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When Leaders Can't Distinguish Their Employees From Themselves

Greylag Geese Flying
Photo by Nathan Goddard via Flickr

This morning my mother reminded me of a story I would rather forget.

"Do you remember when you wore Bubbie's bathrobe to shul (synagogue) thinking it was a dress?"

Oh G-d Mom just bring up all the dirty laundry why don't you!

"And how mad she got?"

Yes, yes.

My Bubbie had such beautiful clothes. To my childlike eyes I couldn't tell the difference.

(Though kids are wearing pajamas to school nowadays, so...)

Since her clothes were all fancy, from a certain perspective you could take the mis-wearing of the robe as a compliment.

But Bubbie didn't see it that way. In her world, children were an extension of parents. Grandchildren an extension of grandparents.

Everyone reflected everyone else.

I know why my Bubbie thought that way. For the culture to survive, true members of the Hasidic sect we belonged to had to be marked. And each family had its own reputation to protect. Its image. Its brand.

Nevermind that I had nothing to do with Bubbie, most of the time. On alternate Passovers I was hers.

Especially at synagogue.

Some leaders treat their employees this way.

They act as if the organization exists only as an extension of themselves.

Every corner, crack and crevice must bear their mark.

Every employee must think, feel, act, believe as they do.

And they are flustered and angry when confronted with evidence that says otherwise.

If you don't believe me look at studies on diversity. People tend to hire, value and promote other people who look think, walk, talk and dress just like them.

It isn't something they do consciously. It just feels familiar. And right.

This is a special problem in family businesses. Because there, the lines are blurry from the start.

When you run a business, remember that your staff IS NOT YOU. And be glad for that.

Conversely, as an employee be mindful that your employer sees your actions as reflecting on them.

In the end it's instinctive for birds of a feather to flock together. The problem is when a pigeon can't see the value of an eagle.

Good luck!

What We Can't Talk About, Will Cost Us

Photo by David Robertson via Flickr 

Rage. Anger. Envy. Terror. Fear. Grief. Sadness. Depression. Stress.

Is it normal to:
  • Feel these things? Yes.
  • Encounter them in others? Of course.
  • Discuss them openly at a staff meeting? That would be no.
  • Devote an entire workplace training curriculum to managing them? Not normally.
  • Require that students pass an emotional fitness test before graduating? Unheard of! 
How pervasive is negative emotion in American society? How costly? Look around you:
Look at how pervasive negative emotions are. Look at how costly. So I ask:
  • Why do we not, as a society, take feelings seriously?
  • Why do we not incorporate feelings - the good, the bad, and the ugly - into everyday conversation?
  • Why do we not make it safe to talk about conflicts before they mushroom into catastrophes?
Most importantly: Why do we pathologize negative emotions by turning them into something deviant, undiscussable, taboo? Not every negative feeling is a sign of a disorder, but somehow we tend to act as if it were.

More questions, unanswered:
  • Why don't we invest more time and money in preventing conflicts from exploding? 
  • Do we somehow think it is better to wait until after the fact - after the outburst, after the shooting, after the military conflict - to shake our heads and say "Isn't that terrible?"
A healthy society is composed of people with healthy minds as well as healthy bodies. And that includes the ability to talk about what's bothering us.
  • On the macro level it means institutionalizing social systems that support healthy emotional functioning: support for parents, education for young people regarding emotional health and conflict management, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with problems before they become civil actions, and so on. And of course, ensuring that medical insurance covers behavioral health, with an emphasis on preventive health.
  • On the organizational level that means factoring conflict in to workplace training and human resources policies. The emotional well-being of staff is critical to their ability to be productive - heck, to show up to work in the first place!
  • On the personal level it means accepting yourself as human, and simply doing the best you can. Talking about your feelings, and trying to work with others when problems arise.
Emotions are vital to life. We ought to encourage them to bubble up and breathe, rather than stifling. They are what make us human - we just need to know how to manage them.

