End of Summer Musings

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 23rd, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, it is the end of summer.  (Working on a college campus, it is hard to ignore this.)  So, before our minds really ramp up and are back in gear for long, sustained thinking, here are several short thoughts I wanted to share.

Words:  I love words.  Finding the right word(s) to express your thoughts can make all the difference in the world—to you, to your audience.  Sadly, though, the audience doesn’t always appreciate your choices, doesn’t recognize them for the precision tool they are, or the user thinks they are.  As with so many other things, the selection of our words can be used for both good and not so good, for transparency and subterfuge.  I’m always amused by the subterfuge approach, and there has been much of it in recent years.  Some of my favorites:

inter- and intra-sector collaboration became collective impact

human resources became talent management; and

change management has become progress leadership.

Among the many problems with this is that it is costly.  Its costs in the short-term as there is a breakdown in communication, as people have to learn the new language and, in the process, miscommunication happens.  It costs us in the time we have to give to allow people to roll through their range of emotions and settle, going from, “Wow!  What an exciting new approach,” to “Hey, this seems an awful lot like what we used to call (fill in the blank),” to “How was I so stupid to think this was something new and amazing?”  It costs us in hard dollars as we redo websites and print materials, rewrite boilerplates, retool and more.  And all of this costs us in loss of productivity that should have moved us forward, but instead had us wasting resources to get the new up and running, dropping what we were doing until we realize that the new simply wasn’t that different, only to come back—some period of time later—to pick up where we were, having done nothing of substance in the interim.  All for keeping the appearance of progress?  I’d call that poor progress leadership.

More words:   Sometimes, someone nails a term that puts into a few words what otherwise would take a lot to say.  Moral licensing, and its flip, moral cleansing, are two such terms.  Referred to by someone as psychological bargaining, it is even better than the original turn of phrase “moral self-licensing.”  It refers to the psychological behavior of giving yourself permission to do something less moral/ethical/good now (or in the future) because of a past, very moral act.  You gave a nice donation to one nonprofit, you don’t have to give to the next that asks; you worked out for an hour at the gym, you can eat a piece of cake; your company gave $100K to build a playground in the neighborhood, you can dump your factory waste in the creek behind the homes in the neighborhood.

Your good deed earns you “morality points” that you keep in a “bank”, waiting for you to deplete them with future acts that are less than admirable, ethical, legal.  It can be viewed, pure and simple, as justification to do whatever a person wants:  s/he must just make sure to “earn” enough good points to balance out the negative points.  But, of course, that is easy to do, after all, because the doer gets to determine the good point value of every action, as well as the bad point value of every action.  Just how much harm does a $100,000 gift buy?  How much of a role does moral cleansing play in corporate social responsibility programs? In donors’ giving? In our daily lives?

With moral cleansing, the direction is reversed:  the immoral/bad action comes first, causing us to want to wipe out that negative action with a positive one.  Firing an employee leads to giving the remaining employees an extra day off; running red lights to get to the store leads to dumping money in the check-out charity jar; producing products that poisoned the land leads to a rigorous, well-publicized corporate social responsibility program.   It all makes perfect sense.  Figuring out how to use this knowledge in fundraising efforts, however, is a bit more complicated.

Woman Interrupted:  Two recent headlines for very different stories elicited my same reaction:  still in the 21st century?  The first was for a story that followed up on 2016 research that found that Supreme Court Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor were interrupted more than other justices.  In fact, the 2016 research found that female justices were interrupted three times as frequently as were male justices by male attorneys and advocates.  That research was thought to have changed the Court’s dynamic, evening causing the Chief Justice “to act more as referee.”  Earlier this month, Tonja Jacobi, one of the authors of the original study, wrote on her new findings that despite claims that the interruptions of female justices had declined, the 2017 term was “the second most gender imbalanced term in the last 20 years.”

Couple this with a just released working paper reporting on research that found that white women who grow up in more sexist states are more likely to earn less and work less over the course of their lifetimes, regardless of what they do and where they move, than women who grow up in less sexist states and men who grow up anywhere.  These differences held fast regardless of age, education level and “migration patterns.”  The researchers theorize that the sexist attitudes about women’s place in the workforce instilled from childhood remain within them, deeply instilled, and not overcome even when moving to less sexist regions.  Score one for the power of nurturing.

Happy End of Summer!

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