December, 2012

Things Can Change

Things can change. When a social problem is understood from a public health perspective and attacked using all the policy, taxing, and educational resources available, real change is possible. We can change Americans’ attitudes about guns and gun ownership.

Look at cigarette smoking. In the 70’s, people could smoke practically anywhere. I personally smoked in an airplane (in my seat, not in the restroom), a movie theatre, a baseball stadium, my dorm room, a hospital, and anyone’s apartment or house I was visiting. Cigarettes were less than half a buck a pack because to raise taxes on tobacco back then would ignite the ire of the massive tobacco lobby and elected officials were loathe to antagonize such a powerful opponent.

So now, all these many years later, have we eliminated smoking? No, but the rate of smoking has declined from 42.4% of all adults in 1965 to 18.9% in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More to the point, the social norms around smoking have change dramatically.

Light up at a party and the other guests will start waving wildly to dissipate the secondhand smoke. Take a puff at a baseball game and the ushers will descend like locusts to extinguish your cigarette and probably your attendance at the game. There is no smoking in public places including bars and restaurants which is astonishing. The anti-smoking folks figured out how to beat back not only the tobacco lobby but the alcohol and hospitality industries.

Along with the smoking bans were massive educational programs, elimination of advertising for cigarettes, and, last, huge taxes on each pack so that now a pack of cigarettes costs the hourly wage of minimum-wage workers (which also says something about the minimum wage standard). This multi-pronged approach has essentially ostracized smoking and smokers. They huddle outside buildings in the winter smoking cigarettes like they’re dosing rather than enjoying. It’s such a change from the glamour attached to smoking a generation ago.

So what’s my point? This is the point: We have to change the social norms around gun ownership. We have to create a combination of policies and practices that not only ban assault rifles and impose other restrictions on the purchase of guns, we also have to start a steady drumbeat of disapproval of gun ownership and gun owners – just like we did smoking and smokers.

Can we eliminate gun ownership? No – not in this country, with this history. Can we attack gun ownership the same way we attacked cigarette smoking and make great inroads on prevalence? I think so.

Clearly, after the Sandy Hook School shootings, we need deeper thinking than we’ve had so far on this topic. A place to start might be how we as a country tackled the once unbelievably powerful tobacco lobby to protect the health of American citizens. It can be done. We just need to start.

A Better Reason

 Nonprofit employees need more than money to be happy and productive. Often, we land on the issue of lower salary and benefits as the reason nonprofit workers jump ship, either for a larger nonprofit or the private sector. When I’ve talked to nonprofit colleagues who are unhappy at work, it’s hardly ever about money.

It’s a soul thing. Something is going on that is not good for their basic, inner core selves. That makes going to work every day very difficult and coming home even worse. No amount of money can compensate someone who feels used, unappreciated, and not well respected.

 To prepare for this blog, I typed, ‘what do employees want’ into Google and got a terrific list in an article called “10 Things Employees Want Most” that is just exactly on the money from Inc. Here’s the link.

I’m going to do the jiffy quick list for you. Here’s what employees want, according to Inc: purpose, goals, responsibilities, autonomy, flexibility, attention, innovation, open-mindedness, transparency, and compensation.

Notice that compensation is last on the list and the only one that costs money?

All nine of the other things employees want, according to Inc., are about working conditions and relationships. These are things that a nonprofit organization can control and change even if their funding remains constant and little can be done about compensation.

Something to think about, nonprofit leaders. Maybe getting better employees isn’t about having the capacity to pay more. Maybe it’s about thinking more. Read the article. Seriously worth it.

Bridging the Gap in Group Facilitation

One of the toughest jobs as a group facilitator is to help connect people who have widely different perspectives on the same problem. In my work, it is very common to have the representatives of a major system in the same room with its consumers or other community representatives.  It’s the child welfare system administrator and a foster parent serving on the same committee or the head of a city’s economic development authority and the owner of the corner QuikStop. The systems person is thinking about budgets, outcomes, policies and procedures. The grassroots person is thinking about what happened in his/her situation yesterday, about his foster child’s problems in school or her grocery store’s inability to compete with the big box stores.

Ostensibly, the system person and the grassroots person are focused on the same topic but they rarely speak the same language. The distance between the ‘view at 30,000 feet’ and ‘boots on the ground’ is evident in how people identify problems and consider solutions. It’s even evident in the terminology they use and, most fundamentally, in the level of trust and respect they have for each other.

Good communication and problem-solving is impossible without a basic level of trust and respect. How does a group facilitator encourage this? Here are some ideas.

First and foremost, the group facilitator must be open and transparent about the process. This means saying the same things to the system representative as he/she says to the grassroots person. When one faction decides the facilitator is in the pocket of the other faction, credibility is lost.  This can be a fine line to walk.

Second, the group facilitator needs to establish a plan to proceed with the group’s work that is agreed upon by everyone. This will serve as the anchor for discussion and interaction. When things get confusing or stalled, the group can return to the plan. Work the plan and stick with the process are two of my favorite facilitation sayings.

Third, the group facilitator has to create an environment where conflict can make a productive contribution to the group’s work.  When people of differing views can openly express their opinions, talk through their concerns, and find areas of common cause, their group’s work will be 100 times better. Key point here is that the facilitator can’t be the intermediary in conflict; people have to learn to talk to each other.

Fourth, when there is white water (the going gets tough), the group facilitator finds the threads of agreement and weaves them together.  The facilitator encourages everyone to find the solution within the group and resist the urge to go outside the group to someone (do an end run) who can mandate a solution.

Fifth, the group facilitator helps people in the group establish friendships and connections that will live past the group.  This means the QuikStop owner will always feel a special connection to the economic development honcho in his/her town. It’s hard to attack a friend (not impossible, but hard) so this bodes well for their long-term working relationship.

It’s tough and tricky being the facilitator for a group of big picture/small picture folks.  Key words for success: careful, calm, neutral, and, most of all, forward-thinking.