Of Life and Limb

One thing I learned over many years of leading Meeting Ground is the necessity to listen, I mean really LISTEN to the sincere voices of criticism from within and without. No one really likes criticism. Dissenting opinion can overwhelm sometimes, even feeling like a personal attack. It might not be pleasant, but the greatest asset any organization has, especially at its highest levels of decision making, is contrary opinion and the demand for details which challenges comfort zones; the open rebellion, if you will, both to group-think conventional wisdom and the status quo.

I have been impressed with a 2011 blog post, ”Lack of Criticism in Philanthropy Causing Failure,” by researcher Tony Wang on the website, www.tacticalphilanthropy.com. In it he cites, “feelings of institutional allegiance and desires to avoid conflict, especially with colleagues that we respect and work with every day” as key reasons why the tendency in organizations is to “make nice” when what is called for is plain truth achieved through the doubting of conventional thinking.  “Every sector,” he asserts, “including the nonprofit sector, needs transparency AND a healthy marketplace of ideas to combat corruption and inefficiency; transparency so that we can identify problems sooner and a marketplace of ideas to brainstorm solutions.  But as a myriad of corporate scandals demonstrate, the information marketplace, like any other market, is vulnerable to market failure.  What philanthropy and the nonprofit sector need are better policies to support critical discourse.”

Sloan Wilson’s 1950’s “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” is the personification of a corporate-business culture that has come to influence, if not to dominate, almost every phase of how we work together today. This “man” (or woman) has given up a critical, inner-directed world view focused on the needs of individual people and the love learned from family in favor of an other-directed mentality of conformity to the needs of things and public relations more than people.

In his memoir, Inside the Third Reich, former Nazi Cabinet Minister Albert Speer characterizes the group-think of the inner circles of his government as increasingly dominated by illusion rather than reality. “Every self-deception,” he notes, “was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world… no external factors disturbed the uniformity of hundreds of unchanging faces, all mine.”  In this closed world of private deliberations, there was no standard by which to measure truth or lie; the dissatisfied critic was nothing more than a gadfly, and a dangerous one at that. The naysayer was the enemy. Imagine that!  In its non-transparent world, an entire government was trapped in its own gullibility.

So it was in the United States in 2003 when it seemed everyone, from the distinguished Secretary of State Colin Powell, to the respected loyal opposition personified by Hillary Clinton, to even the overwhelming majority of the press, all “made nice” around a false proposition with murderous results. Thus we went to war in Iraq over the infamous WMD’s which never existed. It was all fabricated, and not just by those who made it up in the first place but by everyone who, by accepting it uncritically, added their approval and built the lie. Even the prestigious New York Times, touted as an epitome of truth seeking, devolved into this non-critical group-think for which it later meekly apologized in one of the classic ironic understatements of the era:  “we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims.”

I’ve thought about this a lot lately – the occasional need to stand firm and insist on the facts. People and their organizations are usually strong in lip service to their desire for openness and transparency, but it doesn’t come easily and it often stops with the lip service; in practice it’s neither welcome nor encouraged.  For this reason especially, for an individual to stand against the prevailing wind, even among friends,  takes some courage, especially since the truth can point in a direction we don’t like and we certainly don’t want our own vulnerability to be exposed. Yet, this integrity has become so important in our corporate-aping world that I’ve made a personal commitment to keep myself out on a limb as much as possible, even at the risk of being wrong or thought of as a self-aggrandizing spoiler and non-team player. To fail to say what we think is true, even at the risk of being perceived as not “making nice,” is to deny to others the thing that is most needed: life itself.

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