FirstCuts 2009: Issue 32
Framework Consulting Inc.
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Editorial FirstCuts - a source of provocative ideas to disagree with... strongly!
Article Breaking the habit of inappropriate protest.
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Editorial Last month's issue of FirstCuts got perhaps the biggest response of any that I have written. The irony is that I felt quite unsure of what I was writing, and convinced myself that I was taking a risk that would pay off only in some kind of backlash... Well, I was quite wrong! What I am learning is that no-one cares to read the same old stuff, and that even when there is disagreement, it's at least taking place over some fresh ideas. For me, this is enough reason to tackle each new issue.
This month is no different - it's an attempt to open up a dialogue. Here in the Caribbean, our love of workplace protest gets us in trouble. It stands in the way of our progress as a people, and our unwillingness to give up national rights is now standing in the way of CARICOM. It's becoming more difficult for us to blame the British, French, Spanish, Dutch et al. It's time for us to look at ourselves. Francis
Our Propensity to Protest West Indies cricket recently hit a new low when the region’s team lost both the Test and one-day series to the worst team in major international cricket: Bangladesh. A few months later, a similar disaster was barely averted. A few of Jamaica’s best athletes in the 2009 IAAF Track and Field World Championships came close to being dropped from the team for missing a mandatory training camp. They were included in the meet only after the IAAF president intervened in the conflict. The athletes went on to win half of the country’s medals Apparently, it doesn’t take much to end up with the region’s top talent sitting on the bench in large numbers, watching lesser performers take their places. What both incidents have in common is a profound failure in management. There is much that Caribbean executives and managers can learn from these debacles when it comes to leading their own teams, as the cause of these problems does not reside solely in the sports arena. The fact is, the same thing happens all the time in companies. Here in the Caribbean, top Page 3
managers with excellent we could apply to our education and experience unique situation? are hired into companies with tremendous fanfare. Glossy announcements are made in the press, boasting Workplace Protest of the prowess of the new management team. When looking at how our workers behave and how our managers manage, we seem to start a few steps behind the rest of the world. There’s simply too much evidence pointing to the fact that we’re weak on producing results, but strong in the art of labour protest.
In today’s Caribbean workplace, the protests and quiet sabotage haven’t stopped. Instead, they exist on a continuum, ranging from sullen disengagement to outright hostility.
A few months later, however, little is made of the untimely departure of the same top talent from these companies.
The truth is that the vast majority of our ancestors in the region were brought here to work under protest. They continued to protest as they were taught by other slaves and indentured workers how to follow the system of servitude that had been set up in their new home: the plantation. Both house and field slaves learned how to do their duties while mastering the art of “appearing” to work hard while actually doing as little as possible. All learned how to intentionally, and quietly, sabotage the
What is it about Caribbean organisations that produces such disastrous results? Are we any different from other companies in the world? Can we learn something from effective teams that Newsletter Header
system wherever they could. Alex Haley’s television series Roots included a memorable scene in which Kizzy, a slave, discreetly spat into her slave owner’s cup as she was serving her. On a recent project here in Jamaica, a human resource manager shared with me his belief that this practice was still occurring—a finding backed up by Kenneth Carter’s book Why Workers Won’t Work: The Worker in a Developing Economy: A Case Study of Jamaica. In today’s Caribbean workplace, the protests and quiet sabotage haven’t stopped. Instead, they exist on a continuum, ranging from sullen disengagement to outright hostility. In different islands, I’ve seen Trinis crack jokes at a manager’s expense, Bajans refuse to speak in meetings, and Jamaicans threaten managers in open meetings. The world, on a whole, was treated to a small sample of Caribbean protest when Jamaican athletes in the 2000 Athens Olympics protested against the inclusion of fellow Jamaican Merlene Ottey. The placards, blocked roads, and shouts of “Ottey Out” were too much for Olympic officials, who eventually gave the athletes an ultimatum: pack it up or go home. Wisely, the athletes decided to put away the cardboard and paint and retire to their dorms.
We Caribbean people know how to protest. To our credit, we also know how to identify injustice.
In our region, successful protests brought the end of the slave trade, slavery, worker exploitation, and, ultimately, colonial rule. It was an effective tool when there was a clear set of rights to be gained in an obviously unjust situation. However, our favourite technique fails to be an effective approach in the nuanced and complex workplace in which we find ourselves in 2009. Instead of forcing the powerful to grant concessions, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s, when the Manley government in Jamaica started agricultural cooperatives to give workers greater control of their destinies. Unfortunately, the workers were ill-trained in how to operate as a collective—and in one case, the workers
went on strike, essentially against themselves. In the case of West Indies cricket, our fans in other countries are puzzled by our dramatic and unnecessary fall to the bottom of the Test cricket rankings. We seem to have beaten ourselves off the field by first squandering the abundant talent so evident in the 1980s and 1990s, and then by squabbling away the little we have left. In Jamaican athletics, each side in the recent world championships conflict claims to be wronged by the other. It’s only our amazing success that’s keeping the conflict under cover. Our companies are not immune from this kind of destruction in executive teams, workplaces, departments, and divisions. Employees at all levels, regardless of experience or education, know how to identify injustice and are quick to protest. Some of the biggest Caribbean companies have executives who have joined existing trade unions, or even started their own, to “defend their rights.” This is not a normal occurrence. Bargaining unions for executives and managers are unheard of in the best companies in the world.
