Do, Lead, Help, Nudge or Watch
In your life, whether it is at work, in volunteering or wherever, you can
often see a whole set of activities going on or where some action are needed. A
way to look at these are as 'projects', where there is an intended outcome
following a certain amount of work. These 'projects' can be of any size, from a
few minutes to several years. A critical question for you (or a group you are
in) is 'What should I/we do about it?' Here are five options.
Sometimes all you need is to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. When
something clearly needs doing the best approach is to do it rather than talk
When you are going to do something, either taking the lead or doing it all
yourself, there are three questions to ask:
1. Do I have the energy for this? (Or might I give up?)
2. Do I have the resources I will need? (From money to wheelbarrows)
3. Do I have the support I will need? (Including practical help and formal
Particularly when we fear failure or criticism, we can get lost in the safety
of meeting, talking and planning. While it is usually good to communicate,
sometimes all you need to do is say 'I'm doing X. Did anyone want to join me'.
Then just get on with it.
Some jobs you can do yourself. Other work is just too much for one or needs
the expertise, resources or influence of other people. In voluntary contexts and
where you do not have direct authority, this means you will need to influence
others, motivating them to join your cause.
Leadership is a highly skilled activity, but if you are good at it you can
get a lot done. It means being able to see both the big picture and how all the
parts work together. It also means building such good relationships with the
people involved that they want to help you and one another succeed.
At other times the project may not be yours to do. Perhaps you lack the
energy to lead it or someone else already has the bit between their teeth.
Perhaps you as, have been asked to help using our expertize, or maybe they want
a bit of extra grunt work during a critical period.
Whatever the reason, on these types of projects you are a helper, not a
leader. This makes life a bit easier as you do not have to chase people and be
at every meeting. You can hence just do your bit and leave the worrying to other
In some projects you may have no active role, yet still have a concern for
the outcomes of the work. This can be frustrating, as you want to steer the ship
yet are neither the captain not the crew.
This is the position of the activist. Typically with concerns for social
issues, they agitate, irritate and work to influence the decisions of those in
power. Lobbyists, too, seek to nudge, cajole or otherwise influence the
Sometimes you have little influence, but are still interested in what is
going on, for example so you can prepare for the outcome or discuss it with
others. In such projects, you should just sustain a watching brief. Get hooked
into information streams as you can, such as email distribution lists, notice
boards, etc. and then just keep an eye on things.
If necessary, you can change your status on a 'Watch' project, for example if
you become concerned that things are being done wrong or that your interests are
not being examined,
Organizing for local support and action
I work with a local 'town team' organization, whose goal is to help the local
community improve. Our strapline is 'better together' and we want to make the
town and area 'a great place to live, work and visit'.
Our challenge is that other local groups are rather inward-looking, concerned
about their own affairs and unwilling to take the larger picture or look out
into the future. Changing minds happens at every meeting and we need to be
careful to keep our stakeholders happy. When you live in a small town, you can
easily alienate many people with one bit of carelessness.
We were having the classic 'who are we' discussion the other day and I
summarized the possible organizational role into an increasing level of
1a. Facilitating conversations. We did this in bringing together
various groups from the county council to disability and cycling people to
discuss a project to repave the high street. To be successful, this requires
that we achieved a position of trust, sitting between all parties, which means
not giving preference to any one, of helping everyone to be heard and holding
back those who want to dominate. Facilitation in general means holding lots of
conversations, helping people speak and listen to others. It means holding back
1b. Local activism. In some work we have taken the position of experts
and cheerleaders. For example in the high street project, some of our members
pushed for particular solutions. Contrary to the facilitation role, this may
mean being partisan. It may lead some people we work with to not want future
involvement with us. It may mean other groups feel we are treading on their
turf. This oppositional dynamic means activism requires lots of energy to push
through resistance, wear down the opposition and enthuse others to join in.
There also seems a choice between this and facilitation. While we could do both,
the dynamics of trust would make this difficult.