Good luck!

Communication - Not Branding

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a duck.

Just like a tree has to be green and leafy and grow tall, even among a stale parking lot full of cars.

The branding profession is about image. That's fine, but that's as far as it goes. Those who claim to do more - such as changing the employee culture - are not brand ducks.

They are either practicing organizational development under another name (unlikely and probably uncertified), or practicing image-building and calling it "internal branding for employee evangelist brand ambassadors" (a.k.a., B.S.)

Over the years I have sometimes found that people got annoyed at my blunt and direct manner. In the end that's how I learned that I don't really do branding. Because brand ducks are adept not only at building your image, but at projecting an image of themselves.

Rather I was (am) a communicator. In a profession composed of image manipulators. "All marketers are liars," as Seth Godin's popular book proclaims.

In the end I am a communicator duck, if you want to call it that, because I believe honesty + integrity generally gets you the reputation you deserve. A good one.

The art of communication is to get to the truth, say the truth, and say it in a way that connects with the audience and provokes a reply. Starting a conversation.

If you communicate well you are building a brand anyway. But it is possible to build a brand without communicating. Without honesty. Without connecting.

I don't do that. So I have decided to get away from the term "branding." Although the end goal is really the same - an excellent image based on delivery of benefit - the mechanism is not.

Communication is on the side of substance. Of culture. It says, build a stable set of processes that establish values, norms, and traditions. Tell us who we are, and let us talk back.

And the result of that conversation is the reality of external image.

What kind of duck are you? Think carefully before you answer. If your profession is perceived in a negative way, or you don't fit into its culture, maybe you are really a hippopotamus.

Which is fine!

Good luck.

When Faith Turns Deadly: Bill Maher's "Religulous"

by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda: "You know, if I discover that I was Satan in person, I would do a good job, too."

Bill Maher: "As Satan?"

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda: "Because I would be faithful to my calling." 

Just happened to run across "Religulous" on Netflix. Spent nearly 2 hours unable to peel self from screen. Alternately laughing and sort of crying inside. At how much people want to believe; at how willing we are to deceive each other in G-d's name; at how easily we deceive ourselves.

And then punish other people who refuse not to think.

The body of the movie consists of Maher interviewing assorted representatives of various religions and religious sects, including Christianity (mainstream, evangelical, Catholicism), Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism.

Every interview, with the exception of the interview of the Catholic astronomer and the maverick Catholic priest in Rome, is marked by the refusal of seemingly religious people to think objectively about what they are saying. They are blindly observant of whatever version of religion they observe.

So they talk faith to Maher, and when faith can't stand up to reason, they confront Maher either angrily or condescendingly.

A quote from Maher's monologue at the end of the movie sums up his message:
"Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, "I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do!" Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.

"And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.

"The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting s**t dead wrong."
The methodological flaw in the documentary of course is that there are many religious people who actually do insist on applying reason to faith. How they reconcile belief in G-d and belief differs and is a whole other documentary.

My guess is that Maher avoided thinking religious people because he psychologically is wedded to his own doubt and doesn't want to meet people who will make him open his own closed mind.

What's fascinating is that in an attempt to avoid challenging himself, Maher winds up with a brilliant experiment in the sociology of religion. What he shows, mostly, is that the more cult-like a religion or religious sect is, the more closed it is to thinking, and the more dangerous it is to humanity because of its insistence on turning the "other" into an enemy.

At the same time, unfortunately, by focusing on people who represent the worst stereotype of religion - that it's about being brainwashed, and brainwashing others, rather than true reflection - Maher distorted what it's really all about.

Academically at least my faith put a lot of value on asking challenging questions, on testing the answers, on grappling intellectually, then on choosing to do the right thing.

(The problem of course is that they thought they already had the answers when that wasn't necessarily true, and defended things that didn't make sense; in addition I had trouble with the way people actually acted as opposed to what was written in the books.)

