Rational Optimism vs. Professional Cynicism

November 27, 2010

“I  have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”  John Stuart Mill

In today’s Wall Street Journal essay section, both Bill Gates and Matt Ridley cite the above Mill quote approvingly.   There is much else about which they agree as Gates takes issue with a single chapter in Ridely’s new work, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.  In fact, all these two great thinkers-achievers-writers disagree about is the degree to which climate change and African poverty are problems which can  be resolved with the application of normal human effort.  When you carefully analyze their debate, I am not sure they even disagree about the methods needed to solve these concerns they both share.  Because I lack substantive understanding about these significant challenges to human well being, I will not offer an opinion on their “debate”.

However, the discussion generates a more fundamental question about which is the more effective approach to problem solving:  optimism or cynicism?  The thoughts shared by the essays remind me of over 40 years of experience in law, politics, education and religion.  I have never ceased to be amazed at the power of cynicism to thwart forward progress.

When an erstwhile graduate student aspiring to a professorship in English literature and theater, I learned quickly that the powerful commentator was the one who found fatal fault with another’s work.  I was taught that great thinkers don’t agree, they criticize.  Higher education required one to achieve such supreme status of thought that criticism was unavailing.  This means that one must know more and more about less and less until you remain the last man standing knowing all there is to know about nothing at all.  I abandoned academia in large part because this seems like a lousy way to build a railroad.

Surprise! The study and practice of law proved similar in many respects.  What I hoped would be a practical approach to innovation and positive change in the world’s condition, proved to be another arena in which your ideas must be challenged and diminished so mine can prevail.  It is amazing how often the lawyer’s answer to a question about strategy or approach is, “You can’t do that.”  Little wonder clients are loath to ask.  Risk aversion is one thing.  The lack of creative innovation in response to clients’ needs is another.

Politics and religion seem to fall prey to the same win/lose dynamic. Oneupsmanship must be endemic to the human condition.

Ironically, the Gates and Ridley debate today in the WSJ demonstrates the value in building on great ideas and advancing them without destroying the other’s.  Are these great thinkers demonstrating the power of managing polarities?  See, Polarity Management post.  Apparently, they don’t need to build a career in law, education, politics or religion.



Thanks!: It’s good for your health

November 23, 2010

From them will come songs of thanksgiving
and the sound of rejoicing.
I will add to their numbers,
and they will not be decreased;
I will bring them honor,
and they will not be disdained.


The proof is in.  The Pilgrims had it right from the beginning.  Being thankful leads to longer life, better health and greater success.  The Wall Street Journal says it, so it must be true.  Today’s WSJ reports that an “attitude of gratitude” lasts long after the turkey turns into creamed turkey delight.  Its effect lingers into the post-triptophanic euphoria and beyond the weekend football games.  Click the image above and take your own thankfulness survey.  Find out how healthy and successful you might be.

For us at ICM, our thanksgiving list is a long one.  First, thanks to Lipscomb University President Randy Lowry whose vision made ICM possible.  Thanks to the Lipscomb Board of Trust for suspending disbelief long enough for this non-academic academic program to take flight.  Thank you to the generous benefactors who chose to remain anonymous and who gave a $1 million endowment to fund the Randy and Rhonda Lowry Chair of Conflict Management. Thanks to the Lipscomb University administration for supporting us while we got our sea legs underneath us.  Thanks to the Lipscomb faculty for tolerating us and treating us like colleagues.

Thanks go to the early student risk-takers who decided that this was a program they wanted to experiment with.  Thanks as well to all the students that have followed into a graduate program now numbering over 100 students on an ongoing basis that will require multiple sections next term to be able to accommodate the interest in this field.

Thanks to a great faculty of practitioners who come from all over the nation to create a phenomenal learning environment for our students unparalleled anywhere.  Thanks to the ICM Board of Advisors who have stuck with us as we developed our market, our message and our methods.  Thanks to the conflict management professional colleagues we have learned to value from across the nation who provide training, presentations and support to work we do at ICM.

Thanks also must go to those great relationships we have been blessed with at schools like Vanderbilt University, Southern Methodist University, Pepperdine University, University of Tennessee College of Law, Memphis University School of Law and Belmont University.

Thanks as well to the many community relationships we have been blessed to enjoy in Middle Tennessee and beyond in government, education, law enforcement, health care, non-profit management and faith based institutions of many shapes, sizes and belief.

