Monday, November 19, 2012

Lip Service–The Solution to Everything

I had an exchange the other day with someone setting up a new bully awareness campaign in New York.

I was intrigued by this particular program for a number of reasons, including the fact that I was heavily bullied as a child (which I wrote about in my blog entry Mitt Romney, Bullies and Red Herrings) and so bully-prevention is of special interest to me.

As a Fortune 25 strategy advisor, I am wired around measurable outcomes and so I asked what the intention was for this program, to which the reply was that the intention was to raise awareness about bullying.

My response was that we have lots of awareness about bullying – what will the millions of dollars you are about to spend do to help prevent it or help the victims of it?

The creator of the program wasn’t happy with my reply.  In his mind, awareness was what mattered most of all and that was the limit of his vision.

Unfortunately in the 21st century, we have too many programs like this that raise awareness and not enough programs to actually solve problems.

If you disagree, then perhaps you can explain to me why in an enlightened society that has more collective knowledge and more awareness campaigns than ever in our recorded history that we have more problems than ever.

Some personal examples

At one point in my career, I worked for one of the largest software companies in the world.  While it was a great company, we did one thing that intrigued me.

Once every quarter every employee was required to take a 5-minute online course to encourage us to respect diversity of gender, religion, creed, color, sexual orientation and any other lifestyle differences.  We boasted that as an organization, we were doing more to create diversity acceptance than anyone else in the corporate world.

I pointed out that for most of us 30 to 60-something-year-olds, if we haven’t gotten it into our heads how to be respectful to others by now, forcing us to watch a 5-minute video once every 3 months was not going to change anything.  In fact, it was just as likely to make the ignorant more ignorant as they were forced to participate in an educational component that already drew negative emotion from them.

The HR person I mentioned this to thought me of me as a non-team player for the rest of my stay there.  Her success metrics were around how many people watched the video and not how many people were influenced in a positive way after watching it.  The latter was never assessed to determine the impact of the course.

In another example, a colleague a few years ago set up a 10km walkathon to show women in Africa that we in the west felt their pain when it came to the fact that they had to walk 10km to get clean water.

I thought this was a great cause and so I asked what the walkathon was producing.  Was it raising money to drill a well closer to a village so that women wouldn’t have to walk as far to get clean water?  Was it raising awareness so that other people would be inspired to take action to help people get better access to clean water?

“Nope”, the coordinator replied proudly, “The sole purpose is so that the women in that village know that we stand in support of their struggle”.

“Ok”, I reasoned, “but you are only promoting this on Facebook with no funds raised, no large-scale media attention or anything else.  So you are counting on these women in a remote village in the most destitute, desolate part of Africa to:

1. Have electricity

2. Have Internet access

3. Have a Facebook account

4. Know that you are doing this and to go to the right place in Facebook at the right time to witness your statement of camaraderie

5. Care what an overly well-fed white guy in Canada does ONCE to feel good, after which he climbs back into his SUV, goes home and gorges himself on more food in one meal than they will see in a week.”

“But I will feel good about it”, was his response.

Well, if that’s all there is to making a difference in the world, then I have a recommendation:

Let’s all take 5 minutes tomorrow, to think good thoughts or say a prayer for everyone, congratulate ourselves and God for optimizing our contribution to the world  and then go about living a life focused on our own needs instead of fixing the things around us.

Let’s not forget to tell everyone else about how good it felt also, preferably in an awesome display of social media prowess.

Pretty simple solution, isn’t it?

Well … not really.

It takes more than words and intentions

It’s going to take a lot of effort by a lot of people to protect the things we do well in this world and to fix the things we do poorly.

It’s going to take more than a lot of feel-good awareness campaigns where the sole intention is so that we feel good without care as to whether we are making a real, measurable impact.

When people respond to this by saying “but if I helped one, I made a difference” I believe this is a lazy copout.

Why be proud of helping one when with focused, measurable-outcome-based results we could have helped a hundred?

Or a thousand?

Or a million?

Let’s take a look at bully awareness, since it’s a hot topic these days.

Bully awareness campaigns are great, especially when they encourage action and especially when they show the victims that there is support for them.

But showing the victims that “you are loved” is not enough,

Blindly punishing bullies without understanding what motivates them or without trying to help them doesn’t solve bullying either.  For every one we punish, many people suffer in silence at the hands of the many bullies that continue to exist (in ever-increasing numbers). 

In addition, many bullies were created as a result of being bullied themselves. 

There are many victims in the bully puzzle and not just the obvious ones.

Being afraid to drill into what created the bully, including what happens in the home (the breeding ground for many bullies) for fear of violating “privacy rules” or “constitutional rights” dances around a critical cause-and-effect that needs to be understood and addressed.

Laws passed by people who, if you watch them in their legislative chamber at the provincial, state or federal level, exhibit the very essence of bullying that the laws exist to stamp out are also hypocritical.

So awareness without getting to the root cause and what it will take to solve the problem is just another form of feel good entertainment that sells well on the local news or gives us a “make you cry” moment on social media.

If we REALLY want to solve problems in this world, we must tackle them head-on, be audacious in asking difficult questions, allow ourselves to be burned by painful answers, set up success criteria where impact can be measured and be non-compromising when it comes to actually ferreting out the root of the problem and the foundation of the solution.

To do anything else is to offer lip service, a solution that allows us to pat ourselves on the back as if to say “Well, that problem’s solved – where else does the world need our brilliance?”.

It’s the thought that counts …. NOT

Talk is cheap.

Action and results, either by your hand or by the hand of someone you inspire are what matter.

The world is not short of opportunities to make a difference, to bring your talents, gifts and strengths to bear to help someone in need or to raise someone up so that they can help themselves.

What we are short of are people who are willing to do something as opposed to setting up a new cheerleader squad to make us all feel better that the rah rah is producing a result.

Especially if no one can prove definitively what the result actually looks like outside of a lot of good vibes amongst the participants.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding.

Ask the people who need the help whether your rah rah has made a difference, either through your actions or someone who was inspired by your rah rah.

That’s when you will know that your actions speak louder than words.

And you will also know what you need to do to really make a difference in the world.

Otherwise you are just offering lip service.

And of all the shortages we have in the world, lip service is not one of them.

In service and servanthood,


Addendum – November 20, 2012

A member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly is escorted from an arena after abusive behavior and language – and he was the coach of one of the teams.  With role models like this, is it any wonder that young people are having trouble sorting out the whole issue of bullying?

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