Monday, April 07, 2008

Competitive Peaceniks


I just spent the weekend in a conference and AGM of a in which I am active. I was disappointed but not at all surprised when the business meeting turned stressful. Had I given it any thought, I would have predicted exactly this turn of events —on the basis of both my own past experience and of observed behavior on the part of the most prominent member of the organization — a full-time, highly skilled, professional expert in conflict resolution. I saw it coming.

There is a puzzle that has surprised me time after time. Why are peaceniks so often ruthlessly competitive? I believe that they are more so than people in business, academia, the professions, or even perhaps politics itself. And, to be frank, it bugs the hell out of me. I may sound snide here about the self-aggrandizement that I see so often; nevertheless, my negative comments do not negate my overall respect for the peace workers whom I want to criticize.

I don’t say that peaceniks encounter conflict overall more often than people in other fields of work, but rather that the nature of the conflict among them is specific: greed for and recognition, not disputes about substantive issues. And, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room, the status conflict is never named for what it is. The odd thing is that the combatants these days are mainly women, and they inevitably adduce “gender balance” as a rationale for changing the structure of the organization in their own favor.

Fortunately, I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. I am not one of the competitors and would not even accept the contested prominent role if it were offered. But some women have an enormous craving to be recognized as prominent, and this yearning is coupled with considerable competence. They are nice people who mainly perform fairly creditably — often far better than would have been anticipated on the basis of their credentials alone. They are dedicated, hard-working, competent and nice. But gosh, do they ever have !

The signs in this instance became evident almost a year ago. The national organization was founded by two men, who spread the word widely and set up chapters across the country. After the organization’s first AGM in another province, I was invited to a meeting to start up a Toronto chapter. The invitation came from a man whom I had not known before. He was a newcomer to the peace movement, but turned out to be a true gem: absolutely dedicated to the cause, modest, and well-spoken. He has assiduously lobbied parliamentarians about our cause, with excellent results. He expected to chair the Toronto group, but at the first meeting, a woman who had been an activist for many years announced that we needed someone with experience, so she would serve as co-chair. Okay. She has done the job well — though in every case it has been she who has chaired our meetings while her male co-chair amiably accepted a back seat.

This weekend offered new opportunities for a person to chair meetings. Our protagonist took on that role in almost all sessions. Even from the chair, she voiced her own experiences and opinions in every panel discussion. Instead of allowing the audience to present their questions to the panelists (who included several members of parliament), she asked for written questions to be submitted, which she chose and read aloud, often with editorial commentary. The order-keeping function of chairing a meeting became an opportunity for stardom.

I was not surprised to see who else had been chosen to speak on the panels. There are three older women in my city who love to be seen in prominent places. Somehow they are often invited to speak in public events. Now I can see some new younger women who have also joined in the competition for recognition. Listening to their speeches, I had to smile. These youths will soon be giving the older a run for their money, especially since they occupy strategic roles in organizations, which will be highly advantageous ways of justifying their claim for prominence on the basis of .

It was not until the AGM, however, that the true magnitude of this challenge became apparent. Pretty soon a woman not only took the floor, but brought a flip chart to the front, blocking our vision of the two co-chairs who had been running the meeting. From that point on, she took over, without being invited. She proposed an elaborate revamping of the organizational structure by adding two more co-chairs, so as to make four in all — two of whom would be women. The number of board members would be doubled as well, and a secretary-treasurer would be added. No one indicated that the present organization had become inadequate. The revisions were meant only as new channels of upward mobility for certain status-hungry members. In my opinion, the hefty new organizational structure would be a handicap, not a practical help in getting the job done.

After listening with mounting irritation I spoke up, declaring that the changes would be counterproductive and that there was no need for any changes whatever. The self-appointed chairwoman suggested instead that we all do some kind of Quaker meditation because there was stress in the room. We were told to raise our hands whenever each of us felt we had regained control. I am not a . I did not raise my hand, though most other people complied with her suggestion. We took a break. Afterward, it became apparent that there was little support for the insurrection. The co-chairs resumed control of the meeting and smoothly processed the business that had been on the agenda all along.

