I can’t wait to read what you wrote.
In the meantime, here’s an article with my favorite tool for solving problems: The Waterline Model. It should have some helpful information to tide you over until I can send out my next edition of Ask V.
You can also email me directly if you want to talk about it sooner!
The latest season of my podcast is all about volunteer organizations. I talk about how volunteer organizations can be great places for building relationships and creating non-traumatizing and even healing workplaces. Because they’re not paid places, we often don’t think about them as workplaces, but my definition of a workplace is anywhere a group of people are working together for a common goal.
One workplace that is mostly volunteer run is a union. Unions are in the spotlight right now because of what is happening with the Writers’ Union (WGA) and the Film and TV Actors’ Union (SAG-AFTRA). While most executive leadership positions might be paid within a union’s organizational infrastructure, like a CEO, CFO, Business Representative, or office administration, elected officers are rarely paid. Sometimes a president might receive a salary, but in the case of both SAG and WGA, the elected officer positions are unpaid positions and are Guild members themselves. Officers and board members do a lot of the work associated with organizing, communicating, and volunteering for functions within the union.
Unions are truly one of the most democratic institutions in the world. They are directly member-run and member-led as nothing can proceed without votes by the membership. By-laws of unions are often very stringent about the actions officers and senior leaders can take to prevent authoritarian leadership. The most important by-products of unions, namely the contracts they help facilitate and negotiate, have to be voted on by the membership. Robert’s Rules are followed in nearly every meeting done under an official union heading, as the laws of union self-government are very strict.
This means that if you’re looking for a space where you can have direct influence in making a workplace that is less traumatizing, a union is great place to be. Not only because it will influence your paid workspace, but also because the union itself is a workplace where you can have influence and consistency.
I can hear my late husband chuckling at this. He served as his union’s president for 6 years and had many interactions that were pretty harrowing and shocking. I remember one time he sent a response email to someone’s complaint and the member sent a reply putting a “Hopi Indian Curse” on him via email.
But despite those very strange moments, what made it a non-traumatizing experience for him, and even a highly connected and healing experience, was the consistency. The rules were very clear. The procedures for getting things done were very clear. The comment period for an issue, the order of discussion, the time they could speak, was all very clearly laid out in Robert’s Rules and the Constitution and By-laws.
Even the more intense moments of individual negotiations were largely non-traumatizing and healing because of the goal he was working towards was crystal clear. The people he was negotiating for had made their needs known, sometimes forcefully, and so whether or not he agreed with it, the goal was front and center for him. Because unions are run where a majority rules, the outliers with wild requests would be outvoted by the majority and what they wanted. And this was always a product of ideas rising to the top of the group’s discussion.
Structure and communication are keys to successful union operations. They’re basically enshrined in the founding documents and the federal government has a ton of legislation on how unions can operate and how much power they can have. So the structure and process is crystal clear and present in almost everything a union does. Communication is required under Robert’s Rules, but also unions that thrive and grow to the power and presence of a WGA or SAG-AFTRA get there by communicating regularly and well with their members. They also have to do a ton of communication externally. This is why we always know when a strike authorization vote is happening and what their demands are. It’s not only good for marketing and PR, but also because some of these announcements are mandated by law.
So, if you need a space that is legally mandated to be communicative and have structure, if you want a volunteer space that is governed by the will of the majority, and if you want a way to get your voice heard in making a workplace for health and healing, join a union or unionize within you workplace. It’s built in community and a ready outlet for holding your organization accountable to better working conditions.
Last week I had my annual journey into the world of HR. I attended the conference for the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM. Which is pronounced like “sherm” and not “shroom” like my boyfriend thought.
One thing that has struck me in the years of attending is how sincere everyone is about making their workplaces better for the humans. They actively deride the HR people who are there simply for compliance and avoiding lawsuits. At least for these conference attendees, they are thinking about the people day in and day out and are often up against the capitalist drive for higher and higher profit and the nature of humans trying to change.
I attend this conference every year because I often work closely with HR and I like to see what’s going on in their world. What are they concerned about? What is the hot topic? What are they trying to learn about to better their workplaces?
One word that came up over and over again was courage. It came up when discussing burnout (another big topic at the conference), implementing new initiatives, coaching leaders, taking a seat at the table, and, mostly, about giving feedback to employees.
Feedback is an important part of accountability. I preach that accountability is not punishment, as is often associated with it, it’s about love. It’s about telling someone, “You said you were going to show up in one way and then showed up another. What’s up?” Accountability and feedback happen in formal ways like performance reviews, but also informally like when responding to meeting invitations, looking at writing and design work together, building agendas, deciding who leads what on a project, and then the actual completion of that project. “Hey, just checking in/circling back/wondering about the thing,” is a very common accountability measure many of us use almost without thinking.
When you hold someone accountable to their ideas, values, and contracts they have made, this is love. If you don’t love someone, you don’t care. You don’t pay attention to them. You don’t care what they do, so you have no reason to hold them accountable.