Personally I believe you are supposed to actually think and think hard, test out what you believe, make a rational decision (at least one that seems rational to you), then choose the right thing. You are also supposed to know that your mind is frail and that your reasoning isn't as good as G-d's reasoning - so you have to have faith sometimes.

It's the fact that you find G-d in a difficult way, that makes your journey to spirituality meaningful. And nobody can have it for you or teach it to you.

Maher's film is important to watch on a lot of levels. If you care about free speech, if you care about religious freedom as well as the mis-interpretation of religion, if you care about social issues, it's worth watching. It's also worth learning about the way different religions view the world.

It would have been nice had he included Buddhism, which could have contributed a lot to the conversations, but probably he didn't because it is difficult to make fun of a group that insists on applying rational thought to every exercise, and that sees the purpose of the world as eliminating human suffering rather than focusing on G-d.

Have a good day, and keep thinking.

Good luck!

No-Propaganda Government Communication: Is It Possible?

Thirty years ago it was almost unheard of to pay a public relations firm to communicate on behalf of the federal government: we spent just $2 million over the course of 12 years, from 1980-1992. By 2003 that figure had soared to $161 million (see graphic).

In addition to spending on public relations, the government spends money on advertising. It is estimated that federal ad spending in fiscal year 2002 was more than $400 million, peaked in 2004 and 2009 at $1.2 billion or more, and settled back down at about $750 million in 2011 (see graphic).

Government PR versus Advertising: Why The Distinction? What's The Difference?

The Congressional Research Service notes that the figures for ad spending can only be taken as estimates because the line between "public relations" and "advertising" is not clearly drawn by federal agencies. Therefore, they may classify the exact same services as either one or the other in the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS):
"Without agreement among agencies over what constitutes advertising, any
contracting data drawn from FPDS must be viewed with considerable caution." (Congressional Research Service Report 2012)

Why might the government classify the very same kind of expense as "advertising" rather than "public relations"?

The short answer, in my view, is that advertising is more defensible than PR as a use of taxpayer money. This is because advertising is explicitly intended to bring information to the attention of the public and therefore directly supports the mission of the agency.

After all, if the government offers a service or institutes a requirement and the public doesn't know about it, then does it even exist?

The technical language for this allowance is the "necessary expense doctrine." It says, basically, that you can spend government money on things that are:
  • "Necessary or incidental to the achievement of the underlying objectives of the
  • "Not prohibited by law, and
  • "Not otherwise provided for by statute or appropriation." (Congressional Research Service Report 2012)

On the other hand, the very definition of PR sounds like propaganda, which is illegal: "Public relations includes ongoing activities to ensure the overall company has a strong public image." (Free Management Library)

In theory, both advertising and PR are necessary expenses for any organization, especially today. We live in an incredibly crowded "marketspace" where audiences routinely--

1) shut out the message
2) jump to conclusions
3) readily accept false information as true

Therefore, getting accurate information out quickly through a variety of channels is essential.

The practical question, though, is whether it is possible for someone to communicate without inherently propagandizing for their own particular point of view? Consider the inevitable biases at work:

1) On the micro level, individuals seek to justify their own behavior.
2) On the intermediate level, divisions of organizations seek to justify their own behaviors and perpetuate their existence.
3) On the macro level, every organization will seek to perpetuate and justify itself. This may not be propaganda with a "Big P" in the sense of large-scale, grassroots lobbying; it may not even be intended or conscious. But it is propaganda with a "Little P," in the sense that it lacks the self-criticism that is the hallmark of objective communication.

I do think that communication can be offered in a non-propagandistic way. Here are some of the key dimensions of propaganda; after reviewing them I'll suggest a couple of ways we might be able to counterbalance it.