Why does this sort of thing happen? It certainly proves to be an obstacle to the effectiveness of a new organization, and yet I have seen the same kind of happen time after time. It’s not based on the fight over a substantive issue; it’s simply a reflection of the need for recognition that prevails among peace workers.

Every profession has a competitive side to it. I know the academic scene rather well, though I’ve never tried particularly hard to establish a high status within sociology. I’ve seen it done, and I don’t especially admire it but I cannot say that it’s destructive. With a few exceptions, the scholars who achieve eminence seem not to be motivated by a desire for glory, but rather by an interest in the problems that they are addressing in their research. Administrative roles in the university are usually avoided, rather than sought. I once had such a role forced upon me when no one else would take it on. Most academics would rather be doing their research than receiving awards or chairing committees or departments or even whole universities. We are paid enough to get by comfortably, and after we get tenure we don’t have to look over our shoulders.

Peace activists, on the other hand, have no security and few rewards. They are almost all unpaid, and those who do receive salaries always subsist at poverty levels, supported by some charitable organization or other. The only form of recognition is the status conferred by prominent roles in the organization, or by being asked to speak and represent the movement to the wider world. Moreover, on ideological grounds, their every competitive instinct is supposed to be suppressed. Theoretically, activists all believe in equality.

There’s a significant number of resentful middle-class women in this world who try very hard to serve society in an altruistic way. These are mainly women who have never pursued careers in the business world, where there are standards that declare rather objectively how well one is performing. Their is genuine. I truly respect these women — even those whom I don't especially like.

But I have a solution to propose. It’s facetious, of course, but it might work if taken seriously. People who become peace activists should wear epaulets on their shoulders. Whenever a peace worker licks 10,000 stamps or answers the phone 5,000 times, he or she will get a small silver marker to pin on the . As we get more and more dedicated over time, we acquire bars or even gold stars, just as officers in the military do. You can tell at a glance how much each peace worker has contributed. There will be no need to show off. The persons chosen to chair organizations or speak on panels will therefore be selected on the basis of their expertise or astuteness as a speaker, not their sense of entitlement. We will take the stress out of meetings and let business be conducted without status envy.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Tim said...

You are very funny.

In the workplace, or an AGM, some people are very tied with status. It doesn't matter whether they are getting paid or not, it's a matter of status and being in control. You said it exactly: ego. And because they are not getting paid, there is no status except through leadership and how many people they get to boss around!!!

Volunteerism appears nowadays on a CV and can contain ins to career jobs. For example, if you chair a volunteer committee, that experience will eventually wind up (very positively) on a resume.

Im my professional career, I've seen exactly what you've seen at meetings -- ridiculous attempts to gain control. If someone told me to meditate because the meeting is stressful, I'd make a joke and leave the room. I've been around the block too many times and know what relieves my stress.

Sometimes leaders are just that. They have good leadership skills but don't know the profession; maybe they haven't even contributed that much to the movement. I've learned that my skills are portable. I used to think that I have to know alot about the subject matter to be able to manage people in a subject -- not true. It's the management itself and the experience in management that matters more than the subject matter.

The best of both worlds is when you get someone who knows the subject material (peace) and has worked a long time in the industry and has home-grown leadership skills.

BTW, I am working in the Toronto area for the next few months (Whitby) and I'd love to drop in on you some evening soon.

6:49 PM  
Blogger peacenik said...

I am one of the women to whom you are referring in negative and critical terms. You are entitled to your opinion however in my view it is not productive to publicly shame others who are contributing within an organization to the best of their abilities.

Many of your comments make assumptions about other people’s experience, and you also highlight genuine problems and difficulties. My comments are interspersed with yours below. I am correcting some inaccuracies and offering my take on your interpretations.