Some of us learned accountability through more punitive measures like cruelty, pointing out mistakes, “tough love,” and discipline through removing rewards. But I work with people a lot around making accountability this incredible opportunity for connection, growth, and trust building. If you learn to give feedback in a way that is full of positive regard for someone, that asks what they need and then provides them the resources, this is still accountability, but it is rooted in love/caring/respect rather than old notions of needing to push people into a particular kind of mold. Accountability in this way allows someone agency. They can forge their own path, make their own choices, and that boosts confidence in their own ability to solve problems.
At SHRM, many of these speakers were talking about the moment when you have to give feedback and you just…don’t. When you falter at getting the words out of your mouth so you sugar coat it, or don’t say it at all, thus allowing the behavior to perpetuate to yours and the person’s detriment. I heard many say “You need courage at this moment. Get the courage and do it.”
But, it’s not that simple. Or easy. Courage is not just something you can pull off a shelf in your cabinet. It’s something that comes deep from within. It requires emotional and spiritual fortitude that can be stifled fairly easily if not handled with care. Sometimes what looks courageous can come from lack of intelligence or understanding. True courage, the moment where it would take less energy to take one path and choose to take the other harder one, that requires some deep knowledge of yourself.
So, let’s take this example of giving someone feedback. You want to hold someone accountable because you love them or it’s your job, but you have a hard time. These folks from the conference would say “just get the courage.” But I say, don’t do that. Summoning courage in this muscling through way is not courage, it is muscling through. When you have to push something out with that much force, it comes out messy and often harmful. Think about when you’ve had to get something out and you forced it. It probably came out much harsher, meaner, harder than you wanted it to. You likely had to walk it back or repair from the way you gave that information, rather than the information itself. And the information itself was what mattered.
I don’t want you squeezing something that feels hard to you out of the narrow opening you have for yourself to get it out. I don’t want anything forced. I don’t want your feelings to come out like play-doh being squeezed through your hand. I want you to feel as good as you possibly can when giving feedback or when saying something hard.
So, instead. I need you to do something different. I need you to check in with yourself about what you are actually afraid of. What is preventing you from saying or doing the thing? Where does it live in your body? What is the concern here? Because chances are it’s a good concern, born of something really awful that happened to you. Find out from your insides what we’re bracing against, what we’re worried about. Because once you can identify that, well then you know what you’re actually working with.
Then, play out the worst case scenario. Go ahead, do it. See how your body responds. You give someone feedback and they respond in the worst way possible. What is that? . Do they yell at you? Do they throw something? Do they call you names? Now, we think about what we need to do to keep you safe and what your next step is. What is your response to that worst case scenario?
Here, I’ll give you some options:
“I absolutely can hear that you’re upset, but I will not be yelled at. Should we take a minute so we can come back and talk about this more calmly?”
“Do not throw something at me. Leave my office right now. I am going to get HR/a senior manager to help with this.”
“I will not be called names. You can be angry or upset, but you cannot call me names. Please leave and come back when you have had a moment to calm down and can continue this conversation.”
What if the concern is internal? Do you think if you have to give this feedback it’s an indication you’re a bad leader? Does it mean you’re a bad person? Did you miss something important about your job? Are you behaving just like that one person did one time when they were really awful to you? What do you do about that?
Here, I’ll help:
Review their job description and see where are the areas for improvement and what resources you can provide for that.
Unless you are actively killing puppies, you’re not a bad person. Likely just overwhelmed and overworked.
And you’re not that person, you’re you. And you’re examining their actions so you can do better than they did.
What do you need to do to make a structural change so you can have more space to be a better boss/co-worker/partner?
What structural changes need to be made so this doesn’t happen again?
Remember, most issues are because of faulty structure that needs to be changed, not any one person’s failure. So figure out what that is from your end.
Ok, we’ve figured out what the actual concern is. We have some ideas for the worst case scenario. Now think about the best case scenario. Best case, do they thank you? Do they sit there and start a conversation about what to do differently? Do they show that they appreciate you noticing them and wanting them to be better?
Both the worst and the best are equally likely. It’s just statistics.
Now, think through what you need to keep the worst case scenario from happening. Is it a public space? It is a reminder of intention, that you’re there to work together? Is it another witness? Is it to practice what you’re going to say and ask for help finding the right words?
Now, go get that; set it up to practice, get some help, get the conference room, have a safety plan.
Now you’re more prepared. And likely calmer about the whole situation. It didn’t take an explosion of courage. It took actually examining what you need, listening to yourself to know what you need, and making that happen, you know what that is? Accountability–to yourself.
And that’s the most important kind of accountability we need. We need to know we can listen to ourselves and respond to our needs. Because that is love. And as the great RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Can I get an amen?
Tools and Theories are exactly what it sounds like: The Tools and Theories I use to inform my work. Sometimes I’ll highlight my own methodologies and sometimes I’ll talk about a specific book, workshop, or new theory I’m trying on. If you have a resource you think I’d like, send it to me!
When I first started my work on my Master’s degree I was part of a cohort that was comprised of both Counseling and Organizational Development students. We learned a lot of information together as a whole group and most of the theory felt like it leaned very heavily on the Counseling and less on the Organizational Development. I found it all pretty interesting especially since my work within organizations would require working with…people…so the more I knew about how they worked, the better I thought I would be. So I bided my time, learning about cultural competency, group dynamics, conflict, and other stuff that was obviously useful no matter who I was.