Q&A: 5 Dimensions of Propaganda

1. What is the common definition of propaganda?
"Information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to influence opinions and incite action." (Source: Wikipedia)

2. What is the legal prohibition against using taxpayer dollars for propaganda?
"The GAO has held that the 'publicity or propaganda' prohibition in appropriations laws forbids any public relations activity that:
  • "Involves 'self-aggrandizement' or 'puffery' of the agency, its personnel, or activities;
  • "Is 'purely partisan in nature,' that is, is 'designed to aid a political party or candidate'; or,
  • "Is 'covert propaganda,' that is, the communication does not reveal that
    government appropriations were expended to produce it." (
    Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Staff Report)

Additionally, "annual appropriations acts often carry a prohibition that forbids the use of appropriated funds 'for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not authorized by the Congress.' These restrictions have appeared in appropriations laws for over a half century." (Congressional Research Service report 2012)

See also: Plain Language Guidelines from the National Institutes of Health Ethics Program

3. What is the original text of the law?
"No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation."(18 USC § 1913: Lobbying With Appropriated Moneys")

4. What is the basic difference between legitimate and illegitimate government communication?
"Agencies have a duty to inform and educate the public, but they should not attempt to persuade it or to engage in political or policy advocacy or elections." (Congressional Research Service report 2012)

5. How can the government technically comply with the law, but evade it at the same time?
"One can mislead another by communicating just facts but not all the facts....Furthermore, even the conveyance of pure facts can have persuasive effects on an audience, depending on how the facts are presented." (Congressional Research Service report 2005)

How Can We Counterbalance The Tendency to Propagandize?

First, let's accept that there is an inherent desire to make oneself look good. This is "small P" propaganda and it is nearly inevitable. (Note: As a corollary I would argue in defense of federal agencies that there is NOT an equally inevitable drive to violate the law with "Big P" propagandizing. This is in fact something that is generally recognized to be inappropriate, illegal and unacceptable, and a normally functioning culture would act to hold in check.)

Second, let's support three major mechanisms that already keep propaganda in check:
  • Internal audits
  • External reviews (e.g. by Congress)
  • Online transparency mechanisms such as

Third, I would recommend such measures as the following:
  1. Reduce barriers between the media and direct access to subject matter experts in the agency
  2. Establish clear definitions of advertising vs. public relations and ensure that agencies use the correct classification when initiating a procurement
  3. Change the culture of government communication to be less PR-y - e.g. from "public affairs" to "information officers
  4. Have government communicators report to someone within the agency who is not biased in favor of looking good - recasting information provision a reporting function, perhaps even part of the "Open Government" office
  5. Reduce the proportion of agency spending on "push" communications and increase the proportion of "pull" spending on such items as citizen engagement, social media, and open government.
  6. Institutionalize and normalize government communication as a reflexive, reflective exercise through annual performance reports that are an exercise in objective self-review rather than a "year of accomplishments" message
  7. Publish transparently on the web expenses related to communication and their results
  8. Require that communication expenses be tied to measurable performance goals
  9. Require that government communications include a "context" or "bias" section in which the inherent methodological flaws of the communication are discussed in the report itself
  10. Regular training sessions for employees regarding public affairs ethics, and encouragement for employees to discuss questions and concerns with an Ethics Officer.

It is possible to change the tone of government communication so that it is less self-congratulatory and possibly propagandistic, and more useful and usable to the public.

The key is to make sure that spending on government communication is visible; that its intended outcomes are measurable and tied directly to the mission; and that criticism of the mode of communication begin within the agency.

In this way the things we say become part of a dialogue between ourselves and ourselves, and ourselves and the public. Never is there a "final word," but rather everything we generate is viewed as a work in progress that can always be improved.

Finally, it may seem paradoxical but it is probably true: The more transparent the institution, the better its reputation in the first place - and the less it needs PR "experts" to massage its credibility for the sake of its stakeholders.

Just some food for thought on a Sunday; I woud appreciate hearing what others think.

And as always, although I work for the government, all the views expressed here are my own.

Good luck!

(Note: This post was updated 4/22 at 6:56 p.m.)