TeamBuild May 2017: Radical empathy

Recently, when I was working with a distinguished senior team, there was one individual that I didn’t like or trust. I knew this was not a good thing and called one my favorite mentors to talk about it.

“I know this isn’t a helpful attitude, especially as the facilitator of this team. I just don’t like him. I don’t trust him. What should I do?” I asked.

“I think you should practice radical empathy,” he answered.

I couldn’t help but smile. Of course. In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky say, “keep the opposition close.” And part of me knew that, with this difficult person, instead of moving away from him, I had to engage with him. And so I did.

I met with him individually and talked with him by phone. What I found reminded me of what I often find — someone insecure, wanting to contribute, and to be heard. Someone I liked more than I had thought. Not only did I build a bridge to a potential foe, I also learned something important. He had previously been the head of this team and ran a strategic planning process – it was vital that I build on that and not look foolish for re-creating the wheel.

I also try to practice radical empathy as I facilitate meetings. While my instinct may be to turn away from someone who is a naysayer or recalcitrant or difficult, I try to remember to make sure their concerns are heard, give them responsibility, and talk to them at the break. Acknowledging their view can soften their stance and open them up to listening to others. If I’m working with flip charts, I note their issue, underline or circle it, and return to acknowledge their point when appropriate. By welcoming their different or difficult point of view, I sometimes disarm them and most importantly, get useful data.

I admit, it’s hard to do. So lately I’ve been reminding myself of this phrase, “radical empathy.” It makes me smile.

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TeamBuild March 2017: The one-text approach

What do you do when you have a team that is complicated or stuck that needs to come to consensus? One of my favorite tools is a version of the one-text approach in Getting to Yes.[1]

Perhaps the most famous use of the one-text procedure was by the United States at Camp David in September 1978 when mediating between Egypt and Israel. The United States listened to both sides, prepared a draft to which no one was committed, asked for criticism, and improved the draft again and again. …After 13 days and some 23 drafts President Carter recommend(ed) it, (and) Israel and Egypt accepted.

When I worked with Bill Ury, the author of Getting to Yes, at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard, we used this concept with Soviets to set up a system to avoid accidental nuclear war. I use the one-text approach to bring teams to agreement on a strategic direction, a funding proposal, operating rules between business units, and more.

My version of the one-text approach has three steps that repeat:

  • Discuss the issue with the whole group.
  • Apart from the group meeting, create a draft.
  • Discuss a physical manifestation of the draft in the whole group.

In the initial group discussion, discuss the challenge and set up the structure of the final document or agreement. Note differences but, if they are difficult, leave them for the drafting team. Take public notes, such as on flip charts or projected on a screen.

Assign one person, a small team, or a multiple small teams to write the first draft, the “draft to which no one is committed to” mentioned above. Circulate the draft to the group.

Meet again as a group. Discuss the draft in a physical format, on a screen, on paper, or on a virtual shared document. In this way, the discussion – and the pointed fingers, raised voices, and dissension — are directed at the text rather than at an individual. Where it is possible to come to agreement, do so. But where there are sticky issues, leave them for the next drafting group. Assign new groups for each section. Repeat through multiple rounds of drafting.

It is fascinating how through this process, a general consensus will emerge. If there are still unresolved issues, park them by recommending further study or by noting in the text where agreement has not yet been reached. Invoke the Camp David Accords.

[1]  Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury, 1981, Penguin Books.

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TeamBuild February 2017: Name the elephants in the room

I bring to my work an instinct to be forthright and name “the elephant in the room,” that problem or risk that no one wants to discuss. Even with multiple “elephants,” I’ve found that it is more beneficial to surface the issues than ignore them. If identified and put in context, contentious issues can propel a group forward.

“Naming the elephants” serves multiple purposes. One, it allows everyone to see the range of perspectives, not just their own. Two, acknowledging problems can release pressure and reduce tension. Last, when I name a contentious issue, I discuss why it is presenting itself now. A conflict in a college department may be one that is roiling across campus, or on campuses across the country. A team with offices in three locations has communication challenges — understandably. A sense of context can reduce the sense of blame or frustration with the fact that the team is struggling.

