A nun calls it like it is
I don’t remember how I happened upon this essay, but it’s been sitting in my bookmarks for over a month in the “you really need to blog about this” queue, and today’s the day I’m ready to talk about it. The title is grabbing: Even nuns get violent in meetings. That’s right, I linked to it twice, because I want you to read it. Really.
It’s worth a read to remind yourself about the value of truly working on your leadership skills as a way of building yourself into the leader you aspire to become, rather than the too often implicit focus of building your resume and inching up in an unreformed hierarchy that pervades leadership books and blogs and articles in the popular press.
But that’s not why it struck such a chord with me. It’s the unapologetic identification of bad work behavior as violence.
When a nun tells you that these fellow nuns become rude, dismissive, sarcastic, explosive, hurtful and destructive as a routine part of “doing business,” it’s easy to shrug it off and say “oh, like the rest of the world, then?” But when she calls out this too common way of “professional” interaction (it’s not personal, it’s business, right?) as violence – VIOLENCE – it should shock you into truly thinking about that claim.
Here’s the thing. I’ve worked for domestic violence organizations, and I don’t have any interest in minimizing what it means to be truly afraid for your life and body, in the workplace or elsewhere. I understand completely that we are talking about something that is a different beast in magnitude and impact. BUT.
I can’t, even as I try to figure out the right words to frame the difference between workplace violence and abusive work behaviors, make myself say that they have different roots, or that they are not on the same continuum.
In the past two weeks, I have spent time with two amazing people, both of whom sought my advice on dealing with work situations. In both, I immediately name the problem as bullying, the result being a toxic environment…but my memory of this article gives me the courage to also see that this is not a mere dysfunction of the nonprofit workplace.
Both of those situations are on the extreme side – their direct supervisors have a leadership style I like to refer to as teflon. However bad it gets, no criticism sticks…but that’s a function of the way they abuse their staff. To conflate the two situations, let me talk about the commonalities: there’s a long pattern of carefully alienating each employee from their colleagues. Pitting senior staff against each other, publicly criticizing employees for not being available 24/7 by shaming them as less dedicated than their fellows, refusing to contribute to actual decision-making then claiming credit for successes as “good management” and shrugging off any missteps by laying the blame on underlings (of course, loudly mourning the personal betrayal, that a good manager gives a long leash and trusts underlings so the failure is due to a failure to rise to the occasion). If I phrase things differently – that you have a powerful person who systematically divides their employee from peers, removes them from their support network, tries to eliminate an sense of identity other than “employee” (by emphasizing the 24/7 nature of the job), and sweetly hammers home the notion that all bad outcomes are due to your failure to live up to their loving trust…sometimes it comes with an explosive personality and yelling. And there’s usually a charming side, something that makes the good days feel really good.
Now does it sound more like abuse?
And then there’s the violence described in the nunnery: running roughshod over others in meetings such that the loudest voices get priority, having no shame when it comes to ad hominem attacks, an unyielding commitment to and rabid defense of initial opinions (as if it were a high school debate and your assigned “side” of the argument was immaterial in the face of winning the match), a squashing of inquiry and process…whether it’s peer-to-peer or boss/employee, the horror of some of these behaviors is not in the outcome – stress, poor decisions, frustration, anxiety, loss of sleep, burnout, and other complications of workplace conflict – it’s that I can see echoes of the way some people view and coach leadership behavior.
There’s a certain model of leadership that celebrates aggression and extroversion. We reward a lot of these behaviors, whether we intend to or not…and they too are on a spectrum from good to terrible. Speaking up for yourself is important in a meeting. If you’re certain you have the right opinion in a debate, it’s good to hold your ground, even if it seems to be the unpopular opinion. One of the other articles I’m sitting on is this, on why negativity should be valued higher in the workplace. I’ve been the voice against the grain in my personal professional life on occasion, the person who stands up for preparation against the worst case scenario when the group wants to simply assume the best case will transpire. It feels awful. It feels like I am the bully, the loud and poisonous wretch who is less interested in the organization’s progress than personal protection against failure. If I justify my behavior by saying that it was what I felt I needed to do, in good conscience, why should the bullies I describe above not get the same consideration?
So what’s a person to do if they’re a) caught in a workplace that actively or tacitly rewards violence? or b) trying to find their own leadership style in a world where few folks understand or care to differentiate between assertiveness and aggression?
1) You can help change your workplace culture. Some aren’t able to be saved, of course. Some aren’t able to be saved by YOU, depending on the specifics of the circumstances. Such is life…but in many cases, you can move the dial on setting new norms, whether you’re in a supervisory role or not.
2) Don’t accept problems that aren’t yours. If you find yourself lying awake at night trying to figure out how to resolve conflict with your colleague which is affecting both of your productivity and how to single-handedly double revenue (or whatever metric by which your department will be evaluated) despite rampant systems (or personnel) challenges…stop. Odds are that this is your boss’s problem, not yours. Articulate that clearly and do your own job as well as you can. If you ARE the boss, and you’re looking at an interpersonal conflict that threatens how your department functions, your job is to set boundaries and workplace expectations that empower disagreement but not dysfunction, and to enforce those rules…but not to force friendship. Actual interpersonal relationships aren’t your problem. Respectful conduct at work is.
3) Don’t force yourself to follow advice on leadership that attempts to mold you into a single image: the brash, no-nonsense businessman who is always speaking. Again, this is one type of person that not only exists, but often succeeds. And there is a lot of reason to figure out some pieces of that character that will serve you well…if you don’t come by all that aggression naturally, you might be well served by a spoonful or two. But he’s pretty much always a white male of higher education and class. That style doesn’t work for everyone demographically, and it doesn’t fit well with everyone emotionally. It’s also not usually the most effective or beneficial for an organization… So take a much more nuanced view of developing leadership tactics, and you’ll build the best career for YOU – something that isn’t as comforting if you’re facing the repercussions of being the bullied party in a hostile environment and want to figure out a good offense as your defense.
4) Back to the premise of this post: Do you believe that all of this terrible behavior is a form of violence? That the impact on people is harmful, and that words and deeds can bruise both an organization and its people? If so…what kind of person are you? The kind who watches it all unfold without bearing witness or naming it as wrong, as a violation, as something that is worth attention to change? Don’t worry – I sympathize fully with those who remain silent for fear of outsized personal retribution. You have to pick your battles, and it does no one any good to keep dying on irrelevant hills. But not everyone reading this is in such dire circumstances. First, take this seriously. Then do something. I’ll see if I can get our nun to throw some prayers your way…