Monday, August 23, 2021

Nice or Kind: What’s the Best Choice?

“It’s nice to be nice to the nice.” That’s what the Frank Burns character said during an awkward social encounter in a 1974 episode of M*A*S*H. Even though a hypocritical, less than competent TV doctor delivered the line nearly 50 years ago, it still makes sense. Right?

According to The Hazards of a “Nice” Company Culture by Timothy R. Clark, “niceness hides dysfunction.” The author says, “What’s touted as niceness is often nothing more than the veneer of civility.” He sees this as a danger to organizations because “in a nice culture, there’s pressure to go along to get along,” which “can lead to chronic indecisiveness.”

Yes, sugarcoating a message can make it incomprehensible. And feeding staff a steady diet of feedback sandwiches – criticism surrounded by praise – can obliterate the message, not just kill the taste of bad news. 

We’ve all seen it at some point; people want to be liked and will do almost anything to avoid conflict. I’ve written about this before – we shouldn’t seek conflict but we need the courage to address it. Clark makes the case that niceness squashes “intellectual honesty, candid feedback, and tough questions.” And if we don’t address issues in a timely manner, we create a classic boiling over situation where “people wait until a problem becomes too big to ignore.” 

The need to modify our behavior – not matter how you characterize it – has never been bigger. We’re in a world of never-ending political fights and rants by the billions on social media; it’s a non-stop, global food fight. Meanness – provocation and threats emanating from all parts and levels of society – is a real threat to order and safety. But if Clark thinks niceness carries its own hazards, where do we turn? 

While some might call it semantic hair-splitting, the answer could be “kindness.” If being nice is conflict avoidance, then kindness is the ability to “channel and manage the tension.” It’s being frank and forthright while being respectful and courteous. In isolation, niceness misses the chance to ensure accountability. Kindness doesn’t have to be tough love, though. Compassion and humanity – not being self-serving and expedient – are part of the delineation between the two constructs. 

I usually find mutual exclusivity to be an irrational choice. But let’s consider that it’s nicer to be kind.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

No Easy Fix: Opinion and Belief vs. Facts and Truth

We’ve all experienced the feeling. Our hopes get raised and then... splat. No payoff. No satisfaction. 

I got excited when I saw the title of Adam Grant’s recent article, “The Science of Reasoning With Unreasonable People,” published in The New York Times. Could “motivational interviewing” help win over people who choose beliefs, faith, and opinions over facts? What wonderful news! We need a breakthrough when it comes to persuading people to accept the facts around a host of science-based issues including climate change and vaccine safety. 

Alas, it was not to be. In one example detailed in the article, an intensive effort managed to get an anti-vaxxer from negative to, well, a tiny bit less negative. At the end of his piece, there was a tinge of resignation. Grant wrote, “All I can do is try to understand their thinking and ask if they’re open to some rethinking. The rest is up to them.”

All I can do? There has to be more, right? 

It turns out that motivational interviewing might have a limited role in addressing the vaccine hesitancy of some new mothers. A study cited in the article demonstrated a seven percent (statistically significant) increase in vaccination coverage in a subset of infants. While a good outcome, the authors recognized a number of study design limitations. And in actual practice, there’s a huge amount of ground to gain.

The chasm between hard data and belief exists because facts don’t matter to a big chunk of the population. We’ve known this for years. If facts were all it took, we’d be done: People wouldn’t smoke cigarettes, abuse drugs, be racist, or refuse to wear motorcycle or bicycle helmets. If the facts don’t fit the person’s worldview or “frame,” as the cognitive linguist George Lakoff terms it, the facts bounce off like bullets shot at Superman’s chest. Your challenger deflects all the information while you get blue in the face.

So, it’s clear that information and insight by themselves don’t produce change. It’s the desire to change and seeing the value in change that drives us forward. 

One desire killer is inertia. We’ve heard the excuse: “That’s the way we’ve always done things.” There may be no consequences: “Who’s going to notice, who’s going to care?” We may feel powerless: “I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the access.”

A second drag on change is simple ignorance and, on this issue, I’m having déjà vu. I wrote about “Swine Flu's Teachable Moment” nearly a dozen years ago: “It was disturbing to read about a growing public health threat in "Vaccine Refusal, Mandatory Immunization, and the Risks of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases" in this week's New England Journal of Medicine (Omer et al.). The bottom line is that there is a critical need for new education and policy efforts to protect children (sometimes from their own parents) and the general public.”

