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Archive for the ‘organizational management’ Category

This may be known as the key week where highly visible officials in business and government took themselves down by opening their mouths and inserting both their feet, or by managing to be somewhere they shouldn’t have been, all the while forgetting that someone might actually be noticing.

First, there was Tony Hayward, BP’s CEO.  He’s made a number of gaffes since the Gulf oil disaster began, including this one:  “We’re sorry for the massive disruption [the oil spill has] caused … There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.”  Joining the ‘pants on fire’ club, Hayward later asserted, “There are no plumes” (of oil, under the water)…only what’s floating on top.

Then there’s the little matter of the yacht race Hayward attended over the weekend, showing empathy once more for the “small people” on the Gulf Coast that his boss, BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, has lifted up so sensitively.  Is it a surprise, then, that a speech Hayward was to give for a gathering of the World National Oil Companies Congress in London was delivered by Haward’s chief of staff?  Hayward is now more or less in hiding, and we’re all the better for it.

And, of course, there’s General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, who’s come out in Rolling Stone criticizing the “wimps in the White House,” including the President and Vice President.  He’ll be explaining himself to Obama today, and I’m betting that we’ll be hearing from Robert Gibbs by late afternoon that McChrystal’s resignation has been accepted.

I have spent a fair amount of time over the course of my career helping to sort out institutional and individual responses to less-than-favorable publicity.  I have studied at the knee of a number of brilliant communication strategists, most notably Helio Fred Garcia, who reminds us that the media are looking for five key elements in a story.  They are conflict, contradiction, controversy, colorful language, and a cast of characters.  Given the connection of the rubric to almost all ‘juicy’ stories, you would think that officials – whether they are in corporate, government, or non-profit settings — would ‘get it’ and think before they open their mouths…even when (as, apparently, is the case with Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings) the reporter gets stuck with you for nearly a month.

A former colleague of mine, preparing to work with a congregation that had more or less self-destructed out of lack of planning and forethought, said that the first thing she was going to ask them when she saw them was, “Now what was going on in your mind when you said that?”  The challenge — and it does seem to be one, given the large number of communication disasters witnessed recently that have been brought on by people in very high places — is to have a thought before you open your mouth, not after.

Why is this such a challenge?  People are motivated, by the urgency of the media cycle and the irresistible urge to talk about what’s really on their minds, to say something to the press.  Lawyers often caution witnesses, in preparation for testimony, to not volunteer information.  Just answer the question, they say.  Keep it simple.  The same thing is true for interviews.  Remember the story you want to get out there.  Don’t offer what isn’t asked for.  Stay focused on message.  Remember your talking points, and remember that people will be watching, and listening, and reading.  And resist the urge to run your mouth in order to be a celebrity or a pundit.

McChrystal, Hayward, and others remind us, vividly, to think before talking, to remember that wherever you go, there might be a microphone or a camera waiting.  Forgetting this puts public officials in jeopardy, and bad things can happen:   when you open your mouth, for instance, you might find that your feet are in the way.

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Why, I wonder, do Unitarian Universalists seem to have such difficulty establishing and accepting boundaries and limits?  I have pondered this for a very long time, as I observe, in congregational and social settings, problems created both by people with poor boundaries and those who can not set limits for behavior where they are needed.  Do we really believe that affirming the worth and dignity of people means that anything goes?  And why is it so difficult for us to — as a former first lady said — “just say no” sometimes?

Years ago, a congregation I belonged to found itself visited by an individual who had a record as a Level 1 sex offender.  Worse, he had a real fondness for the children in our church school, and was found headed to the religious education wing more than once.  As the religious education chair at the time, I wanted him told, in no uncertain terms, that he was not allowed anywhere near the RE wing of our building, and I wanted him told that he could attend worship and adult-only events, but none that were intergenerational.  The board in its wisdom did not wish to have such a difficult conversation with the person, and so they instead set up a very complicated and flawed ‘system’ in which two volunteers at a time ‘shadowed’ the person (without ever having such a conversation with him) whenever he appeared at church.  Ultimately the volunteers were not able to successfully track the person, and the board did expel him from church.  But it wasn’t easy, and in the meantime, our children were put at risk.

A similar situation occurred in another church I attended, in which a person with clear mental illness issues appeared — having previously visited and been expelled from two other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the past for threatening behavior.  Again, the board was loath to place boundaries around behavior — until she made threats against a staff member.

And as an employee, I have had the occasion to by stalked by email (threatening packages and letters mailed to me) and I have observed numerous colleagues and friends who were threatened by another individual, through blog posts and email messages and occasional picketing in public locations, when it was clear that the individual should have been sanctioned or handed a restraining order long ago.

Even in committees and volunteer work I’ve engaged in, I’ve had occasion to see, over and over, the behavior of people who believe that the rules don’t apply to them.  They send broadcast emails out to large groups of people, citing their position, or suggest that others have censored them, or they absent themselves from meetings only to then argue for a ‘do-over’ of a vote or decision taken when they were not present.  And far too often, we well-meaning people fold our tents and cave.  “Oh, um, OK…we’ll talk about it again (even though we’ve discussed it for two months and arrived at a decision at a meeting you missed).”  “Oh, well, should we give so-and-so another chance?  Even though the person has shown, on more than one occasion, that he or she can’t abide by our code of conduct?  Uh, well, OK.”

This country supports freedom of speech, and the faith that I live by supports right relations and respectful discourse.  But too often, a line gets crossed, and, by leaning too far in the direction of “one more chance,” or what we think is affirmation of “worth and dignity,” individuals who don’t observe boundaries and limits run all over due process and the basics of right relations.  Sometimes, just saying no is the right thing to do.

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