Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Facebook-ification of Government (Transparency Starts With Ourselves)

Brunch-at-kibbutz21

The other day I was walking to my car from Trader Joe's and saw a
woman loading their signature brown paper shopping bags into her car
trunk. (Fortunately for her the bags were not breaking in transit as
has happened to me, thus necessitating double-bagging every single
thing I buy there.)

Anyway, she was bald. But some bits of hair were growing back in rough
fuzzy patches.

She had gotten chemo. And unlike in years past, when women wore wigs
or scarves to cover up the telltale baldness, she just didn't bother.

I thought to myself, that woman is beautiful.

~~~

Time doesn't change who we are or what we're interested in. My
dissertation was about bringing emotion back to mainstream culture,
when it had long been relegated to the world of talk shows and (in my
study) soap operas.

I grew up watching Phil Donahue. Days of Our Lives. General Hospital.
Oprah Winfrey. And yes, I have to admit it, even the Jerry Springer
show.

On the radio, Dr. Laura for sure, when I could catch her. Now if I'm
home I'll watch Dr. Phil.

I pay attention to people who take emotional issues that affect a lot
of people, and put them front and center.

And I am still fascinated by people who step up to be the guinea pigs
that talk about them.

~~~

This weekend I made the decision to crowdsource some feedback I had
received in my 360. It was tough for me to do that. After all who
wants to admit that they are flawed? But it felt important to me to do
that. I routinely give armchair advice from my blog, but I definitely
don't have all the answers.

My mom and dad disagreed on the relative wisdom of that post, even
though if you compare it to the sea of blogs, magazine articles and
books with much more dramatic self-revelatory content, it was
comparatively tame. (The best and most frightening example is where
the blogger talks about smashing a lamp over her own head in
frustration.) The reason such content is so "good," of course, is
because it's honest. But it's also risky to the writer because, as my
dad put it, "You want other people to think good of you."

There, for me, is the question. Do people think well of you because
you say good things about yourself? Or refrain from saying bad things?

Or do people think well of you because you are honest about yourself
to a level that's appropriate for the audience? (No way am I
advocating the "overshare.")

In today's communication environment, where there is deep mistrust of
business and government alike, as well as heightened expectations of
transparency (nothing is hushed up or stays in the closet for long
anymore), I have long said that organizations should aggressively
"own" their weaknesses - i.e. bring them up and deflate the criticism
balloon before others can level it at them.

But is this really good advice? After all, if talking about your
problems makes an individual look bad....then how is it different for
an organizational entity?

If you look at the tragic screwups of crisis communications we've seen
in just the past few years, the pervasive logic is still very much
what my dad believed was self-evident: Don't give people a reason to
put you down.

I say just the opposite. (Most public relations specialists would tell
you the same, really.) Say it, own it, put it on a plaque on the wall.
Everyone points to the Tylenol crisis many years ago. But you don't
have to reach that far. Look at David Letterman and how he surpassed a
scandal in his personal life merely by acknowledging it
matter-of-factly. Charlie Sheen, as ill as he is unfortunately, never
lied nor hid who he was - which is why he retains so much goodwill
even as he's made so many serious mistakes.

Look at where we are, OK? It used to be that when people got divorced
you had to acknowledge it in a quiet w-h-i-s-p-e-r. When they had
cancer. When they were gay or lesbian. When there was autism or ADHD
or other debilitating illnesses. Now Michaele Salahi gets her MRI for
multiple sclerosis done on reality TV. And discusses the results with
the doctor while we watch. And kids routinely write things on their
Facebook walls that you would have to sign a HIPAA agreement to see.

One kid said to my kid, "Everybody has something. What's wrong with YOU?"

We are living in the Facebook society. The can't-control-the-Wikileaks
society. The hackers-who-BitTorrent-merrily society. The
hidden-camera-in-a-plastic-clothes-hook society. We can't afford to be
so highfalutin. We actually are at the mercy of the crowd. So we have
no credibility UNLESS we are simply ourselves.

This was my experience with the blog. I toned it down, a bit, per both
mom and dad - the original was too much - but the essence is still
there. And I know this doesn't prove anything, but I not only received
support, but helpful advice and feedback to the effect that - maybe I
was being too hard on myself.

In social media land, the crowd is self-correcting. If you're too
self-flagellating they bring you back up. And if you're all full of
yourself, they will knock you down too.

~~~

I happened to be home the day that President Obama did a virtual town
hall with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. I was riveted. But do you know
what? Not to the part where the President talked about policy. No, I
thought it was fascinating when they both admitted that it was too hot
in the room and they needed to remove their jackets.

Similarly, the First Lady recently led an event in support of her
"Let's Move" campaign where she danced along with students, as she
sometimes does. She was so real, so down-to-earth, so smiling. I could
tell that her heart was in this. And I sang along with the Beyonce
tune that was playing.

I found myself wishing that all of government, business and society
could look as human as this. As real.

Why are organizations afraid to be transparent, in the end? In
government and outside of it?

In the end it comes down to "survival fear." In a dog-eat-dog world,
if we show ourselves weak, will we not be crushed by providing
evidence of our incapacity? Not everyone wishes us well - no matter
what we do - and enemies will use what they can to bring you down,
whether it's fair and accurate or just a fragment taken out of
context.

Some people think that open government needs a champion. I do not. I
think we need a flash mob. One that instantly activates the second we
see a whiff of "gotcha culture."

As in, "Who made the mistake? You? Gotcha!"

We must insist on changing the tone of our civil discourse so that it
is normal to be kind and outside the norm to be vindictive,
self-serving, and soulless.

The way to do that, though, is not to look to others to change. That's
not in the average person's control.

If we are going to change our organizations to make them more open and
transparent, here is what the average person can do:

1) Redefine success on personal terms rather than materialistic ones.
There is a Jewish saying: "Who is strong? S/he who conquers the evil
instinct." That way you won't be the kind of person who uses others'
transparency in order to backstab them. Thus making it safer for
others to come forward and be themselves. And on a larger level, come
together in groups to populate like-minded organizations of tolerance
and peace.

2) Refuse to play the "gotcha" game. For one thing, give people the
benefit of the doubt until they're proven guilty. For another, don't
gleefully gossip about the latest leader accused of wrongdoing. If
they screwed up, they screwed up...let the system do its work to
remove them but don't be so happy about others' downfall. It creates
negative energy.

3) Remove "othering" language from your vocabulary. The world is not
divided up into "winners" and "losers." We are all simply humans
trying to get by and eke out a small bit of happiness on this
challenging earth.

While there is no escaping that we live in a competitive society, it
is also becoming more and more true that we can't advance further
unless we cooperate. You don't have to be an economist or a day trader
to see that we've run out of money, and yet that we have the potential
to create untold abundance, if only we would help each other and
share.

When we take the first step of coming to terms with ourselves, this
will automatically lead us to (at the very least) to refrain from
harming others. Just imagine how much money, equipment, personnel, and
time we would save if we made a conscious decision to accept our
flawed humanity and work together to solve our mutual problems. So
that everyone can have a bigger piece of the pie.

My G-d, I think I just described a kibbutz.


___

Photo source here.

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