepared us to do good. But, examples from history and the present day show this isn’t the case. While there are many things we can do to reduce harm and increase meaningful impact from our collective work, there is one step we can take that represents our most important leverage point: create more effective social impact leaders.
The Core Competencies of Highly Effective Social Impact Leaders
As this question is core to our mission at Thinking Beyond Borders, we examined some historical examples of exceptional social impact leadership: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. By reading about the movements and change efforts they led, and reading their personal writings, we noticed two key areas in which they all excelled: critical consciousness of themselves and the world, and building and leading institutions that were truly mission-centered.
Impact through Critical Consciousness
These leaders each pursued critical consciousness of the world and themselves as a fundamental part of their social impact work. To do this, they each developed key capacities: 1) They rooted their purpose and direction in a constant critical examination of their values and beliefs; 2) They were humble but powerful learners who valued questions over answers; 3) They strived for higher order empathy. While I’ve written about these capacities elsewhere (here and here), it’s important to note that on a daily basis, each of these leaders used these skills in working with stakeholders and in maintaining their own personal and professional focus to create a more just society.
It is these capacities that ensured that the Indian Independence movement did not become a violent revolution against the British. These capacities resulted in Black communities of the US Deep South finding love in their hearts and actions in the face of violent and vicious racism during the Civil Rights Movement. It was leadership of this sort that spurred creative protest and a reordering of society, not simply an inversion of power. None of their respective movements were without flaws, nor were they complete. But, their approaches to social impact resulted in that rare and exceptional impact that brought greater equity and justice to society.
Mission-Centered Institution Building
Generating meaningful social impact and building the institutions that will sustain that process are two related but different practices. Knowing how to build an organization effectively is important. What was exceptional about the great leaders we examined was how they combined business and funding models in a manner that allowed the organization to operate and evolve based on the need of the impact work rather than the organization’s bottom line. They established management and leadership structures that encouraged their teams to be responsive the impact work. They developed communications that inspired stakeholders to engage in creating social change rather than simply build brand loyalty.
It was this type of leadership that led to peer to peer ride-sharing to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott, long before Uber gained a multi-billion dollar valuation. This leadership led Grameen to establish lending circles that created spaces of mutual financial and personal empowerment for women in their home communities, long before the banking industry pursued micro-lending profits in large scale. As these movements evolved, and as equity and justice advanced, the institutions these leaders created fell victim to changing politics. But, the impact they created remained because the communities they worked in solidarity with had not been encouraged to become dependent upon them.
Lessons for Developing New Leaders
While it’s easy to hold Dr. King, President Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Prof. Yunus up as superheroes of social impact, it’s important to note that they were (are) mortals like the rest of us. If we focus on developing the skills that made them exceptional, we can generate a uniquely qualified cadre of aspiring social impact leaders.
As educators, we’ve identified a set of principles for developing leaders of this calibre:
- Focus on Impact - Aspiring leaders need support in thinking critically about how to define equity and justice, how an effective and ethical pathway is shaped, and what the impact leader’s role in the process should be. These are dynamic and challenging topics. Unfortunately, the social impact sector rewards those who pursue large scale, brand recognition, and specific business models. Teach aspiring leaders how to handle these tensions and maintain their focus on the impact that will lead to greater equity and justice.
- Value Questions Over Answers - Asking good questions that illuminate dynamic topics is a crucial skill. Disappointingly, most education systems generate students who believe they are successful learners when they can present a convincing answer rather than a well refined set of questions. Create learning environments that place value in asking questions and pursuing greater understanding that can be translated into even better questions. Require learning to center around identifying and questioning the core assumptions of arguments and one’s self.
- Instill Humility - Great leaders are great listeners who reflect constantly on their potential and limitations. They admit their mistakes, provide space for others to lead, and are the first people to applaud the successes of their peers. However, great leaders are often driven and ambitious, determined to achieve their goal and overcome obstacles. Support aspiring leaders with learning environments that provide opportunities to wrestle with this tension as teams and individuals. Provide mentors who can support them in their highest and lowest moments. Identify heroes whose struggle with the tension between ambition and humility is made plain and relatable.