2. Volunteer projects. The easy way to get things done is to do them
yourself. A simple example was when we got together to clean up a rather tatty
car park. This role needs far less interaction with others, other than to find
people to help and ensuring any opposition is minimized. It is a good way to get
successes under the belt and evidence that we are a force for good. People like
to associate with success, making this approach a good way to attract other
3. Funded projects. In making improvements around the town, some
things will need money, for anything from a bit of cement to paying for
contractors to do major work. We did a presentation day for the town that needed
money to hire the hall, print literature and so on. We would also like to do
bigger things, from improving sports facilities to setting up a catering
college. To do this means finding and managing money. It means understanding
grant systems, how to apply for funds and keeping the funders happy as you use
their money. This needs a prudent organization with the systems and expertize to
attract and handle funds.
4. Managed projects. A step beyond getting funding which typically
goes straight to a supplier, is to become more involved in the project, actively
managing what is going on. We have not got to this as yet, but other town teams
are doing such activities and it becomes necessary when funded projects require
more active involvement. When you are a volunteer, becoming a manager can
increase significantly the time you need to spend on the project, especially if
you are managing the activities of other people. It turns helping when you can
to working as you must. Even if you employ a professional project manager, you
still need to manage the work of this person. It typically will require more
formal project meetings, risk management, reporting and all the other aspects of
5. Managed services. The highest level of activity that we have
considered is in musing about the future, for example where local councils are
seeking to divest responsibility for local assets such as parks and town
buildings. In such cases the assets would be given to local trusts who would
then become responsible for their upkeep. Managing projects is a short-term
activity with a clear end goal. Managing services is ongoing work, quite
possibly with permanent employees and contractors, and requires a long-term
Which path we take, whether to stay at the lower levels or reach into more
active roles, will depend first on the energy and consequent commitment we can
The polarisation of society and a way back to
Have you noticed that
politics has got rather fractious of late? Politicians are taking extreme
views and refusing to work with one another. Little real work gets done amid the
fruitless cat fight, which contributes further to electorate contempt. And not
content with that, in-party schisms are commonplace, often as ever-more radical
wings rip away at the traditional body as toleration gives way to right or left
wing ideals. The electorate, too, split and raucous, see opposition politicians
and their supporters as bad and even evil, rather than wrong and misguided.
This intolerance is also seen in society and religion and may even be seen in
terrorism and consequent reactions. The internet, too, is bound up in this
malaise. Anonymity and remoteness enabled extreme views to be expressed without
fear of recrimination. Indeed, the simple buzz of power that trolls get from
being nasty reflects our basest nature. Social media has also encouraged more
extreme views in the shock-horror of gossip. In the search for affirmation, we
band together into online tribes where we stroke one another's egos and attack
out-group others lest we, too, are castigated for not being true enough to
friends and tribal values.
Polarization is a
classic us-vs-them tactic, where taking an extreme position casts those who are
not like us at the other extreme, making them clearly 'not us'. This extreme
psychological distance enables us demonize and dehumanize them, reducing them to
faceless 'things', such that we can harshly criticize them, unfettered by common
decency and social values that constrain our interaction with humans.
In other words, polarization is an easy short cut for the lazy and
thoughtless who need approval more than reason. It is also the refuge of the
insecure, who find the complexity of the real world too much to handle.
Polarization can also be seen in the distribution of wealth, at least in the
'western world', where there has been a gradual return to elitism with the '1%'
super-rich, more people struggling to get by, and a general collapse of the
middle classes. Where once a booming middle class with enough wealth for some
luxuries was an aspirational possibility for many, now it has been eroded to the
point where markers of affluence, for example home ownership, are becoming more
and more of a distant possibility.
When you take away hope,
you get hopelessness, and while some resign themselves to this fate, enough
others are rebelling and may yet become a powerful political force, where the
have-nots face off against the minority haves. For a long time the political
right have fooled many with emotional appeals and empty promises that play to
their fears, yet there also is a rising anger that is finding a voice of its
Moderation comes from appreciating and accepting others, but it also draws
criticism from the righteous extremists. To be moderate means you cannot be
mild. Handling complexity and intolerance takes fortitude of spirit. In the
middle ground you cannot dehumanize as you seek true understanding. It means
negotiating, giving and taking, and sometimes accepting situations that seem a
The pressures of an ever-faster life leads steadily from moderation to the
easier extremes where we only have to look in one direction. Yet that polarized
position brings new dangers. In a moderate society you can
trust most people, even those
who are not like you, to be civil and kind. But when things polarize, you see
enemies at the gate and even inside the citadel. Where the defining emotion of
moderation is love, fear rules the polarized.
