Communicating Amid a Fractured Narrative: The Secret Nobody Tells You

In the days before the Internet, and particularly social media, it was hard to get a real clue about anything.

  • If "they" told you something was true - parents, school, job, media, religion, government, university, etc. - you generally believed it. Especially if it was in a book. If you didn't, it was your fault for doubting or not being smart enough to follow.
  • Alternative versions - the grapevine, etc. - had their place too. But that was always "the grapevine," and most of the time the official version trumped "gossip."

In short, before there was cyberspace, there was certainty. And even within a debate, the outer boundaries of that discussion - its framework - was more or less clear to most people, even if they inhabited different cultural realities.

All of this has fallen apart. Narratives still appear on television, in the paper, on the Internet, wherever. But instead of reading them uncritically, people now see them as only an opening gambit. No longer do they ask "What is the story?" but instead "What is the story behind that?"

In addition to social media these kinds of questions are the result of:

  • The success of civil rights, feminism, and other identity movements. People who were once silenced, then became marginalized, then became alternative voices, and now are part of the mainstream. So there is no "one way to think" or believe or do things.
  • The various "post" movements in academia - post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism - which all relate to the first bullet here. Basically these mean that there is no longer "truth" but only "how truth is represented."
  • Broad exposure to other cultures nationally and internally as a result of the ready availability of global travel.
  • The growth of humanitarian, environmental, and social responsibility movements, which have led people to question whether institutional authorities are acting responsibly.
  • The growth of the self-made family and the breakdown of the nuclear one.
  • Broad revelations of systematic child abuse by religious figures, across faiths.
  • The combination of a highly educated young workforce and the lack of opportunities commensurate with their skills - there is a lot of energy out there needing to be harnessed productively. 
  • Generally, the gap between the very rich and the very poor and the decline of the middle class, which might otherwise have been absorbed into a mainstream narrative with less angst.

To manage communication effectively in such a chaotic environment - in an environment where people seem to await the communication only so they can question it - one has to think in a more complex way about success.

The most important thing to know, in my view, is that it is no longer possible to communicate superficially and externally and ignore what's going on inside the organization.

In fact, you actually have to flip the traditional priorities on their head:

  • First - organizational cohesion - meaning leadership, management, and teamwork.
  • Second - consistent and coordinated internal communication to frontline staff.
  • Third - communication to the outside world, with a particular focus on being responsive to inquiries rather than simply "deciding" what you want to say.

To make this transition, the act of transmitting information that we think of as "communication" has to also turn on its head. This is done by getting to Stage 5 in the below scheme as fast as possible:

  • Stage One: Say whatever you want to say.
  • Stage Two: React to questions.
  • Stage Three: Offer information in advance.
  • Stage Four: Communicate with feedback in mind.
  • Stage Five: Make operational changes that will reduce negative feedback in advance of communication.

The difficult thing that communicators need to do, as they navigate this information environment, is basically to ignore the official rules and old ways that didn't work - and be calm and strong about adopting methods that do.

The rule of thumb that I go by is - try something; get feedback; modify; try again. If I know in my heart and my gut that a course of action is the right one - then go for it.

Of course humans being human, this path can be perilous because nobody is perfect, you can never have enough feedback, and you don't know what you don't know.

At the same time communicators should have more confidence. When I get scared I sometimes think about the 1971 poem by Philip Larkin, "This Be The Verse." What he is saying here is - your parents (on a broader level, "management") are inherently biased and flawed:

They (mess) you up, your mum and dad.
  They may not mean to, but they do. 
They fill you with the faults they had 
  And add some extra, just for you. 

But they were (messed) up in their turn 
  By fools in old-style hats and coats, 
Who half the time were soppy-stern 
  And half at one another's throats. 

Man hands on misery to man. 
  It deepens like a coastal shelf. 
Get out as early as you can, 
 And don't have any kids yourself.

Larkin offers a pessimistic conclusion - "you won't do better than them, don't bother." I don't agree with that. The whole of human existence is only the story of trying.

Although the fractured narrative - and perhaps the frailties of the organization - are challenging for communicators, that doesn't mean we should stop trying. Hell no!

Instead what we need to do - that is different from traditional management of the past - is to move TOWARD the fractures, not away from them. This is the secret of successful communication today.

The breaks in the narrative are the breaks in the organization. By non-judgmentally inhabiting, exploring, examining, and living in the alternative realities that threaten to break things apart, you can start to experience the possibility of bringing them together.

For me, when communication unifies seemingly disparate groups - actually making a real difference on the ground, not just on paper - that is the greatest feeling of all.

Reject Hatred

The best way to fight against a terrorist is to reject the premise of terrorism itself. Hatred.

All around us we see people turning to rage as a way of solving their problems. It doesn't have to be that way. The Jewish people saw the destruction of our Holy Temple because of baseless hatred within the Jewish community (in Hebrew, "Sinas Chinam.")

