Firing People and Being Fired

You can tell a lot about a person’s relationship to power from whether or not they’ve ever fired anyone and how. Do they understand the scope of their power, both formal and informal? Do they realize that not firing someone can be just as impactful in both positive and negative ways as firing someone? How do they deal with the aftermath?

I would love to experiment with getting folks to talk about their experiences firing others and being fired as a way to talk about power and to align around what success and failure might look like for everyone involved when power is wielded.

Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons

Dealing with Bullies

I was a small, skinny kid for most of my childhood, which meant I occasionally had to deal with bullies. My mom had a little twist on the Golden Rule she instilled in me at a very early age, which helped me deal with these bullies.

“If they hit you,” she advised me, “hit them back twice.”

The best way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the mouth. Given that physical violence is generally (maybe even appropriately) frowned upon, I later realized that there is an equally effective technique that amounts to the same thing: Find his source of power, and neuter him.

Hysterically expressing moral outrage, however valid, is a waste of energy. It exhausts you and your allies while feeding the bully and his supporters. I’m not suggesting that you suppress these feelings. Find ways to channel them into things that the bully cares about — taking away his status, his power, his audience.

Turning his audience means that you have to take the time to understand them and be disciplined in how you communicate with them. If you listen, you might be surprised to learn that you actually have common ground. Put everything else aside, and focus on that common ground.

Finally and most importantly, have the backs of the people you care about and who care about you. Solidarity is strength.

Seinfeld and Obama on Staying Grounded by Keeping It About the Work

Jerry Seinfeld’s episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Barack Obama is predictably great. I highly recommend watching the whole 20 minutes.

I particularly enjoyed the exchanges on maintaining perspective. Seinfeld teased Obama about this throughout, asking him questions about his underwear, emotional eating, raising the heat in the White House, and other stuff that normal people have to worry about.

At the 00:14:35 mark, they started talking about how privilege and power changes you. Seinfeld said, “Privilege is toxic, sadly. Things that people struggle to achieve, they get to positions of power, influence, money, can do things… it has a toxic effect on their judgment.”

Then, Obama turned the tables on him. “Has it happened to you yet?” Obama asked.

“No,” Seinfeld replied immediately and definitively.

Obama kept pushing. He mentioned Seinfeld’s sudden and extreme success — the fame, the money — and he asked, “How did you calibrate dealing with that?”

Seinfeld responded:

I fell in love with the work. And the work was joyful and difficult and interesting. And that was my focus.

Very reminiscent of what Obama himself said earlier this year in an interview with Humans of New York, although in that case, Obama was referring to how you recover from massive failure.

Losing my Voice

Yesterday, I started losing my voice, and it stayed gone all day today. Of course, I had meetings scheduled all day today, and I needed to speak at all of them. So I got to try on a new persona today — that of a person who speaks softly, calmly, and slowly.

Normally, my voice is clear and strong. Projecting is not a problem, and although I have learned to speak softly on occasion, when I get excited or agitated, I naturally start speaking faster and louder.

So today was interesting. I liked that my inability to speak up without straining my vocal cords forced me to slow down and speak softly and gently. I was able to stay calm and deliberate as I spoke, even when I was excited about something. It felt better — getting excited eventually drains me — and I’m sure it made it easier and perhaps more enjoyable for others to follow. I’d love to keep practicing this.

However, there were also times when I wanted to project simply so that others could hear me. Not being able to do that felt frustrating and disempowering. It would be interesting to experiment with this long-term to see how much of a role my natural voice plays in me being seen by others, and how I might compensate in other ways.