And then one day God came down from the heavens and said, “Here, Verhanika. Here is the theory of Organizational Development you have been waiting for. It will change your life. Treasure it and pass it around like syphilis, but not exactly.”
Let me explain.
So, let’s say you’re at work and you’re having a rough time. You’re constantly fighting with your boss in a silent battle of wills, your co-worker, Melanie, is always trying to one-up you, and you are tired just walking up to the front door.
You explain to your best work friend how you’re feeling and she says something like, “Maybe you need to stop taking things so personally,” or “Maybe you need some therapy,” or “Stop caring so much about what you do. It’s just work.” Just work indeed.
So you go back about your work life trying to “not take things personally” or “stop caring so much” and you even do a little research into a therapist. Maybe your frequent childhood playground squabbles are full of material for why you like to fight with your boss.
Even worse, in closed-door meetings your boss is talking about you. “He just can’t get along with Melanie. I think the two of them need to go to HR and talk it out.” His co-conspirator agrees, “Yeah, he and Melanie really need to leave it at the door when they show up and just do their jobs instead of creating drama.”
Sound familiar? If it does then it’s because this is an exact case study of a workplace I coached recently (names and pronouns changed to protect the unstructured).
But I managed to get them to change in a way where no one took it personally, the company was able to hang on to some very valuable employees, and they now have a framework within which they can address problems that come up, and deal with them at their source rather than solving the symptoms.
What is this miracle pill? The OD theory that changed my life? The theory that I will now infect you with that no amount of antibiotics can cure? (And you won’t want them to.)
The Waterline Model. (For the official copy go here.)
The Waterline Model can be summed up like this: 95% of organizational problems are structural.
So you and Melanie fighting has little if nothing to do with you and everything to do with the structure within which you are working.
When it comes to problems in organizations (and in life) we often try to ascribe them to a single person or pair of people–intra- or interpersonal problems. We assume that there is something wrong with a person or a relationship and that is what causes problems–she has a shady past, he’s going through a divorce, they are like oil and water. We like to think that someone causes problems for a whole organization. But if we stopped making it personal and actual made it professional we would learn the big scary secret, which is that there is something with the organization’s structure that needs to change.
That’s what the Waterline Model says we should do; instead of jumping to the inter- and intrapersonal levels (the last on the right below the waterline) look at structure (the first on the left) before we do anything else.
Work against our nature to ascribe blame to an individual or pair of individuals and instead examine the structure that they work within, as that is where we are more likely to find problems that manifest as interpersonal conflict or as an individual struggling in the workplace.
So what counts as structure?
Structure is made up of a few things: Goals, Roles, Process, and Resources. Let’s look at these a little closer.
Goals refers to the mission and vision of the organization. Is the organization working in line with it’s declared mission and vision? If it’s not then there could be a considerable amount of confusion among individuals. “I thought we were all rowing right and it seems we are now rowing left.”
This could be as simple as re-stating what the mission/vision is and doing some quick assessment to see how it is lined up with it. Or it could mean looking at the org as a whole and coming up with a new mission or vision.
This is more specifically about role clarity. Who is doing what? How do you know who is doing what? Tied up in the is accountability. How do you know when someone has done their job? What happens if they don’t? How do you determine if someone is reliable? To solve role clarity there may need to be a re-drawing of the org lines. Jeff may hate this part of his job that Kristen just loves. Let her fucking do it. Or figure out a way to incentivize it for Jeff and de-incentivize it for Kristen. It may also be as simple as reading through job descriptions again. Doing a quick assessment of the job description of those within one degree of separation of you on your org chart could be immensely helpful to see who is supposed to do what.
This one is a little trickier. Process means having a clear step-by-step procedure for how to complete tasks. “But Verhanika, we are so unique in our workplace that every time we create something we don’t know how it’s going to end up.” Then you are dumb. For serious. You have a procedure whether you know it or not and if you are doing it a different way every time then you are hemorrhaging money and deserve the financial dire straits you will end up in. No one is that special.
There are tons of tools for determining your process, but for now it could be as simple as getting everyone in a room who works on a single unit (product or service). Everyone writes down how they think the sausage is made and then you compare. I guarantee everyone’s will be different unless it is written down somewhere people look at every day. And even then it is likely an incomplete rendering.
This one is the worst. Seriously. There are some times when you have too many resources and it involves shifting or removing those resources (sometimes resulting in laying people off) or where you don’t have enough and no way to generate more. This is where serious choices about expectations have to be discussed or finding more resources is the top priority. Resources can refer to people, ideas, raw materials, time, money, bandwidth, anything that is required for producing a product and could be limited.
So, the next time you’re ready to complain about how work sucks because of fighting co-workers or someone who seems to have problems they should work out on their own, run down this list and see if there is a structural issue that needs to be addressed. Feel free to send me your case studies if you can’t seem to find a structural issue, I pretty much guarantee I’ll be able to.