The Rebbe, the Beastie Boys, and Cultish Dysfunction

Contemporary Jewish rappers like DeScribe are influenced by the groundbreaking work of The Beastie Boys in crossover musical styles. DeScribe's music video "Ani Maamin" ("I Believe") by DeScribe is an example of using rap for religious outreach. The lyrics are a Jewish prayer expressing faith in ultimate redemption.

Part I. Stepping Outside The Bubble: White Suburban Jewish Kids Encounter African-American Culture

"YOU GOTTA FIGHT, for your right, to PAR-TAY!"

On May 4, 2012, a piece of my youth died with the untimely passing of the Beastie Boys' founder Adam Yauch. He had the guts, as an American Jewish kid, to cross over into a completely different culture and musical style - African-American urban "rap."

Yauch had the guts to break out of the mold and admit that yes, we could learn something from the "outside." And we went crazy for that music! Not just rapping but "breakdancing" and the "moonwalk" too.

The Beastie Boys' music was a milestone for me. It pushed me to think critically about the things I took for granted. There was no single way to do music, but many ways. It was OK to step outside the bubble, learn from others and create your own identity.

Other personal examples of me growing up influenced by African-American thinkers, culture and values in particular:
  • I have vivid memories of watching the early Oprah shows. Oprah had soul. Phil Donahue didn't - he was compassionate, but also somewhat academic and cold. His time on screen was immediately limited once Oprah appeared.
  • Learning feminism through bell hooks. Who understood the layered nature of racism, sexism, and homophobia (though she is heterosexual). She wrote: "Being oppressed means the absence of choices." It was rare to find that depth of thinking about womens' condition. That ability to go beyond the superficial. Defending the right of others not like yourself to have choices - defending their right to not be like you - is the gift hooks brings to her work: "hooks is not a lesbian, but her words speak to those of us wanting to bring our whole selves--not only intellectualism--into the struggle for justice. She also has some unique perspectives on the confluence of oppressions, as a black woman who came from rural Kentucky and encountered an Anglo-centric feminism in the academy." -
bell hooks especially influenced me because of the depth of her experience. Only someone whose identity has crossed cultural subgroups, and who has rebelled against their hold on her/him, can think that deeply.

Part II. Stepping Back In: Understanding The Closed World of Hasidic Jewry

Which brings me to back to the Rebbe. Not the person - because there is no one Rebbe. Rather, the term refers to the different spiritual leaders of a number of different Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) subgroups. They all embody the concept of following someone throughout your whole life, never leaving the path they've set for you.

I come from Hasidic lineage. And never understood the fanatical devotion to the Rebbe that Hasidim feel until I saw the 1997 documentary A Life Apart.

I was fascinated to watch the ordinariness and openness of Hasidim in the film who stated that they do whatever the Rebbe says. Because it was the Rebbe who brought them here after the Holocaust ended, the Rebbe who made sure they had apartments and jobs and even people to marry. And the Rebbe who served as a conduit to Heaven - who made sure they did not go "off the path."

Honestly I could understand what they were saying very well. I can't even imagine the terror of coming from Europe to the U.S. penniless, having been tortured and having seen one's family members murdered and raped and robbed right before one's eyes. According to the movie, 80% of the Hasidic community was slaughtered in the Holocaust. I think that would make me want to follow pretty blindly.

Part III. The Inescapable Challenge: Unconditional Acceptance Versus The Personal Rewards of Thinking

But it seems to me that what has happened over time, as the original post-Holocaust Rebbes have departed this Earth, and new generations inevitably encountered American culture, it has become impossible to keep that wall up and stop the children from thinking about what they see.

It has become necessary for the ultra-Orthodox to confront the thing they were afraid of - leaving the bubble of safety to grapple with the allure of the secular world. And in response there has been a lot of extremism. (The other day I read that blue shoes were banned in a certain school. Why? Who knows.)

At the end of the day we are all scared to walk this earth alone. It is easier, in a way, to have the certainty of being bound up in a community of "unconditional love" - except that the one condition of being in that community is that you give up your right to think.

Is that really acceptable?