Thanks to the ICM staff, a better gang you will not find.

Most importantly, thanks to a God who makes the impossible possible.

In short, our list is long.  We cannot express our thanksgiving well enough.  Just know that without you, we would have little to be thankful for.  Enjoy your holiday and give thanks.

BBHP: The high cost of bad behavior

November 21, 2010

Everybody experiences far more than he understands. Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior. Tell a FriendMarshall McLuhan

I am indebted to many colleagues in the related health care professions for introducing me to the Badly Behaving High Performer (BBHP). These are those individuals in every organization that are given significant latitude for recurrent bad behavior because they add significant sums to the bottom line. Some might infer that this phrase is reserved for physicians.  To the contrary, no profession, career or organization is immune from this phenomenon.  Nurses speak of their profession as one in which they “eat their young”.  Over 30 years of practicing law has introduced me to a few BBHP’s with law licenses. Anyone to whom the rules don’t apply may be a BBHP.

We have less difficulty dealing with badly behaving poor performers.  Organizations quickly respond to bad behavior that leads to bad performance.  Discipline, performance improvement plans and ultimately termination are visited on BBPP’s routinely.

High performers are another story altogether.  Today’s New York Times provides interesting insights concerning the impact organizations suffer when they endorse, tolerate or even reward the behavior of high performing louts.  Immediate demoralization, reduced productivity and turnover of valued employees are some of the more obvious costs incurred by employers and organizations unprepared to deal with the BBHP.  Research establishes that turnover attributed to the bad behaving peer, subordinate or superior is rarely reported.  Ample evidence exists to establish that employees do not leave employers, they leave their supervisor, manager or colleague who lacks common civility.  In health care, a single nurse turnover attributed to “lateral violence” by their colleagues, superiors or other unaddressed BBHP can cost in excess of $70,000 to recruit, train, retain and replace.  Of course not all nurses leave their jobs due to BBHP, but many do.

Evidence also exists to establish that a significantly disproportionate number of medical malpractice claims are attributed to physician behavior that is not professionally incompetent, but merely impolite, arrogant or uncivil.  Dr. Jerry Hickson at Vanderbilt University Medical Center has amassed significant data to support the premise that the vast majority of medical malpractice claims are due to physician bad behavior on the part of a very distinct minority of physicians.  The Joint Commission issued a sentinel event alert in 2008 which requires all recipients of Medicare dollars to develop programs, create policies and train all employees, managers and supervisors in the elimination of “disruptive behavior.”

Professors Pearson and Porath have conducted studies of over 9000 employees in workplaces across the nation.  The data reported in their book is stunning, but not surprising:

“60 percent of disrespectful behavior came from above, 20 percent from colleagues on the same level and 20 percent from below. And half said they decreased their effort on the job after experiencing ongoing rude behavior. Professor Pearson said that could mean that the workers did not put in the extra effort they otherwise might have, or that they worked strictly to their job description, or even that they slacked off.”

The lack of initiative to perform discretionary tasks in the workplace, is one of the greatest drains on productivity, profitability and employee intrinsic motivation. It demoralizes others and “begets more of the same”.

Might it be that violence and bullying in schools is patterned after incivility being witnessed by our children in the workplace, the grocery store, parking lots and homes?

We can change these trends if we care to.  We need to be willing to learn how to confront bad behavior at the source and in real time.  Tolerating it only rewards it and insures more of it.

Apology: Power in Purpose

November 14, 2010

Never make a defense or apology before you be accused.
King Charles I

By now you have certainly heard of the tragic death of Notre Dame student, Declan Sullivan.   During a football practice in inclement weather, Declan was videotaping the activity from an elevated hydraulic lift as a student worker employed by the university football team. High winds caused the lift to topple dropping Declan to his death. Should he have been allowed to work in such a dangerous situation? Was he trained in the use of the equipment? Were state or safety worker safety laws violated. Who’s at fault? Who should pay for this tragedy? Investigations and potential lawsuits may ultimately answer these questions.

In our litigious “blame/shame” culture, an unexpected statement to the Notre Dame university community was issued by its President, Fr. John Jenkins. (See, Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2010)  Despite the high likelihood that such a statement might equate to legal liability, Rev. Jenkins apologized for Declan’s death and accepted responsibility on behalf of the University less than a week after the tragedy.