So how do we get back? How do we create a kinder, more considerate society.
The hardest first step is to stop fearing others, which leads to hating less.
Yes, when you extend your hand to those who you have reviled, they may well try
to bite it. But then moderation is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage
and conviction to face critics from all quarters without slipping back into more
And yet. Many of us know and prefer moderation. We consider kindness and
civil society a great thing. Yet our fears hold us back. The good news is that
society is more of a pendulum than a weight that drags us inevitably down.
Moderate leaders will emerge and the silent majority will gratefully swing
The only question is where you will be in this movement.
Understanding American Politics: It's Self vs
Social, not Haves vs Have nots
A classic understanding of the political system in America (and generally in
Western, democratic countries) is of the Haves vs the Have-nots. But this is not
accurate, even as a simple model.
Classically, the Haves sit on the political right. In America they are called
Republicans. Elsewhere they are called Conservatives. They have most of the
money, and are focused on keeping it and getting more. In life, they are the
senior managers and business owners (or perhaps their families). They like power
but not taxes. They live expensively and away from the common people.
In opposition, the classic Have-nots are on the political left. In America
they vote Democrat. Elsewhere they may be called Labour. They have relatively
little money and are focused on survival. They live close to one another in
small houses. They gain power through banding together in large numbers. When in
power, they seek to protect jobs and increase welfare.
Yet if this was the simple truth, a democracy would always be run by
Democrats. By definition, there are many more Have-nots than Haves. So what's
A key factor is that there are third and fourth groups.
The Haves can be broken into two groups. The Have-lots are the 1% elites who
are wealthy enough to buy much of what they want without worrying about cost.
They may have inherited wealth, been successful in business or been in a
high-paying job for many years. In politics, they are likely to be Republican,
where they seek low taxes and limited regulation. Their concern for others is
seen in their foundations and charity balls. Tax-deductible, of course.
The Have-enoughs are the classic middle classes who have achieved the
aspirational independence, picket-fenced home and all. They work hard in
professional jobs or as reasonably successful business owners. They live
comfortably but are still prudent. Politically, they may well be Democrats, with
liberal views around preserving the environment and helping those less fortunate
than themselves. They may also be aspirational to become a Have-lots (or fear
becoming. Have-little) and so adopt a Republican position.
The Have-nots can also be divided into two. The real Have-nots are actually
Have-nothings as and include vagrants, those on welfare and those who depends on
charity. The may fall into this category for various reasons, including being
runaways, having disabilities, and having fallen on hard times despite doing
their best to support themselves (and possibly dependents too). While not a
small group, they are not huge either and often lack direct political power.
Their cause is often championed by those in higher groups, most typically
Democrats. The Have-nots are unlikely to be politically active and may not even
have voting rights (which means they are not attractive to political parties).
A large group who are often called Have-nots are more accurately Have-littles.
These are the mass who work in low-paid jobs and for who life is a touch-and-go
struggle as they try to avoid becoming a Have-not. They include people who have
worked hard for many years and who are tired and disillusioned. In political
communications they get patronising labels, such as 'hard working families'
which tacitly recognizes the survival trap that keeps them near the bottom of
A further group that spans several levels are the 'Vulnerables' and include
all groups containing people who can be the recipient of bias and unfair
treatment. These include migrants, ethnic and religious groups, those with
different sexual preferences, people with disabilities, women, older people and
so on. Their disadvantages can be a spur to action when they define their lives
through fighting through adversity. In this way they can become Have-enoughs
and, occasionally, Have-lots. Overall, though, they are largely spread through
the Have-littles and into the Have-nothings.