My thing is, I'd rather face the world as it is, without blinders. It is uncomfortable at times - no, make that all the time. But at least it is the truth.

I don't want anyone else to think for me.

Here's to appreciating ourselves, and the cultures we come from, and the cultures that others can bring to us.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Noticing 5 Common & Costly Internal Communication Mistakes

Internal communications is sometimes called the "neglected stepchild" of corporate communications. A sad outcome of that situation is that smart people make stupid mistakes that interfere with the success of projects, programs, and even entire organizations and sectors of service. For example:
  1. Usually internal communication plans totally ignore those who are not receptive, or who ask questions angrily. (Maybe they are justified?)
  2. I have heard the attitude expressed from some leaders/managers that they are trying to "protect" employees by not sharing information. They worry that morale will suffer if people can see behind the curtain. This leads them to choose words very carefully when they talk. All of the above of course makes it look like they are either hiding something or are out of touch with the issues.
  3. A bias against bringing emotion into the workplace, and against valuing emotion workers, means that communication is normally reduced to an image exercise (superficial) and the listening/interaction part (which should be the backbone of what you say) is reduced to pre-campaign "audience research" that sits on the shelf. (Socially we know that mothers are devalued and what is their primary job? Bingo - emotion work.) On a deeper level the outcome of ignoring emotion work - e.g. shoving generations of children into less-than-100%-loving-care before they are of school age - has in my opinion resulted in Generations X and Y looking to their bosses to demonstrate leadership behaviors that are more properly characteristic of parents. Which ultimately compounds the problem. 
  4. Methodology matters. It's hard to determine whether research is useful when findings and plans are based on assumptions about categories that may not hold up (like leader vs. manager vs. supervisor - the variables that separate them should be clarified and their audiences segmented). 
  5. It is common for the goal to be obscured and therefore for the communication to be meaningless. One unconscious reason this persists is that the clearer you communicate, the more disagreement you get in response (because you were clear, and people disagree). This is basic to branding - your ultimate message will appeal and should appeal to an audience and not the entire world. The "answer" (it will be implemented differently in every organization) is to decide what you are trying to accomplish, and orient the words around that - building in a risk plan for those who object. For example the communication may be more verbal than written, so that those objections can be talked through; there may be a transcript published of a Q&A session; the plan may need to be more inclusive and interactive and less one-way.
The outcome of ignoring emotion work, mistaken assumptions, and planning the work badly is that "actual" work - e.g. the project - doesn't get done and we sit around scratching our heads wondering why. It is worth taking the time to plan internal communication effectively.

Good luck!

(Adapted from a comment posted to May 2, 2012)

On Propaganda and The Role of Communications, Marketing, and PR in Government

Knowledge is generally "situated" based on your biases, your politics, your culture, etc. For example the general discourse is rife with classism, sexism, racism, and colonialism that you don't really notice if you are in the privileged group. 
(If you consider how CNN vs. Fox vs. MSNBC cover the exact same news - what headlines they write - who delivers it - what is considered news in the first place and what is buried - it starts to shake out pretty clearly.)
That said I think propaganda-free CIVIL SERVICE is achievable through the mechanisms you described - peer review and transparency to the public. That is why I am such a strong proponent of 1) social media and 2) open government - the publication of valuable data sets is so incredibly critical to government work.
For the first time in history we can remove the curtain between what we say (the conclusion) and how we got to that. So whatever bias is in the conclusion is eroded as the public hacks away at the content asking "how did you get that number?" and "why?"
Here are some examples: You don't just report on the...
  • # of drug seizures
  • # of adverse reactions to a drug
  • # of complaints
...You provide a way for people to sort the information and mash it up so as to analyze it further. 
You also explain the method by which you arrived at those numbers, and you discuss their limitations - not in your opinion but in the opinion of a third party whose job it is to look over your shoulder at your process.
I think marketing and PR firms do have the potential to play an important role in government communications and we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. However but the functions should be clearly defined and distinguished from one another, maybe like this:
  1. Communication - straight content, substance, plain English, detailed information, organized in a way that is useful for consumption by audiences at varying levels of understanding. Bilingual, trilingual, however many languages are needed to reach the appropriate audience. Accessible. 
  2. Marketing - outreach campaigns that are specifically labeled as such and not used for political campaigning purposes
  3. PR - correct the record against false statements; manage crises by disseminating accurate information effectively; get principals in front of employees, Congressional staffers, community groups, industry groups, the media etc. to clearly convey what the policies of the agency are.
Good luck!