The social impact sector invests countless resources in working toward equity and justice. Our global society and local communities reflect the passion and commitment of so many who have shaped their lives in this pursuit. Yet, our present day and all our days past also reflect efforts wasted, misdirected, and many that inadvertently caused harm. As a sector, we can be more effective. It starts by being more intentional in how we create our leaders.
You can learn more about how Thinking Beyond Borders is working to create highly effective social impact leaders by reviewing our programs. Our high school summer abroad and gap year programs help students begin the pursuit of critical consciousness related to creating social impact. Our college study abroad programs teach the skills to lead mission-centered and mission-effective institutions.
Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping students develop the skills and capacities to lead highly effective social impact careers. Born and raised through his early childhood in a working class community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robin learned that equity and justice are complex but worthy pursuits. Through study, travel, and work in urban and suburban public education, he concluded that meaningful social impact is difficult to create and requires a rare combination of skills and capacities. In 2007, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders with the vision to create an educational institution that develops highly effective social impact leaders. Robin earned a B.A. in International Development Studies from UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence.
This is one of the most important posts I'm (re)posting from Medium. Given what's happening in our world with terrorism, guns, violence, race, etc., Angela's words are a Must Read. She's got the experience, credibility and perspective to make us stop and listen. This is graciously reposted with her permission (hosting the beautiful work of Liza Donnelly).
I have spent almost two decades in outspoken support of immigrants and refugees -advocating for immigration reform, for compassionate and generous responses to those that fling themselves on the water in search of a better life. Migration makes us strong and more connected and I believe the future belongs to the most connected countries and people. National boundaries are strange squiggly lines falsely advertising divisions where none exist. We are living in the most migratory period in human history. Currently there are an estimated 60 million people not in their own homes because of climate change and civil disruption. These disruptions will continue. We are in desperate need of a complete revival of the international settlement house movement of the late 1800’s — the movement that gave birth to Neighborhood Centers, where I work. The world is being reorganized rapidly and we have a front row seat in my hometown, Houston, Texas. Despite what our governor says, Texans are welcoming immigrants and helping Syrian refugees. You can’t outlaw compassion and “welcome to stranger” seems to be a universal aspiration.
Our real divisions are not national boundaries. Our real divides have to do with beliefs about sufficiency and safety.
Many of us believe there is enough to go around — and therefore we see a distribution problem, not yet solved, but with the potential for answers. We stand in opposition to those who believe that we do not live in an abundant world. People who believe that we must be prepared to fight for survival. For those people the problem is one of power and control over resources. They want to prevail in the short term (of their own lifetimes). For them it’s not a question of “is the glass half full or half empty?” It’s a question of “How do I secure the glass for myself and those I care about, and justify doing so?”
Our search for safety reveals another divide: how we see the journey of life.I grew up understanding that there was no safety here on earth. This is not heaven, whatever heaven might be. This is a perilous journey. We are all already dying and we will be dead for a very long time. We are vulnerable creatures and what meaning is found here, we must largely make. We drive ourselves mad and commit horrible crimes trying to guarantee safety, trying to create predictability, trying to control the uncontrollable. Until we are all willing to believe that we are all in this together — all in the same boat — we will continue to try to purchase our comfort, safety and security at too high a price and in the wrong way. We will continue to give death a face and a name — the way children name the monster in the closet — and continue to fight the embodiment of our own mortality and vulnerability.
There are only two things we can do for one another really. We can share knowledge and teach one another so that we may all be able to realize our potential, to make our meaning in some way. And we can work to eliminate unnecessary suffering. All help falls into one of those two categories. I’ve been surprised by the number of people speaking out and saying — “even if it does make us more likely to be hurt, even if we risk what is most precious in our lives, we don’t want to give up our humanity, our responsiveness, our generosity.” I believe that this is what it means to be a warrior for the human spirit.
