I wasn’t long into my teaching career before I recognized certain things I should not take for granted. For example, I had thought that first year college students were old enough to have learned about extrapolation and analogies and could use them in their thinking, problem-solving and in general, facing the rigors of daily life. Wrong. So I had to adjust my behavior.
Learning from that initial experience, I did not start my consulting career operating on the same assumption. I had however, hoped that by the time people started down their chosen career path and/or joined a nonprofit board, they had learned about extrapolation and analogies and could bring lessons learned in one sphere and apply them in another. I expected that they would had experiences in one sector and found the parallels in another. But, apparently, extrapolating and learning from similar, but not exactly the same experiences, are harder to grasp than I originally thought as I observed both paid and volunteer leadership of many nonprofits royally screwing up because of their inability to masters these two talents.
In these past few months, I have been amazed by the number of leaders from around the country have been forced out (regardless of what the press releases said) since George Floyd’s death because it “came to light” that they had created and/or allowed toxic work environments for people who were not white, cisgender males.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not surprised that there are unthinking, biased, prejudiced, and ignorant people in positions of leadership. I am, however, surprised that despite what should have been learned from Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent body count that followed with the rise of the MeToo movement that supervisors—be that a board or an individual—didn’t sit up, take stock and take action.
Whether the target of preferential, discriminatory, offensive, etc., behavior, of systems and cultures that support unlevel playing fields, are women, women of color, people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, left-handed people, redheads, whatever, it all must stop. The fact that folks did not extrapolate from Weinstein and the breadth of the problem that the MeToo movement exposed with megawatt clarity—with no ability to push it back into the dark—and ask, “is this happening for any other marginalized group?” is amazing. The fact that no one bothered to question whether those in an analogous position to women working for a powerful man—people working in a situation with a power imbalance—might be suffering from analogous atrocities at the hands of their bosses is, again, quite amazing.
We should not be surprised that since May, there are many more now former leaders ousted because they had created and/or allowed hostile work environments to reign in programs or whole organizations they were charged with leading, not dominating.
We should, however, be terribly disappointed, despite the apparent difficulty for adults to master extrapolation and analogy, that the other leaders in these organizations—the paid leaders higher up on the organizational chart or the volunteer leaders (the board), if the top paid leader was involved—did not take immediate steps at least three years ago to rid their organizations of the bile and ensure that it could not return anywhere within the organization.
As I think about the enormity of this task, I know there is one easy place to begin: performance reviews. Too many performance review processes never get to assessing how well an individual demonstrates a commitment to the organization’s mission and core values. Too few performance review processes ever ask those who could comment about on how a person is to work with as a colleague or a boss, how that person lives up to the organization’s core values, how that person contributes to, or detracts from, building a work environment of trust, respect, and inclusivity.
Performance, especially in a nonprofit, isn’t simply about how well a person accomplishes the items listed in the job description and meets the mutually agreed to goals—which come out of the job description, strategic plan, etc. It must equally be about how that person lives the what and why of the organization—the mission—and the how—its core values. If performance reviews were doing what they should—assessing performance of the tasks and embodiment of the mission and core values—and including all of the right voices/perspectives in that assessment, data would be readily available long before hateful and hurtful cultures take root.