One way I surface issues is to interview everyone on the team individually. I take notes but promise confidentiality. When the group meets, I present an overview of what I have heard, with neutral language in a Powerpoint, verbally annotated with quotes from individuals. (I am careful to present only quotes in which the speaker cannot be identified.) Sometimes the language I quote is strong. This is shocking but not surprising; it is difficult to hear but many in the room know others feel and talk like this.

Once we identify the elephants, I come back to them, note when we are stuck because of them, and work to make them familiar, understandable, and manageable. In the second meeting I once had with a team, someone asked, “What were the elephants that we identified?” So I kept a running list on a flip chart through that meeting and referred to them at the end of the meeting and in subsequent meetings

Courageous individuals can identify issues that are bedeviling a team without conducting interviews ahead of time. I’ve seen someone initiate a difficult conversation with, “I think the elephant in the room is X, and I think the reason we’re confronting this now is Y.” After that, others referred to this intervention with, “Well, with the elephant in the room being X, I think we need to do Z.” When one person names the elephant, it becomes easier for others to talk about the issue and, as importantly, to raise issues in the future.

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TeamBuild January 2017: Go to the balcony

A decade ago, twenty-five leaders from Delaware assembled for a full day to work on a blueprint for education for the state. A renowned international consulting firm presented research on education around the world. As the consultants worked their way through 197 slides, our firm took a “pulse check” just after noon. To get a sense of the group, we asked each person to use one word to describe how they were feeling. What we heard surprised everyone — “bored, confused, irritated, disengaged”. To his credit, the senior partner of the large consulting company weighed in. “I guess we’ll have to recalibrate,” he said with chagrin.

That “pulse check” is an example of using the concept of how to “go to the balcony” with teams. In Leadership on the Line, Linsky and Heifetz (who I worked with at Cambridge Leadership Associates) talk about how to get perspective in the midst of action by stepping back – metaphorically – to get a sense of the whole.

The example they use is that you are at a dance but leave the dance floor to go to the balcony. From that vantage point you see that where you were dancing next to the band, there is a small, tightly packed, and energized crowd – but in the rest of the room there are groups of people quietly sipping their drinks and talking. There is a long line for the buffet. There are even more people on the lawn outside, drinking, talking, and walking. Your description of the dance might be different from the balcony than from the dance floor near the band.

I use this concept when I am a participant in a group – I try to understand what is happening in the room from the vantage point of the “balcony”.   Stepping away from the heat of a meeting or interaction often presents new data and shifts perceptions and sometimes the work that needs to be done. In addition, I have tools to help entire teams “go to the balcony”.

The tools I use range from the pulse check we took in Delaware that day to conducting a one-hour individual interview with each member of a team before an initial meeting and presenting a summary to the group when we meet. A simpler version of interviews can be accomplished with an online poll (Google poll, SurveyMonkey, etc.). I also use flip charts to take a team to the balcony. I have each person write their idea on a flip chart and we discuss in full view. Sometimes I use “visual voting” — everyone has three red dots and goes up to the flip charts and “votes” for their top three ideas.

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July 2016: Volunteerism

Voluntourism is a fraught concept. Are we helping or hurting when we build a house in New Orleans, hold babies in an orphanage in Kenya, or construct a fence for a clinic in Nicaragua? In 2013, the Hewitts went to live with their two little girls in the Mamelodi slums of South Africa, six miles away from their gated community, “to change ourselves.” In Brazil you can tour the favelas for a half day for $30. A 2008 study of 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.

Is this “poverty pornography”, an “experiment in radical empathy,” or harmful?

“(T)he mantra of good intentions becomes unworthy when it… can give a South African AIDS orphan an attachment disorder or put a Haitian mason out of work” for a week.                         Jacob Kushner, New York Times, 3-22-16

Leah, my daughter who is just finishing over two years teaching at Safe Passage in Guatemala, talks about the power of learning by doing, not necessarily changing or giving. She and I believe that the ripple effect of an experience in poverty – for the individual and for the people he or she interacts with for a lifetime – are powerful. Leah told me a heartwarming story the other day that gives me hope that we can construct positive voluntourism experiences.