Now, that’s a battle worth fighting.
Much appreciation to Whitney Johnson for encouraging me and asking the question that prompted the post. And to Liza Donnelly for so perfectly capturing (as she often does) the human predicament and for permission to post her drawing. Margaret Wheatley - warrior for the human spirit who asks the bravest questions of herself and everyone else.
How to Make Sure You’re Heard in a Difficult Conversation
Your words matter.
A difficult conversation has to be a two-way street. You’re unlikely to come to a resolution if you don’t hear the other person out. But equally important when addressing a conflict is getting your message across. So after you’ve thoroughly listened to your counterpart, increase the likelihood that they will see things your way by doing the following.
Own your perspective
If you feel mistreated, you may be tempted to launch into your account of the events: “I want to talk about how horribly you treated me in that meeting.” But that’s unlikely to go over well.
Instead, treat your opinion like what it is: your opinion. Start sentences with “I,” not “you.” Say “I’m annoyed that this project is six months behind schedule,” rather than “You’ve missed every deadline we’ve set.” This will help the other person see your perspective and understand that you’re not trying to blame him.
Explain exactly what is bothering you and follow up by identifying what you hope will happen. You might say, “I appreciate your ideas, but I’m finding it hard to hear them because throughout this process, I’ve felt as if you didn’t respect my ideas. That’s my perception. I’m not saying that it’s your intention. I’d like to clear the air so that we can continue to work together to make the project a success.”
Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You, says that you should admit blame when appropriate. “It’s easy to demonize your colleague. But you’re almost certainly contributing to the dynamic in some way, as well,” Clark says. Admitting your faults will help set a tone of accountability for both of you, and your counterpart is more likely to own up to her missteps as well. If she doesn’t, and instead seizes on your confession and harps on it—“That’s exactly why we’re in this mess”—let it go.
Pay attention to your words
Sometimes, regardless of your good intentions, what you say can make the issue worse. Other times you might say the exact thing that helps the person go from boiling mad to cool as a cucumber. Here are some phrases that can help make sure you’re heard:
- “Here’s what I’m thinking.”
- “My perspective is based on the following assumptions . . .”
- “I came to this conclusion because . . .”
- “I’d love to hear your reaction to what I just said.”
- “Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?
- “Do you see the situation differently?”
There are some basic rules you can follow to keep from pushing your counterpart’s buttons. Of course you should avoid name-calling and finger-pointing.
Your language should be “simple, clear, direct, and neutral,” says Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. Don’t apologize for your feelings, either. The worst thing you can do “is to ask your counterpart to have sympathy for you,” she says. Don’t say things like “I feel so bad about saying this” or “This is really hard for me to do,” because it takes the focus away from the problem and toward your own neediness. While this can be hard, this language can make your counterpart feel obligated to focus on making you feel better before moving on.
Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, provides two additional rules when it comes to what you say:
- Say “and,” not “but.” “When you need to disagree with someone, express your contrary opinion as ‘and.’ It’s not necessary for someone else to be wrong for you to be right,” she says. When you’re surprised to hear something your counterpart has said, don’t interject with a “But that’s not right!” Just add your perspective. Davey suggests something like this: “You think we need to leave room in the budget for a customer event, and I’m concerned that we need that money for employee training. What are our options?” This will engage your colleague in problem solving, which is inherently collaborative instead of combative.
- Use hypotheticals. Being contradicted doesn’t feel very good, so don’t try to counter each of your counterpart’s arguments. Instead, says Davey, use hypothetical situations to get him imagining. “Imagining is the opposite of defending, so it gets the brain out of a rut,” she says. She offers this example: “I hear your concern about getting the right salespeople to pull off this campaign. If we could get the right people . . . what could the campaign look like?”