While opportunity still exists, it's not what it was. A common experience is
of hard-working Have-littles losing their jobs as globalization led to cheap
imports and industrial wastelands. Where they can, many have clung on in
lower-paid and insecure jobs, as zero-hours contracts and the 'gig economy offer
them scant lifelines. And, to add insult to injury, they see Vulnerables getting
preferential treatment as liberal-minded Have-enoughs implement 'fair' policies
that erode what little advantage they had. Vulnerables get welfare as the Have-littles
struggle to make ends meet and, paradoxically, seethe at the unfairness of it
all. Women and people of ethnic and diverse groups get promoted as positive
action policies rebalance management ranks. To add insult to injury, Have-littles
may see Environmental, health and safety laws as laudable but dangerous as they
destroy jobs and are yet another thing that gets treated as more important than
the ignored Have-littles.
A paradox of the Have-littles is that while they might be expected to vote
Democrat, many vote Republican. This is the Republicans' secret sauce. By
selling an anti-liberal message, promising greater security, and crafting
evocative emotional appeals, including against welfare and environmentalism,
they acquire a rich harvest of votes. While this may not be popular with
Vulnerables, it gives voice to the fears of the many non-vulnerable Have-littles,
in particular communities which are dominated by non-vulnerable men whose
authority is accepted by others around them.
This creates an interesting skipping pattern, where Republicans skip liberal
Have-enoughs in pursuit of the Have-little majority, while the Have-enough
Democrats skip many of the Have-littles to try and help the more deserving
Vulnerables and Have-nothings. A reverse effect happens too, as the Have-littles
envy and rail against Have-enoughs who are their immediate seniors or an
annoyingly well-paid professional, from dentists to consulting engineers.
Out-of-reach Have-lots, however, are idealized and idolized as celebrities and
potential champions who will save the Have-littles, just as the Have-enoughs
seek to save others.
The perception of fairness has a particularly polarizing result as different
groups believe themselves entirely right in wanting what they think is fair.
Have-lots think it fair that they keep their high but hard-won incomes and to
run their businesses as they think fit. Democrats seek a balanced fairness,
where Vulnerables get special treatment to compensate for the bias they receive
(Vulnerables of course agree with this). Have-littles want jobs and to not be
the victim of Democratic bias that gives Vulnerables unfair advantage.
An electoral dilemma with Have-littles and Vulnerables is that their
disillusionment with politicians and the state means that many do not vote. This
can harm political parties, particularly when a significant community leans
towards one or another party. Ethnic groups, for example, are far more likely to
vote Democrat. If such groups can be energized, for example as done differently
by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, they can have a huge electoral impact.
Taking this slightly larger segmentation, we can question again the rationale
for voting Democrat or Republican. Have-lots Republicans want to keep their
millions so want low tax. They also like few regulations that constrain their
businesses. Have-lots and Have-enough Republicans fear losing their lifestyle
and the crime that threatens this. Have-little Republicans just want more
security, which translates first into decent jobs. They often live in tough
areas and so also fear crime.
Have-some Democrats take a wider, more social view. Have-little Democrats
feel their plight more as a community, for example being oppressed because of
the shade of their skin. Their concern extends further than the self and more
into social concerns.
A simple conclusion is that the Republicans appeal to the basic human drivers
of fear (Have-littles) and greed (Have-lots) while Democrats have the more
difficult task of appealing to compassion (Have-enoughs) and community
(Have-nothings). Why? Because fear and greed have a self- or family-focus, while
compassion and community appeal to those who are other-focused or we-focused.
Yes, it is a simplification. There are socially-minded Republicans and
selfish Democrats. Yet Self vs Social makes more sense as a characterizing model
than Haves vs Have-nots, as discussed above.
A further way of understanding this is in the collision between capitalism
and democracy. Capitalism encourages wealth and the self-based view. It rewards
individual success and assumes social concern will naturally arise from this.
Democracy is the check on capitalist selfishness. While people may still be
selfish, the public nature of democracy encourages a strong social concern.
What does this mean for politicians? For Democrats who seek to address
natural Democrats, they should appeal to social values and ethics. To appeal to
those with Republican leanings, they should make financial and security appeals.
