ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1999

Facing The Music In The Global Marketplace

Military Intelligence - Not An Oxymoron

Starting A Revolution Where Everyone Wins

The New Leadership Class

Let's Give Them Something To Talk About

by Peter Block
Sorry We're Closed: Diary of A Shutdown

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Sites Unseen

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Book Review


Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About
by Peter Block

This is the second in a series of columns about how changing the conversation can change the culture. One way to understand culture is to look at the nature of the public debate and which questions are worth answering. The public picture we receive of the culture of the American workplace is that all that counts is financial performance, executive rising and falling, and the drama of mergers and acquisitions.
We are constantly told that the only really important people are CEO’s, and workers are commodities to be moved around at the convenience of institutional requirements. Questions about purpose and the quality of life in our organizations are offered as an occasionally interesting human interest sidelight.

For example, TV business shows ask few questions about employee perspectives, the dominance businesses have over their community or the social value of the products produced. The last thing the media confronts is why businesses have such a contemptuous relationship with government, why they so condemn public education and the management abilities of the not for profit sector. We do not have to let the public dialogue defined by other interests control the conversations we choose to create.

Our Common Wound
Barry Lopez, a writer who lives in Oregon, spoke recently about a tragedy where a young boy brought a gun to school and started shooting. Lopez said that for the three weeks the media was in town, all that got discussed was gun control, violence in the media, safety in the schools and the breakdown of the family and latch key kids.

After the media left, he said a different conversation began about the fact that the tragedy was a failure in community. The question shifted to what role do we, as neighbors and citizens , play in supporting families in crisis so as to prevent this kind of loss. This is a very different question than what is usually discussed. Instead of talking laws, TV programming, and blame towards schools and parents, the talk shifted to community, compassion and our collective accountability for the wound this violence created. This conversation became the basis for hope, where the earlier conversation only led to despair.

What this means for the workplace is that we can shift its culture by redefining what is worth talking about. Lets talk about freedom, justice, forgiveness, faith and collective responsibility. Why not call these the bottom line issues and let economics, technology and control be concerns we attend to as occasionally interesting human interest sidelights.

Management by Forgiveness
There is a movement in some cities which is changing how they deal with justice and forgiveness that we might apply to our workplaces. This is an effort called Restorative Justice, an alternative to a legal process built on punishment and shame. It is designed for the offender and the victim to voluntarily sit together and face the physical and emotional consequences of the crime. In a circle which includes a facilitator and the friends and family of both sides, the victim faces the offender with all the costs of their action. In turn, the offender speaks to their own experience of what happened.

The offender then decides what restitution would be appropriate for what they have done. They offer to the victim either tangible assets or some action which would signify that the offender confesses their crime, is truly apologetic and has a sincere wish to make amends. The final decision is in the hands of the victim who can accept, renegotiate or refuse the offer of apology and restitution. The process is more complicated than this, but these are the essentials. I am learning about it from Thom Allena, who is working with justice departments to implement this practice.

It is a local example of the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation that has been South Africa’s way of dealing with its violent history. Their stance, in stark contrast to the Nuremberg trials after World War II, is designed to restore wholeness to a divided nation. Bishop Desmond Tutu is chairman of the Commission which is betting its future on the power of confession and forgiveness. He says that retributive justice, which is what we now do, is built on punishment and has the effect of keeping the cycle of harm going. All that changes over time is who is persecutor and who is getting hurt. Penology originally meant restoration of harmony, a far cry from our common thinking about justice.

Both of these approaches are really large scale searches for new, more productive, conversations.

Confession is Underrated
So, what would this all mean for our organizations? It would put an end to our thinking that the institution needs to be ever watchful about holding people accountable and rewarding and punishing behavior that is desirable or not. We would stop being obsessed with the low performers and deciding how to motivate and control others. When there is a failure, we would create structures so that confession and admission of responsibility would be valued, forgiveness would be formally offered and defense and denial would be irrelevant.
Why not begin some programs in our workplace about faith and justice. Why not take a page from South Africa and put someone in charge of truth and reconciliation. I would be willing to design a form for annual forgiveness and compassion reviews. How about a training program on hope, confession, and making amends. These could be the new millenium’s definition of organization excellence.

We would talk about how we all played a part in plans that went awry and we would focus on our contribution to the problem. We would stop “setting examples” as a deterrent to failure, which it isn’t.
We would recognize that we are all creating the system we live within, and each part’s success and failure is not simply an individual act but a sign that something more is required from us all. This emphasis on confession and forgiveness would support learning and restore harmony and connection.

Our fear of restorative rather than punitive strategies is that forgiveness means we have condoned the failure. Not so. To understand is not to condone but to acknowledge that these are intertwined human systems filled with human beings.

Lets sponsor a conference on how to create a culture of forgiveness? A culture where confession is not reserved for the sanctuary, where faith is a workplace and business practice. When we make these the questions of common interest, the culture will have started to shift simply in the choice to raise the questions. We will have shifted the dialogue and begun to rename what is real and important. This gives us something to talk about.

March '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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