Dr. Marijn Dekkers, former CEO of Bayer and former Chairman of Unilever, pointed out at financial conference several years back, “Even the most outstanding ideas and scientific breakthroughs have no chance if people do not accept, appreciate and support them. All too often, people are afraid of – or uneasy about – new ideas, inventions, processes or products.” Dropping information – even crucial or compelling data – onto the heads of an unprepared public, or expecting a response to another “call to action,” is unproductive and unrealistic.

We’re in this situation partly because our science literacy is abysmal. The United States ranks 18th out of 78 countries, according to the most recent analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics. China, Estonia, Japan, Korea, Canada, Poland, Slovenia, UK, Netherlands, and Germany are among those ahead of us.

And it’s an even bigger issue than the public health or economic competitiveness. Poor science literacy can eat at the core of our democracy. Professor Jon D. Miller (now at the University of Michigan) told The New York Times in 2005 that “…people’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” He continued that for so many issues affecting society, "if you don't know a little science [it’s] hard to follow these debates. A lot of journalism [will] not make sense to you."

It’s not a problem that can be addressed by a one-year budget cycle or even a five or ten-year plan. It will take a generational blueprint that needs to be comprehensive, coordinated, and well capitalized in order to see a return on the investment. Let’s get started.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauoestreicher.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Predicting Change in the Age of Trump - We Need a T.H.E.M.E.

How long is too long to wait for change? If you’re at a red traffic light for more than a few minutes, you’re probably wondering if it’s broken and contemplating an isolated break with a societal norm.  

But what drives us to wait or to move on? I wrote about the change many predicted Donald Trump would make following his victory in the Republican primaries nearly five years ago. Surely, conventional wisdom dictated, he would pivot quickly from fiery agitator to energetic statesman. After waiting the duration of a campaign, a presidential term and then another campaign, I think it’s safe to say the wait is over. Change is not coming and it never will.

In 2016, a New York Times editorial (The Donald Trump Pygmalion Project) focused on Donald Trump’s behavior and how “Mr. [Paul] Manafort’s ambition is to turn this Eliza Doolittle into a candidate more acceptable to decent society, in time for the general election.” 

But too few were paying attention when Mr. Trump said, “I sort of don’t like toning it down.” That rare, honest admission should have been a clue. More questions needed to be asked; intentions should have been probed.

I love checklists and acronyms, and this looks like the perfect place for both. In politics, as in personal and business relationships, we need think about and evaluate others in terms of a THEME:

Transparent. Do we have a clear view into this person and his or her intent? Is what we see what we get?

Honest. Are rules, and the rule of law respected? Are we getting the facts, the truth or some belief, some wishful thinking? 

Empathic. Does this person really care about me, about others and the common good? What is this person’s motivation – is he concerned about helping others, greedy, or a narcissist?

Moral. What does this person value? Is there an understanding how his or her actions might affect others?

Ethical. What is the character of this person? Is this a principled person with a consciousness of his or her actions? 

This is the lens through which we need to view our leaders, colleagues, even friends and family members when it comes to gauging the probability of change. Of course, we need to remember that no one is perfect and giving the benefit of the doubt is generally better than immediately cutting off relationships. 

But when it comes to the current President, we already had years of answers to the questions in my THEME. We should have been able to avoid the mistake of the fabled frog. I’m referring to the story of the Scorpion and the Frog where the scorpion, unable to swim, asked a frog to ferry it across a river. The frog responded that it was afraid of being stung by the scorpion. The scorpion answered in logical terms: If I sting you, he said, then we’d both drown. Thinking the scorpion wouldn’t risk its own life, the frog allowed the creature on its back. Well, you guessed it. In mid-crossing, the predatory arachnid stung the frog. As they began sinking toward their deaths, the frog asked, “Why?” The scorpion replied, "I couldn't help it. It's who I am." The echo of 2016 Donald Trump is loud and clear.

The frog did ask, though. He questioned. Sadly, he believed the lie. He hoped and trusted when he should have been skeptical and suspicious.

Too few challenged Donald Trump and still don’t, even after all the facts were in plain view: the self-dealing, the hush money, the loyalty tests, the muzzling of scientists, and the targeting of the news media as “enemies of state.” The passivity of some and the enabling by others empowered an unabashed, unaccountable, downright lawless Administration. After hundreds of years of steady though non-linear progress, our country has actually devolved. Americans are worse off now than in decades past. Our people are sicker, more polarized, less trusted. The planet is unhealthier, more fragile, less stable.

It’s not too late to reverse course. The whole country won’t respond right away and some people never will. But what differentiates us as human beings is that we’re able to learn, adapt, and progress. Let’s do that.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me @pauoestreicher.