Leah has decided that one place short term volunteers can be immediately helpful is as English tutors. But “Bob”, a middle aged volunteer, was concerned. He didn’t speak Spanish and wondered out loud multiple times, how this would work. Leah reassured him that only speaking English could be an asset and left on vacation.

When she returned, Luis, a star student who understood English very well – he could decipher rap songs – but never spoke, came up to Leah and asked her what her favorite food was, did she like to cook, and more.

“Luis,” Leah asked, “Your English is fabulous! I’ve tried to get you to speak for two years, what got you talking?”

“Oh,” he responded in perfect English, “I’ve had two tutoring sessions with Bob and he doesn’t speak Spanish so we speak English.”

Yes, it is difficult to construct meaningful, respectful, and positive short-term interventions. What matters, says Leah, is that we do so, conscientiously and thoughtfully.

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June 2016: How to spend 80,000 hours

A year ago I wrote about Effective Altruism, a movement that promotes using evidence-based data to not just do good, but to do the most good. Now I am running into college students and recent grads researching their careers by using the website 80,000 Hours (the number of hours in a career), which has an online career guide, coaching, and data to launch a high impact career.

I wrote about Jason Trigg, who works for a high-frequency trading firm. Trigg estimates that a $2,500 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation can save one life, so that by giving away half of his salary (well more than $100k), he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

“A lot of people, they want to make a difference and end up in the Peace Corps and in the developing world without running water.” Trigg says, “I can donate some of my time in the office and make more of a difference.”                                        Washington Post, 5-31-13

Will MacAskill, co-founder and President of 80,000 Hours, doesn’t recommend working for a charity straight out of college. The reason: he says that most don’t have social impact and the first priority should be to build career capital and general-purpose skills.

“If you’re aiming to do good with your career, you should be thinking, “How can I do a lot of good in the long run? In particular, further on in my career, when I’m most influential?”                                                                          Will MacAskill, Vox Politics, 8-3-2015

Interesting. I’ve always recommended the opposite – live overseas now, work for a nonprofit while you can afford to. What matters most, is that the question is being called.June

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April 2016: Women on Waves

About two months ago, as our son Trevor was being evacuated from El Salvador (Peace Corps closed its program there due to violence) and our daughter Leah continued with her work in Guatemala, we watched as the Zika crisis heated up in the region. It was becoming clear that the virus transmitted by mosquitos is linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect.

In response, El Salvador announced that women should not get pregnant in the next two years. This, in a country where abortion is illegal and contraception is against the mainstream Catholic church.

El Salvador’s advice to stop having children for two full years struck many experts as particularly sweeping, leaving them to wonder when else a nation has tried to halt its birthrate in the face of an epidemic. “I can tell you that I have never read, heard, or encountered a public request like that,” said David Bloom, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health.                                                                           New York Times, 1/25/16                                                                               

Fortunately, an organization called Women on Waves stepped up. Women on Waves is a Dutch pro-choice nonprofit created in 1999 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who set sail on a ship to provide abortions in international waters, where a country’s bans do not apply. Gomperts later founded Women on Web, an online support service that helps women obtain and safely take medications to induce abortion. In February, Women on Waves announced they were sending a boat to El Salvador.

Someone said to me, why don’t women who can afford it just fly to the U.S.? The problem with this is that getting a visa to the U.S. is time-consuming and sometimes impossible; you have prove you have assets, money in the bank, and a compelling reason to return.

A doctor I know, who was involved in regulating RU 486 (one of the “morning-after” pills used for a medication-induced abortion), said that medication-induced abortions should be done only in the presence of medical personnel. This is not an option for women where abortion is illegal.

So what I wonder is, will Zika change the debate about women’s reproductive freedom?

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ALICE: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed

I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about ALICE.

In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson asked an analyst, Mollie Orshansky, to develop a measure of poverty for his War on Poverty. She took the minimum calories and thus food budget necessary for a family of four and multiplied by three. That, adjusted for inflation, continues to be the federal poverty line.