Caribbean-Style Resistance In today’s workplace, protests take the following forms, among others: Arriving late for meetings Not showing up at work Playing cards, dominos, reading, etc. Complaining to someone who can’t do anything about the issue Withholding feedback when asked Staying quiet in public Not talking to people who “spite me” or “malice me” Running a personal business from the office Spreading damaging gossip Playing “crab in a barrel” and pulling down others who try to get ahead Striking Working to rule Leaking reports to the press Starting or joining a union I worked for U.S. companies for about 10 years before starting my own firm, and I know that the above list of behaviours can be found in just about any enterprise. What’s different here in the Caribbean is the element of “protest”—the feeling that the above actions are justified because there’s a wrong to be corrected, and the feeling that there’s some moral justification at the root of these actions. What’s also different is the Page 5
fact that these behaviours can be found at every level, from the executives on down to the lowest ranks. All it takes is a sense that “I have been wronged” to start an escalation from hurt feelings to vengeful action (or inaction.)
Unfortunately, “establishing one’s rights as a victim” isn’t exactly a corporate best practice. Neither is an “ability to protest wrongdoing.”
The survey showed that managers perceive workers’ priorities incorrectly and assume the worst about the workers’ motives. In other words, supervisors in 2009 are treating workers in some of the same dehumanising ways that have taken place since 1492, when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and began the process of enslaving and exterminating Tainos and Caribs. It’s no surprise that workers continue to protest as they always have. Unfortunately, “establishing one’s rights as a victim” isn’t exactly a corporate best practice. Neither is an “ability to protest wrongdoing.”
However, there is some evidence that While the courage it takes nonsupervisory workers are to protest is admirable, the justified in their response. act of protest probably isn’t the best choice of As I mentioned in FirstCuts techniques to use in 31, the research from Why everyday conflicts. It Workers Won’t Work separates the self-declared suggests that new victim from those who are supervisors undergo an designated as “oppressors,” interesting mindset change. and it promotes the In a nutshell, upon acquisition of rights and promotion they stop seeing justice to the top of the their former colleagues as agenda. human beings in need of recognition and How can Caribbean teams appreciation, and start to and companies teach see them as needy themselves a new way to individuals who will only be cooperate to achieve the satisfied with more money. end result? Newsletter Header
Seeing Systems Executive teams in the region can start to develop the skills they need by first coming to a collective awareness that the problem is real. Our plantation history is important for us to embrace if we hope to understand our strengths and weaknesses in the workplace. Once executives realise its importance, the team can create practices that help them see for themselves when they fall into the trap of protesting in order to defend personal rights that conflict with the group’s progress.
cantankerous bicycles, and looked like those in today’s hordes of darting, weaving Pakistan, there’s been motor scooters.” steady improvement over the years. We in the Caribbean can relate. Carpenter also points out that, as a system, traffic In an Oregonian traffic circles work best when circle, by contrast, “the drivers act unselfishly. The right-of-way rule is ironclad, Oregon traffic circles work and 99.9 percent of drivers so well because each person is willing to temporarily set aside his or her own agenda and cooperate in assisting the majority. It’s the very opposite of the “every man for himself” situation he described in Pakistan.