What’s unusual is the fact that he wasn’t forced to.  The investigations are ongoing.  No lawsuit had been filed.  No legal blame had been determined.  Some would declare the move foolish.  Many have questioned the university’s motives.  Others have proclaimed the apology empty and devoid of meaning or authenticity.  Most simply don’t understand why an apology would be offered so soon and so publicly.  Maybe the passage of time will shed light on these concerns.

The fascinating effect of the president’s apology is that it was so unexpected it is inexplicable to the commentators.  Why should something as genuine as an apology be suspect?  Could it be that accepting responsibility is so foreign to our culture’s values that someone who chooses to do so is suspected of improper motives or worse, lunacy?

The reality is that when an apology is provided in authentic ways at appropriate times, the doorway to reconciliation and healing is opened.  Apology offered too soon can appear manipulative.  Expressions of regret provided to the wrong audience in the wrong way can be mistrusted.  However, genuine apology is a powerful tool to be used for proper purposes in order to start the dialog. Constructive conversation can begin between parties in conflict following the offer of an honest expression of regret.

In health care about half the states have “apology laws” which prohibit the offensive use of apologies as evidence in a subsequent lawsuit when offered by a health care provider to families or patients who believe they have suffered injury or adverse medical outcomes.  Legal “cover” for apologies can go a long way to incentivize expressions of regret.  However, many hospitals and health care systems are willing to run the risk of “doing the right thing” even if not legally protected by state law.  The data generated from these practices indicates that liability is lessened, not increased, by a legally unprotected apology.  The power of a purposeful apology can accomplish what the law cannot:  dignity, dialog and disposition.

You might recall that Charles I of England (who refused to apologize before accused) was responsible for the temporary abolition of the English monarchy.  His defiant refusal to accept responsibility for two civil wars and his arrogant use of power to achieve his own selfish purposes (without apology) led to his trial, conviction and execution for treason.  As a result, the Commonwealth of England (a republic form of government) was established by Oliver Cromwell and lasted for a brief period before the English monarchy was restored.

Thank you Fr. Jenkins for reminding us of what we all know innately:  refusal to accept responsibility before being forced to do so deprives apology of any meaning whatever.  Perhaps, our society can benefit from your example of apologizing before accusations force us to.

Bipartisan Partisanship: The Missing Link

November 8, 2010
When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge. Confucius

We can’t know what we don’t know.  Acknowledging that we might not know it is the beginning of wisdom.

Have you listened to dialogue carefully since last Tuesday’s elections?  Two things emerge.  The public is tired of partisan wrangling and duality policy making (“Its our turn to be right”).  Those in power (newly or otherwise) maintain they have a mandate to work the problems out “their way”.  This either/or approach to public policy is exactly what the public has lost trust in.  There is a missing link.

The missing element in the dialogue is as simple as the old Southern question: “Do you have a dog in the hunt?”  If so, will the public trust you to be an honest broker?  The cry for bipartisan partisanship is an oxymoron.  Will the new sheriff in town be any less likely to promote her self-interest than the sheriff that preceded her?  The partisanship trap is thinking that my win looks better than your win.  That’s win/lose thinking without end.

The missing link or the puzzle piece that remains to be discovered is how to bridge the opposing poles and discover a truly non-partisan solution.  By definition, “bi-partisan” retains the partisan character of the win/lose struggle for supremacy.  In contrast, non-partisan public policy sheds the dual win/lose struggle in exchange for a new approach, one in which opposing polarities are forged into a new reality which is superior to either polarity alone.

Why is it so difficult to discover the missing link?  Because our lenses are focused only on our own preferred positions and unable to see the values in the positions others hold.  Our positional certainty has blinded to truths other than our own.  Do we actually believe we alone hold the truth tightly and no one else can see it differently?  Of course not (if we’re honest).  However, our positional certainty precludes us from seeing truth as others see it.  (See:  Confronting Erroneous Thinking:  A Lost Art)

What the current call for bipartisanship fails to know is that once we have attained positional certainty we have reached the point where we are physiologically unable to step back from the precipice.  Neuroscience assures us that positional certainty will only become more entrenched when challenged.  The classic model describing five levels of conflict illustrates that when conflict rises to the intergroup level, the groups are unable to resolve their problems without outside assistance.  (See e.g. Nancy Borkowski, Organizational Behavior in Health Care.)  If we have problems with each other that we can’t solve together, I am highly unlikely to trust you to solve them for me.  That’s capitulation and another form of win/lose strategy.