Watch your body language
A lot of people unconsciously convey nonverbal messages. Are you slumping your shoulders? Rolling your eyes? Fidgeting with your pen? During your conversation, pay attention to your facial expression, arms, legs, and entire body, and take stock of the overall impression you’re giving.
Do the same for your counterpart. If her nonverbal cues are sending a different message than what she’s articulating, ask about it. For example, you might say, “I hear you saying that you’re fine with this approach, but it looks as if maybe you still have some concerns. Is that right? Should we talk those through?”
Change the tenor of the conversation
Sometimes, despite your best intentions and all of the time you put into preparing for the conversation, things veer off course. You can’t demand that your counterpart hold the discussion exactly the way you want.
If things get heated, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, mentally pop out of the conversation as if you’re a fly on the wall, and objectively look at what’s happening. You might even describe to yourself (in your head) what’s happening: “He keeps returning to the fact that I yelled at his team yesterday.” “When I try to move the conversation away from what’s gone wrong to what we can do going forward, he keeps shifting it back.” Then state what you’re observing in a calm tone. “It looks as if whenever the sales numbers come up, you raise your voice.” Suggest a different approach: “If we put our heads together, we could probably come up with a way to move past this. Do you have any ideas?”
If it seems as if you’ve entered into a power struggle in which you’re no longer discussing the substance of your conflict but battling over who is right, step back and either try one of the phrases or questions from the “Pay Attention to Your Words” section above or talk about what’s not working. Say, “We seem to be getting locked into our positions. Could we return to our goals and see if we can brainstorm together some new ideas that might meet both our objectives?” Here are some other phrases that help to productively move the conversation along:
- “You may be right, but I’d like to understand more.”
- “I have a completely different perspective, but clearly you think this is unfair, so how can we fix this?”
- “I’m not sure how this connects to what we’ve been talking about. Can you help me make the connection?”
- “I’d like to give my reaction to what you’ve said so far and see what you think.”
- “This may be more my perception than yours, but when you said ‘X,’ I felt . . .”
- “Is there anything I can say or do that might convince you to consider other options here?”
You can’t force your counterpart to appreciate, understand, or even just hear your perspective. But using the tactics above increases the chances. Getting your point across, coupled with hearing your colleague out, is a necessity if you want to reach a resolution.
This article was adapted from HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work and How to Make Sure You're Heard in a Difficult Conversation.
Amy Gallo is the author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, a how-to guidebook on handling conflict professionally and productively. She is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, where she writes and develops ideas for the web, magazine, and press. She covers a range of topics with a focus on managing conflict, managing yourself, leading people, and building your career. Having worked with dozens of organizations and written about workplace dynamics for over a decade, Amy is particularly interested in situations in which relationships fall apart and how to repair them. Before working as a writer and editor, she was a consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a strategy and organization consulting firm based in New York (later acquired by Booz & Company, which is now Strategy&). She is a graduate of Yale University and has a master’s from Brown University.
Everyone says we must be data-driven. I have trouble with that phrase, as discussed before. Too often, we're making decisions based on the data presented...as is. We're not asking the hard questions behind the data.
When I was at Bell Labs, we used to ask, "How much did you pay for that data?" You can get data to say whatever you wanted depending on how it is presented and calculated, on what you show and what you don't.
Before you start making decisions on the data in front of you, ask why it is the way it is, what's driving those numbers, what was the context, the constraints, the demographics, the sample size, the timeframe and frequency, etc.
For instance, a company says it promotes more of its people than its competitors, but perhaps it's 50yrs older? Perhaps its twice as large so the overall numbers are bigger? Perhaps it hasn't in the past 5 yrs but given the number it had the previous 30, the overall number is still big. Perhaps, perhaps - if you don't ask, you won't know and you could make decisions that are yes, based on the data in front of you, but not on the story behind that data.
"Be Data-Discerning, Not Data-Driven"
I propose we start being data-discerning, not data-driven.... you may be surprised at what new insights you discover!