They can begin to see why we have great challenges in working together for sustained periods of time to accomplish big goals. follow the rules exactly.” This insight is at the heart of a book I read recently, Work the System by Sam Carpenter. In the book, the author compares “traffic circles” (or roundabouts) in Pakistan with those in his U.S. hometown in Oregon. Carpenter says, “The driving (in Pakistan) is instinctual and primal.” His “favorite circle is huge with five concentric lanes of traffic, each with vehicles careening wildly around the potholed pavement. Competing for space are fragile donkey carts, huge ornately decorated trucks, tiny Chinese cars, Page 6
Carpenter concludes: “My guess is that despite the Pakistani frenzy, more traffic flows through the staid (Oregonian) traffic circle than flows through the equal-size (Pakistani) circle. It’s also my bet that there are fewer accidents in the (Oregon) traffic circle.” I think he’s right. The point he makes is that someone in the United States took the time to study and understand how traffic circles work best. And even though the earliest U.S. traffic circles probably
The other critical insight from Carpenter’s book is that complex accomplishments are not possible without interconnected systems that work together to produce the end result. To illustrate, he gives the example of the U.S. space shuttle program. He points out that a space shuttle launch is “perhaps the most magnificent display of human system control … The launch executes, and tens of thousands of active systems, both on the craft and on the ground, execute independently and in concert, each a precision entity unto itself.” Impressive. However, I’d have my doubts about flying a Caribbean-run space shuttle. It has nothing to do Newsletter Header
with our individual talent, because we’re as smart as any set of people in the world. What I don’t trust is our ability to manage complex systems that require in-depth cooperation between thousands of experts. I can only imagine that our propensity for protest would once again be an obstruction. Fortunately, Work the System offers a way of thinking about solutions. Carpenter points out that to make a business successful, someone must be able to see the subsystems that need to work together to make it function. When any single subsystem isn’t working, then the entire system fails, much in the way that two space shuttles failed in midflight. When executives aren’t able to see subsystems, they tend to think that problems are personal, that they emanate from individuals. Someone is quickly made into a scapegoat, and then blamed and pilloried until the person eventually leaves the organisation or disappears into the woodwork. This is unfortunate, especially when the failure of Caribbean organisations to work together for the common good cannot be isolated to a few individuals. Instead, to use Carpenter’s language, the problem lies in the system. In other Page 7
words, what makes the Pakistani traffic circles so dangerous is not one or two people but a systematic way in which people think, and therefore drive. Our Caribbean teams in companies, sports, and politics are staffed with some of the most brilliant minds and talent in the world. Our skills are highly sought after and can be found at the top of governments, organisations, and companies all around the world as well as at the forefront of several fields of endeavour. Obviously, there’s something to celebrate: our systems for promoting individual talent work quite well.
However, what prevents our executive teams from working together is one subsystem that they might need to focus on. Many Trinidadian businessmen, for example, are still guided by the closure of West Indies Glass Ltd. in 2000. The Trinidadian company operating in Jamaica suffered a strike for better wages that only led to no wages at all; the company pulled out of Jamaica—lock, stock, and
barrel—when the final demand for wages pushed the company’s management over the edge. That damage is still being felt today in the minds of Trinidadian executives who are wary of investing in Jamaica knowing what happened to their countrymen. Furthermore, Jamaica has been importing all of its glass from overseas since that company’s failure. The frame of mind seems to be this: “my rights” come first, and “protesting” is my primary tool to accomplish that goal. The problem that I’ve seen in regional companies and teams is that their priorities are muddled. Our weakness leads us to carry on our protests for too long, well after they’ve lost their usefulness, to the point where they become destructive. In the best corporate teams I’ve worked with, both within and outside the region, I’ve observed a key piece of knowledge: they know when to stop pointing out differences, and when to start distinguishing points of similarity. In other words, team members can see the signals that tell them when it’s time to change gears and drive towards consensus. It’s as if they realise that it’s time to give up defending their personal rights in favour of the team’s success. Newsletter Header
This is not to say that they become doormats for those who would exploit them. Instead, it’s a matter of responsibility. Teams that work well assume ownership for the end result, realising that the only way to get there is to place the team’s goals at the top of the priority list. In high-performing teams, the team’s goals come first, and the tools used to accomplish the goal are varied, depending on the circumstances and the phase in which the team finds itself. They’re able to move between one approach and the other, avoiding the common problem of “having a hammer and seeing every problem as a collection of nails.” At the same time, I’m
optimistic. There are proven methods for training groups to notice specific destructive behaviours, and a Caribbean executive team can be taught how to notice when it’s time to set aside their rights in order to achieve greater goals. They can also be taught how to end a personal protest in order to add their energy to the forward motion that everyone wants.
frank conversations—and the right kind of training interventions. Once an executive team can identify the subsystem that’s not working, they can determine how best to fix it on an ongoing basis.
With the right exposure, I believe that even the West Indies cricket team and the leadership of Jamaican athletics can get past the self-inflicted wounds we see today and bring us out of the rut in which we find To use the approach ourselves year after year. advocated by Work the FC System, it’s as simple as figuring out which system P.S. A story from the isn’t working, and then Jamaica Gleaner entitled focusing on steadily "No Justice for Jollie" came improving it. out after I wrote this month's issue but it's a In our case, what’s missing perfect example of our is the level of awareness of "Propensity to Protest." the problem that leads to
Tips, Ads and Links Podcast: Remember, each issue of FirstCuts is recorded as a podcast and can be found at the following clickable link: http//fwconsulting.podomatic. com Baed on the last issue of FirstCuts I was interviewed by Peter Gales of MoreVida, and the two short videos can be found at http://fwconsulting.com/ morevidap1 (and 2) The Framework Consulting website is complete and I invite you to view it at http://fwconsulting.com.
Past issues of FirstCuts can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/pw7fa I have just begun writing for the most popular internet publication in Jamaica: YourMoneyezine. My first article is loosely based on the ideas in this month's issue of FirstCuts and can be found at: http://www.ezineslimited.com/ images/issues/Your Money eZine - 2002.09.09.pdf Lastly, I was mistaken for the man used for the cover pic of FirstCuts31. "It wasn't me!" (Same for this month!!) ;-)
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