ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1998


Teaching An Organization To Learn

Scenario Planning

The Sinking Of The Titanic

Through Rain, Sleet And New Quality Initiatives

Striving To Deliver Excellence

Not Your Typical Oil Change


Reality: What A Concept
by Peter Block

Reflections On The Baldrige Winners
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


Reality: What A Concept
by Peter Block

Every change effort is a political act. Whenever we create teams, redo a work process, or change the role of managers, we are touching a control structure that would rather be left alone. Change is difficult because it requires that we raise our political consciousness about the subtle ways power is exercised.

The Name of the Game
Those who define the rules, control the game. Power becomes the ability to define reality for others. When we allow others to define reality for us, we have yielded sovereignty and lost the game before it has begun. And we do this all the time.

I was in Nassau, Bahamas last fall and lucky to hear a local architect, named Jackson Burnside, talk about how the British had defined the Bahamian culture during their colonial period. He described how the British maintained power by enforcing the British definition of what was true and false. The most vivid example was about how you draw the color of skin.

When Burnside, a person of color, went to school, he was taught that flesh tones were pink. The crayons labeled "flesh" were not brown, they were pink. When the students filled in a coloring book, they were expected to use this pink "flesh color" on the face and arms of the children in the book. Burnside remembers how upset he and the teacher became when one of the other students used brown to color the face and arms. Despite the fact that his skin was brown, the color of the colonial British skin, pink, defined what color to use. The message was not subtle: the institutionally approved color of skin was pink, not brown. Pink became the standard against which skin was measured. Pink skin was "normal", brown skin was not.
Power is claimed by the capacity to define what is real and to determine the standards against which we are measured. We yield power by believing those definitions of reality and standards. Some examples in our world:

Government is in Charge
If you listen to the media, it seems that politicians actually govern. We are sold the idea that Washington, D.C. runs the country and so what happens there is important. Governors are supposed to run states, mayors and city councils run our city. If we as citizens ever decided that we governed, we might change our perspective on politicians. We might even treat them as if they were not so important.

Technology Rules
We are told that technology is going to define our future. Bill Gates is the prophet who knows what tomorrow is going to look like. Just because I can place a television, a computer, and a telephone on my wrist does not mean that my life is going to improve. It may be that technology causes as many problems as it solves. Yet we let those who have an economic interest in the importance of technology make it the centerpiece on the table.

How Much Is Enough?
We allow top management to define the economic game we need to play. The CEO of a large regional bank announces that earnings need to reach $10 per share and therefore $40 million dollars in cost savings are required. We immediately begin to look for the money. When do we start to respond by saying, "show me the numbers." It is through our collective silence that we end up trying to justify a year in which thousands of people were laid off and the institution had record profits.

Behavior Training
If you have been to a training session in the last ten years, you have filled out a questionnaire that told that you that you were an INFJ, a control taker, a support giver, a socializer, an integrator, and that you are either task or people driven. We let this characterize our tendencies and in the same breath, by omission, define our deficiencies and what we need to work on.

Stock Market
Finally, because corporations dominate this culture, we have come to believe that the stock market is the measure of our success. If the market is doing well, and corporations are making money, we must be doing well. What is lost in this definition of what is real are the millions of people in low pay and low value jobs and the pockets of the population where the unemployment rate stays in double digits.
The problem is not that others wish to define reality for us. The problem is our consent. When we say yes to management or the dominant culture's definition of what is real and important, we have yielded sovereignty over our sense of ourselves and our capacity for self-directed local action. When I believe that pink skin is more appropriate than brown skin, I have supported the colonists and surrendered my ability to define for myself who I am, how I define success and what cultural values I would choose to create and live by. And if you think the colonists only fly a foreign flag, how about the days when pink Band-Aids were also labeled "flesh."

March '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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