Reject hatred. Identify those who promote hatred and killing as a way of life. Make their true goals transparent. Hold them accountable for their acts. Eliminate their influence.

It's not about deciding which religion is better or whose morality is "righter" or solving the War of the Worlds. Instead the focus is on helpful vs. unhelpful.

What are the problems? How do we solve them?

The One above is omnipotent, sees and rights everything. It's on us only to do our part.


Next week is Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year.

This year I am praying to G-d to save us from ourselves.



New Job? 5 Ways To Make Ignorance Work For You

My job consists of three things: build relationships, respond to questions, and have information ready for people before they ever need it.

In the abstract I have a lot of experience at this.

But in the particular it's a daily challenge.

Having started work in a new organization, I am immersed in a completely new and unique organizational culture, as well as working with technical specialists across multiple lines of business.

In order to be helpful I've got to understand the unique cultural language of each office as well as the bigger picture, plus become literate in the subject matter.

It is hard to tolerate my own ignorance. I know that no matter how much I read or observe, or how quickly, there are decades of history to absorb.

I am getting a little bit better at handling it though. It's even becoming like a growing experience: embracing ignorant me. Here are some ideas for others in a similar situation.

1. "Let go and let G-d." Ignorance makes you realize how small you are and how little you control. There is something freeing about that.

2. Enjoy the sheer fun of learning. Talk to people. Interview them. Go to their meetings. Observe and good heartedly participate. Laugh at yourself. It's OK.

3. Commit to running the marathon. Give it your all. It's not about winning or losing. It's about trying your absolute best. It feels great when the wind is at your back as you're on the bike, flying.

4. Take calculated risks. The thrill of the game is why you take on unfamiliar challenges. You are there to solve problems not just do a job. You have to get out of your comfort zone to do that. Meaning they can't give you full direction in advance. I started an internal blog to share what I'm learning. It was scary to do, but the climate feels right for this.

5. Enjoy learning your value - how your skills can help people. Normally most people want to get through the day with low stress and achieve solid results. Find ways that you can help them overcome obstacles, achieve real progress, and look good.

Being new is frightening and risky, but we all go through it again and again. By walking into the fear instead of trying to pretend you know it all, you become better on the job. You also turn the experience into something meaningful for your personal growth.

Good luck!

Why Not Just Fire Everyone?


Compared with the private sector, career civil service is known for its job stability. From an internal, employee recruitment and retention perspective this makes government work appealing. On the other hand, from the outside (and sometimes from the inside) the fact that the system is set up for stability can make it seem like we don't manage poor performers appropriately.
The private sector version of what to do is efficient, but also extreme. (Donald Trump's famous line "You're Fired!"?) Is this what has to happen to improve performance in government?
Having worked in the private sector both for a large company and for a small business I think the answer is no. We should not just be able to "fire at will." Not because government workers deserve a form of welfare, but because it's poor leadership and management to dispose of people at whim.
Consider the parallel of family. When you start a family - whether it's marriage or partnership, or whether you have children or adopt them, or even when you are with a group of friends so much that they become your family - you don't just walk away when things get tough. That's what makes a family a family instead of just a group of random acquaintances. 
The effort that goes into building family relationships is not just a mushy nice thing to do. It's a socially and economically productive activity that promotes self-sufficiency, empowerment and responsibility. People from safe, stable families are able to work, raise children, and lead productive lives. They are less likely as a group to engage in violent crime, drug abuse, and other social problems that then become the responsibility of the larger family - e.g. society.
Similarly, work environments that promote stability facilitate a sense of safety and trust among employees. While nobody should ever get so comfortable that they slack off, if you're constantly looking over your shoulder in fear, you can't exactly be productive either.
In government and in the private sector, the key is to do the difficult work of recruitment upfront, then invest in keeping the new employee engaged over the long term. The higher you go in the organization the more time you should be spending on leading and managing people as opposed to carrying out technical work. In government, in practice that means that SESers, GS15s and even GS14s should be engaged deeply in relationship building and mentoring at the very least. This is a job that cannot be delegated or outsourced.
Once there is a sufficient level of trust and commitment in the organization, dealing with performance issues becomes less of an issue because nobody wants to stay in a job where they're not a good fit. When the organization is invested in the wellbeing of the employee they can help the poor performer better understand what's going on - and may even find out the issue is not organic to them at all: a bullying boss, a dysfunctional team culture, or perhaps it's illness or a family situation.
Either way, promoting a high-performance culture does not mean treating people like they're disposable. It's really about investing in managing them (us) like the assets they (we) are. That takes time, and caring, and skill. And no it's not "operational." But I'm willing to be you, dollars to donuts, that for every stubborn "operational" or "technical" problem there is a "people" problem lurking not so far beneath the surface. And once you understand what it is, you can chip away bit by bit at the corrosion and set the true productivity inherent in each individual free.
Like Freud said, health is the ability to love and to work. No matter where the workplace is, if we take care of our people then they (we) will take care of the work part.

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