(Originally published as a comment on - May 2, 2012)

Why Internal Communications Doesn't Get Funded

The following is a comment I posted regarding the 2011 Best Places to Work leadership analysis published by the Partnership for Public Service:

What puzzles me is that we know very well how important it is and yet we don't fund or staff it to the same extent as external communications. How would you explain that?

For my part I agree with those who say that all dysfunctionality ultimately makes some rational sense, you just have to find out what is being achieved through the dysfunction.

  • In the private sector - the goal is to make money - and the equation of inspired employees to higher productivity is easier to make: Happy pizza makers make more pizza and they don't spit in it either. (Though this is not 100% perfect either because leaders hate it when they can't control what employees think of them and internal communications forces a dialogue).
  • In the public sector - the goal is - what exactly? On a certain level mission performance is a goal, true. But performing the mission gets people angry, too. I think agencies can't figure out how to handle disagreement in a way that keeps them out of the Washington Post and so they generally try not to say too much. And they fear that open dissension in the ranks will undermine the chain of command and lead to insubordination, potentially jeopardizing the mission, funding, etc.
The TSA is a great example of this. I'm not justifying patdowns of 4-year-olds. But I do understand that terrorists are shoving plastic bombs into their bodies (read the newspaper) in an effort to escape metal detectors. As an American citizen I appreciate that we have to be paranoid to stave off the inevitable as long as possible. And as a former employee of DHS (CBP) I know how passionate the officers are about what they do. I know they stay up at night worrying that they will be the weak link in the chain that let the terrorist in. 

That said, if I were an employee of the TSA and disagreed with their policies I'm sure they would not want me talking about it openly, either internally or externally, because some of these must be very hard to follow.

Ultimately to me what it comes down to is - set a goal - find a way to get to the goal - course-correct if it's not working.  Clearly with respect to internal communications it hasn't been leveraged enough in government organizations.

Analysis: "Feds Don't Like Their Agency Leaders" (Federal Times 4/30/12)

Source: Partnership for Public Service, "Best Places To Work Challenge: The Federal Leadership Snapshot," April 2012

"When it comes to empowering, motivating and communicating with employees, top federal executives fare worse in the eyes of their employees than do corporate leaders. That is the conclusion of a new study by the Partnership for Public Service, which analyzed data gathered in last year's federal employee satisfaction survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management." 

Full story here.

How should one understand these findings, and what can we do about them?

One could start by comparing results between those scoring higher and lower.

The table above is a screenshot from the Partnership For Public Service's leadership analysis. It shows that last year, there was a (huge) 14.6 point gap between satisfaction with supervisors (49.3) and satisfaction with senior leaders (63.9).

This leads to some clues as to why supervisors are comparatively more highly rated:
  • Performance incentive: Supervisors see their employees as a direct customer whose complaints can hurt their careers. They manage up, sideways, and down. Senior leaders don't - they generally manage sideways and upward.
  • Physical proximity: Supervisors are confronted by employees every day. Senior leaders aren't.
  • Empathy: Supervisors learn about their employees' lives. Senior leaders don't.
 Of course there are two methodological flaws with this kind of analysis:
  1. Senior leaders are leaders while supervisors are managers, so the kind of work they do is different. Specifically, leadership involves change which is inherently uncomfortable.
  2. Senior leaders serve the mission directly while managers serve the employees so that they can carry out the mission. So the evaluation criteria should be different. 
Nevertheless senior leaders should clearly be evaluated by how well they inspire the workforce to get the job done and done right. And on this score, as a group, they fail: Just 42.6 percent said senior leaders "generate high levels of motivation and commitment."

If this score is accurately indicative of how people feel, then clearly something is wrong: If employees aren't inspired then how can they do the work well? Meaning time and money are wasted on inefficiency, disengagement, infighting, etc.