Meanwhile Republicans might woo Democrats by emphasizing community and the
Self, short-term and stupidity: the unholy
We live in strange times where these three factors seem to be in the
ascendant. They also make for dangerous times as many in power seem hell-bent on
narrow, self-serving actions that take little account of the wider impact.
A basic dimension of personality is the extent to which people focus on their
own needs as opposed to those of other people. In practice, many of us swing
along this scale, sometimes being generous and sometimes selfish. This pendulum
is affected by how comfortable we are. When we feel the tension of fear or
greed, we swing towards ourselves. When we feel safe and comfortable, we are
more likely to be kinder, though the anchor of self can hinder even this.
As such, the 'self' may extend to family, close friends and ideals that support
and legitimize unkind actions. For example a nationalist, patriotic position can
be used to justify racist and xenophobic actions.
Selfishness becomes particularly dangerous when those in power are driven
more by their own ends than social concerns. When they don't care who they
trample on, when they consider deceit a useful tool, and when they bludgeon
rather than finesse, then everyone else suffers.
When thinking about the future we easily discount the likely effect of our
actions, assuming risks will not happen and trivializing arguments that do not
support us. Thinking about the wider impact of our actions can also be something
of an inconvenience when this highlights how our ideas are flawed, damaging or
just plain wrong.
Being in power can make a person reactive as they grab at every opportunity
without concern for the future. With power aplenty, it is easy to feel they can
handle problems that may arise from their actions, for example by blaming others
or ignoring complaints. Where the thought of social disapproval keeps many of us
on the straight and narrow, the powerful treat others with disdain.
Education is not the best predictor of success, particularly not wealth and
influence. Determination and a willingness to bend the rules are how many get
there. Also, if you try to be too perfect, too kind or are too concerned about
the approval of others, your career ceiling is likely to be limited.
While 'stupidity' may be an emotionally charged word, it can describe well
the decisions and actions of the powerful. When they equate success with their
when they punish disagreement, or when they are selfish and think short-term, then
their decisions may seem wise at first yet turn out to be very foolish.
Outputs, Outcomes and Success in Work and Life
A common concern in businesses is to be efficient, doing only things that add
value. This leads to a concern for process, where every step is explicitly
defined and then refined in order to create the perfect output, every time.
Specifications for deliverables are drawn up and quality assessed as
'conformance to specification', with precise test metrics as proof.
While this is perfect for some processes, many activities do not easily
succumb to analysis. Yet the allure of easy perfection and lower costs has led
to such methods being used in inappropriate places and ways. Anything to do with
changing minds is a classic example and perhaps none more so than in teaching.
In the past 20 years, schools have taken to business methods as a way to get
better and consistent results, yet 'teaching to the test' is a long way from
Rather than look at short-term outputs, a better consideration of real
success is to consider longer-term outcomes. For businesses, this includes
measures such as customer loyalty, where customers keep coming back for more and
recommend you to their friends. In high school teaching a useful outcome measure
might be success at university or even happiness in later life.
To work at the outcome level, rather than think 'does the product conform to
specifications', look further down the line and ask questions such as 'How will
they use what we delivered?' and 'What is the total value over time'. Of course
customers will be happy when you deliver the goods, but their initial happiness
has more to do with novelty and gratitude than an appreciation of lifetime
Emotional mugging and exchange moaning
Do you like to have a good moan, perhaps complaining about how tough your
life is or about the idiots who are somehow in charge. I do too, though I know
it comes at a cost and, like most of us, I try not to be too negative, too much.
But not everyone is like this.
I heard a chap on a bus recently telling the person next to him that his wife
had died. Having gained a sympathetic comment, he then launched into a long and
gory description, not noticing his sympathizer squirming in discomfort. I felt
sorry for both of them. Later, as I paused by his seat, he told me he had
shingles. Again, the sympathy and inappropriate detail scenario played out. I
felt trapped, but at least could retreat internally into a calmer analysis mode.
I still felt sorry for him, but not as much and in a different way.