The current public disgust and distrust of partisanship should lead the parties in conflict to welcome the assistance of outside, impartial (no dog in the hunt) facilitation.  Our cities, our states and our nation enjoy the benefit of thousands of professionals trained in the skills of assisting parties in conflict reach acceptable/acceptable outcomes.  Public policy can become a far more satisfying search for the common good than choosing between the two polar extremes.  Compromise is not necessary.  Creative collaboration can generate extremely satisfactory results in a non-hierarchical way.  (See, Mass Collaboration:  Will Management Really Die?)

However, under the current political thinking this is a most unlikely outcome.  Until the “pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same” we will stay the course and maintain our win/lose mentality.  Wouldn’t our pursuit of the public good be better served by acknowledging that we don’t know how to coerce our way to a better outcome?  Shouldn’t we welcome the assistance of impartial facilitation as a new tool for achieving satisfactory public policy?

Make no mistake, some issues are and will always remain highly partisan.  However, even the politicians indicate that the range of uncompromisable issues is as little as 10% of the matters that come before the administrative and legislative branches.  Furthermore, there is a great middle ground of matters that require only the application of majority rule leadership as a matter of good governance.  Where the difficulty lies is the band of issues outside the obvious common good and just short of the uncompromisable concerns that the special interests will attempt to pull the politicians into partisan positions in order to build support for their cause.  It is this 20 to 30% of public policy matters that the special interests must be enticed into dialog with their adversaries to illuminate the path to better outcomes.

The public waits and patience is running out.  The missing link is ready, willing and able to serve.  Is anyone listening?

If not, the next election cycle could result in yet another round of “out with the bums”.  Makes you kind of dizzy doesn’t it?  Responding to public cries for Statesmanship with even more strident brinkmanship clearly is not working for those who elect the representatives they expect more from than just a different version of the same ole thing.

Dial Down the Rhetoric?: “Yes, we can!”

November 3, 2010

As the mid-term elections come to an end and polls start to close across the country, the question begins to ring loudly.  As the pendulum swings from one pole to the next, do we really stand any chance of lowering the volume, reducing the partisan gridlock and accomplishing something of value?  Can we start working on the problems and stop fixing blame?  Is it remotely possible to become problem solvers instead being satisfied with being problem “pointer outers”?

The answer is a resounding “Yes”.  Public interests can be articulated, explored and encouraging outcomes can be developed through process based dialog and facilitated conversation.  Win/lose may not always be converted into ideal win/win results.  However, through the hard work of facilitated consensus building, public policy can approach acceptable/acceptable.  Often, in facilitated problem solving, creative ideas emerge which neither partisan position could fully comprehend or achieve. Managing polarities is the skill our public discourse is calling for.  (See prior post at:  Managing Polarity:  The Creative Power of the Conceptual Age)

Even very difficult public policy issues can be facilitated with all the stakeholders in the same room and promising solutions can be generated which address a variety of seemingly opposing interests and needs.  The volatile health care reform debate provided an example of how constituent leaders, some of whom had never been in the same room together, could converge on approaches and solutions the partisan wrangling was unable to achieve. (Summit to Build Bridges and Create an Action Plan)

Tennessee is perfectly poised to make a difference in showing how the search for common ground is neither compromise nor capitulation.  Instead, constituent based consensus building is a powerful tool to address difficult issues like immigration, religious co-existence, health care and economic development.

Before the governor’s race is declared, both gubernatorial camps in Tennessee have entertained robust conversation about expanding the role of mediative outcomes in state government.  Efficiency in problem solving and acceptable outcomes can be realized through the power of mediated disputes.  It is to be hoped that Tennessee continues to expand the power and presence of mediation in the judicial setting and in communities across the state.  Access to justice demands no less.  The state’s Supreme Court has come down firmly in favor of the growth of mediation as a preferred problem solving tool.

The Tennessee legislature has already begun to explore the use of collaborative tools in public policy development where appropriate.  In 2009, the Republican Caucus of the Tennessee General Assembly undertook training in the skills of managing conflict in the legislative process.  In 2010, the Democratic Caucus has requested similar instruction.  What if the Tennessee legislature became known nation wide as the place where tough problems are solved collaboratively more often than competitively?

The public demands it. The public trust deserves it.  Let’s support and engage in a different style of governing and send landlocked partisanship back to its room, without dinner.  It hasn’t worked very well.