Another item to notice here is that between 2003-2011 satisfaction with supervisors went up 5.3 points (which is statistically meaningful though not dramatic) and satisfaction with senior leaders went up 6.6 points. Yet the score for senior leaders remains stuck below 50.

This is a dangerous situation from a human capital perspective because the federal government is now seeing an influx of new recruits to power public service - who will inherently have higher expectations of leadership than those who have been with the agency for many years.

Isn't there a statistic showing that people tend to leave agencies by the 3-year mark? Could this be why?

If new recruits aren't inspired within the government, they will not stay and we won't have a workforce to inspire.

Why Organizations Lie To Themselves (& What To Do About It)

January 1 - Resolutions 1  & 2
Photo by Scott Hamlin via Flickr

When you stand on the scale you get the truth about your weight.

For most of us that number isn't a pretty sight and we don't get the answer we want. So we tell ourselves:
  • "Weight doesn't count - you have to go by the BMI."
  • "Maybe I'm retaining water."
  • "It doesn't count if you weigh yourself at night."
  • "I was wearing shoes."
  • "That scale is old. I'm going to wait for my checkup."
Or my favorite one of all:
  • "It's what's inside that counts."
Why do we lie to ourselves, when the truth is right in front of us? And it matters?

Here's the paradox:
  • Logically it would be easy to simply live a lie (i.e. ignore the scale).
  • But humans persistently seek out truth so as to physically survive - not knowing puts us at risk.
  • At the same time we experience emotional discomfort from being confronted by the truth.
  • Therefore we will do virtually anything to lie to ourselves and to keep truth-tellers away from us.
Organizations are just like people except on a larger scale. And they keep themselves from knowing the truth much like individuals do:
  • They admit to dysfunctional behaviors but feign disbelief as to their organizational impact.
  • They bring designated truth-tellers into the organization so that they are "around," but marginalize or silence them, or fail to give them sufficient resources.
  • They hire consultants and commission reports and findings of fact but then leave them on the shelf to grow dust.
  • They give lip service to the importance of self-analysis, but get preoccupied with firefighting crises or create them in order to avoid the real work of organizational change.
  • They avoid measuring performance, reporting on performance, discussing results
Knowing that truth-telling is key to organizational survival, there are two ways of getting to it and using it:
  • Defensive - wait for dysfunction to lead to an outrageous incident that becomes a scandal, then implement reform in response
  • Proactive - implement preventive measures to keep dysfunction in check
Assuming nobody wants a crisis here are some things the organization can do that are similar to what an individual does who can't afford not to live in truth - e.g. a food addict:
  • Frequent monitoring by a third party - someone who isn't beholden to the individual
  • Measuring and metrics - the equivalent of getting on the scale - preferably transparent to all in the organization
  • Preparation to avoid a crisis - just like dieters weight and measure their food before they eat it, organizations have to have mechanisms in place to prevent dysfunctional behavior from taking root and becoming embedded
  • Checks and balances - as people in power tend to serve their own power, the organization must implement mechanisms by which powerful people can be challenged and a dialogue ensured. Electronic employee-to-employee communication is useful in this regard because it eliminates the constraints of waiting for desk-bound people to attend a meeting; it also cuts through the power dynamics of meetings and hierarchical groups.
  • Most importantly, institutionalizing truth telling as a group function rather than an individual one - the organization can't rely on "brave individuals" to tell the truth or cast them in those roles. Rather, there must be groups that are empowered to speak honestly to other groups that can become dysfunctional.
In the end most people, like most organizations, really do want to live in truth, because people in denial put themselves and their organizations at risk.

The key is to committing openly to the truth as a means of survival - making a plan for telling the truth - making that plan public - and then holding the organization and its employees accountable to it.

Good luck!

My Latest SlideShare Upload: "Job of the Future: 'Human Glue'"

A reflection on enterprise collaboration software in context. Enjoy!Job Of The Future: Human Glue by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Also see a whole megilla I started on this subject on GovLoop. A couple of downloadable files there.

Note: No endorsement is expressed or implied. Opinions my own. Welcome any feedback.

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