Why? Why do people do this, projecting their discomfort and dislike onto and
willing (or unwilling) listeners.
A core social value is that we must be kind to vulnerable people and those
less fortunate than ourselves. In fact in the rules of give and take, these
victims of life have a pass that allows them to take more than they give. It is
all about total fairness. If life has dealt you a poor deal on one hand, we
agree it is only fair you get other things to improve the balance.
The problem comes when people play on this social rule, using a personal
problem or distress as a bargaining chip to demand more than their fair share.
In a social sense, this can be viewed as a criminal act, a 'smash-and-grab'
emotional mugging that demands all without consideration of what the other
person is able to give or how bad they will subsequently feel.
Relationships, once established, change slowly. This includes the balance of
give and get. This is one reason why chronic moaners often lead with a
complaint. Beyond filtering out those unwilling to give, it sets the precedent
of 'I moan, you sympathize'. Any attempt by the listener to claim their turn at
moaning is repelled with little sympathy, interruption, and a competitive 'my
life is worse than your life' escalation into even more terrible woes.
But not all moaning is like this. A more common and acceptable approach is
'give to get', where you first gain social capital by being kind and listening
to the moans of others before unloading your own woes. Much conversation is like
this, where we take turns to complain about everything from the weather to our
There is an effective points system in moaning, based on the emotional toll
on recipients. Major distress is high value, while minor grumbles spend very
little. There may also be further rules about what you can reveal, for example
not talking about major distress in casual settings, or complaining to the
emotionally fragile. It is these additional rules that the criminal moaners
ignore as they call loudly on the basic obligation to help those in need.
Moaning, done well, can be good for a relationship. Sometimes we moan in
sympathy, effectively saying 'Like you, I have similar pains. This brings us
closer together and increases trust, so you can feel good around me.' In such
ways, moaning can build friendship as we share vulnerabilities, common distress
and build trust. We can even kick off the moaning, but then stopping to let the
other person have their turn. Even if they do not return the moan, they may feel
good to be trusted enough to be treated as a confidante.
So moan away, but do so with care. Beware of losing yourself in your moan.
Beware also of vampire moaners who would suck the will to live from you. Find a
balance that works and indulge in a bit of friendly exchange moaning.
Bringing up your children - a few things I've
learned (sometimes the hard way)
I had a conversation recently about bringing up children. It's a remarkably
difficult thing. I've got two kids and wish I could have my time again. Here’s
some of the things I learned:
- Teach them values when they are young and, even if they go off the rails,
they will return to these.
- Look for the ‘teachable moments’ when they are ready to listen and learn. If
they’re not ready, you’ll only be banging your head against a brick wall.
- Listen to their teachers and collaborate with them. How they behave in school
is not necessarily how they behave at home.
- Make sure you have time for them. When they approach, stop what you are doing
and give them full attention. Plan ‘quality time’ with them.
- Asking them questions works better than telling them what’s what. Drawing out
the answer from them takes longer, but works so much better.
- Watch body language. It can tell you more than they say.
- Keep showing them that you love them, even if you don’t like all the things
that they do.
- Look for the positives and praise these. Say what you like about what they’ve
done, rather than just saying ‘well done’.
- Praise the effort more than the result. Encourage experimentation and a
positive, inquiring approach to failure.
- Touch them (appropriately, of course). Hug them. Pat them on the back. Human
contact is much maligned and helps to bring people closer.
- Model how you want them to be. Don’t respond to anger with anger. Be honest
even when a little fib is easy. Show your humanity. Own up to failure or even
the possibility of it.
- Read books on child development but don’t force-fit the child into a
particular model. Understanding people is not simple.
- Beware of things becoming about what you want rather than what they
- Watch yourself in your interactions. Get feedback from others about the
dynamic between you and your kids.
- Do your best for them, It's all you can do. In the end, you have to let
them live their own lives, including making mistakes.
- Use what works. If something doesn’t work, change how you do it or try
- Be endlessly patient and supportive. All this can take a long, long time.
If you have children and are making new year's resolutions, one of the best
resolutions you can make is to change how you work with them to help resolve
problems of the past and to help your children.
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