My friend Stephanie Hoopes is challenging that definition. Her United Way ALICE Project   ( looks at individuals and families that are “asset limited, income constrained, employed”, those who are working in low-wage jobs with little or no savings for an emergency. Her work shows that if we define the poverty line as the income families need to live and work in a modern economy – enough for housing, food, child care, health care, and transportation — roughly a third of the people in the ten states the ALICE Project has studied so far are at or below the poverty line.

  • New Jersey had 32% of its population at or below the ALICE poverty line before the recession; it now has 38%.
  • Massachusetts had 15% low income in 1970; 28% in 2014. This would be higher using the ALICE threshold (Boston Globe, front page, March 6, 2016)

Stephanie is sure you know someone who is ALICE: someone in your family, the person who sold you coffee this morning, the woman who took your kids from you at daycare. People who are working hard, but can’t afford basic household necessities.

Perhaps this is why Trump and Sanders are striking a cord with so many.

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The underside of remittances

I’d always liked the idea of remittances – money sent from emigrant workers home – as a redistribution of wealth.  Then I visited my son, Trevor, in his Peace Corps village in El Salvador. Trevor estimates that all but two of the 100 houses in his village have at least one family member working out of the country.  In 2013, families in El Salvador received $4.2 billion in remittance money — a sixth of the country’s GDP, and 14 times it’s $290 million in aid. But remittances take a toll on individuals, families, and local economics.

On the one hand, there are cellphones, a new roof, and money to start businesses.  Julio returned from five years in the States, bought a motorcycle and a refrigerator chest, and now has a business driving at four a.m. to pick up fish and bring it up the mountain to sell. Most houses have floors and families can now afford operations and medical care.

On the other hand, families are physically split, for years at a time. I met Glendie, a young mother with a baby who cradled her phone while we ate papusas as she waited for the nightly call from her husband.  At Christmas Eve dinner, Elba’s son showed off his house and kids in Arkansas via Facetime.  When those who go to the States return, they remember the hard work, solitary nights, and for some, time in prison.  They love America but they talk about having been treated as invisible or as criminals.

And how does this affect the local economy?  Someone at my board meeting in Guatemala commented that, once there are two family members sending money home, there is no incentive to work.  The daily wage for someone working a cornfield in the hills above Trevor’s village is $6/day.

Our young people go to college; El Salvador’s young men and women go illegally to the United States.   What does it mean to have an economy and a culture based on remittances?

*Trevor came home unexpectedly last week, one year into what was expected to be two – Peace Corps El Salvador closed due to increasing violence.

Posted in First Monday Musings

Joy in filtered water

Sometimes I forget how much fun there is in the work we do.

Philip Wilson, founder of Ecofiltro in Guatemala, reminded me of this. While I was in Guatemala last month for a board meeting of Safe Passage, Philip gave me a tour of the plant where he produces clay pot water filters. He sparkled as he showed me the clean floors, open-aired plant, solar panels, and organic garden.

An entrepreneur who founded a successful web services company, he spends most of his time now running Ecofiltro, a “social business” whose goal is to reach one million rural Guatemalans with clean water by the year 2020.

Philip’s family foundation had been working with the inventor of this inexpensive water filtration system for 20 years. In 2007 Philip proposed that he take the technology and turn it into a business. Ecofiltro’s hybrid approach uses urban sales of filters to finance the distribution of rural filters at an affordable price.

Philip says his sister, trained as a social worker, didn’t talk to him for a few months because he charged rural families for the filters. But he had watched her try for years to distribute chlorine tablets to rural Guatemalans, only to find that they used the chlorine to clean their clothes or floors, but not to purify their drinking water.

Now Ecofiltro has 50 employees, has helped one million people gain access to clean water, and the open technology is being used in 59 factories in 38 countries. In addition to using solar energy and growing organic produce for its employees, Ecofiltro has just gotten certified to sell carbon credits.

Does private enterprise trump nonprofit?  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that a passionate, creative, Wharton-trained entrepreneur is getting more filters out there than in the previous 20 years.  And that he’s having a ball.

Posted in First Monday Musings