… "Had I given it any thought, I would have predicted exactly this turn of events —on the basis of both my own past experience and of observed behavior on the part of the most prominent member of the organization — a full-time, highly skilled, professional expert in conflict resolution. I saw it coming." And there were no other conflict professionals in the room? I and many others in that room have communication and conflict resolution training and are doing our best to contribute based on the skills we have developed. Some people in that room haven’t had this kind of training, but I don’t think any less of them for it.
If, as you say, you saw it coming, and you’ve seen this in other organizations, then why not look at this as a challenge that we learn how to handle this rather than criticize people for it? That is what the skill of facilitation is all about.

"I don't say that peaceniks encounter conflict overall more often than people in other fields of work, but rather that the nature of the conflict among them is specific: greed for status and recognition, not disputes about substantive issues" In my own experience of conflict and conflict resolution one of the principles I use is that if something is an issue for someone, it’s an issue for them, whether it’s an issue for me or not. It’s not for me to make assumptions about a person’s intentions – in fact if I make assumptions, it’s that the person has a positive intent, and there is a need underlying their behaviour that needs to be addressed. Its that we have to understand and respond to. I’m not going to negatively label the intentions of anyone who has hung in there through the months of planning for this, as a volunteer. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t have a positive intent, and a meaningful one. We are all trying to make the world a better place. Sometimes we don’t go at it in the most helpful way and we need opportunities to debrief and give each other feedback about this – in private, not in public. At the business meeting there was a negative tone to some comments that wasn’t needed, and was not helpful, but that doesn’t give me the right to say that another person’s vision of the organization is motivated by greed for status; I just don’t accept that. When it became clear the group did not want to go in the direction suggested this was accepted
I do regret that we didn’t spend more time in advance of the business session as a planning group in thinking about what would be the challenges and how to handle them. That said, we did recover from the difficulties.

… "some women have an enormous craving to be recognized as prominent, and this yearning is coupled with considerable competence. They are nice people who mainly perform fairly creditably — often far better than would have been anticipated on the basis of their credentials alone. They are dedicated, hard-working, competent and nice. But gosh, do they ever have egos!"
You are making some positive statements about competence and performance, but then detracting from this by bringing in the issue of credentials. You express surprise that some women whom (you assume) are not professionally trained actually have developed their competence based on life experience. Sorry but I find that elitist. Not everyone has access to professional academic programs, or chooses to go that route. It doesn’t mean they don’t have skills and can’t contribute. All of us can benefit from taking training at various times in our lives, but whether we have taken certain training or not, does not mean we can’t or shouldn’t contribute based on the skills we have developed.
In a democratic organization, people are allowed and encouraged to express what they need to say – which should be done in a respectful manner.
As far as recognition, everyone has a need for recognition, and when people do well, it’s nice to give them that recognition.

..." The invitation came from a man whom I had not known before. He was a newcomer to the peace movement, but turned out to be a true gem: absolutely dedicated to the cause, modest, and well-spoken. He expected to chair the Toronto group, but at the first meeting, a woman who had been an activist for many years announced that we needed someone with experience, so she would serve as co-chair. Okay. She has done the job well — though in every case it has been she who has chaired our meetings while her male co-chair amiably accepted a back seat."
Have you asked this person if he expected to chair the meetings? It seems like you are presuming to speak for him. We’ve had a very good working relationship and he told me today when I asked him he had no problem with the way we worked together. If you wanted to see the chairing rotate, why didn’t you bring that up at a meeting during the many months leading up to the event? Or outside of the meetings? How long have you nursed this resentment without expressing your concern? This person in fact told me that he was very appreciative that some of us in the group had experience organizing events, as he is new to this work. He of course has made a huge contribution to the organization through his outreach with MPs which has been nothing short of amazing. People can play different roles and sometimes people stick with a role for a period of time and sometimes they alternate. It is healthy to look now and then at the group’s functioning and consider if we want to change the way we do things. Now that we are recovering after an intense event is a good time to revisit the way we work together, appreciate the positive, and make changes if people want to do that.

"This weekend offered new opportunities for a person to chair meetings. Our protagonist took on that role in almost all sessions. Even from the chair, she voiced her own experiences and opinions in every panel discussion. Instead of allowing the audience to present their questions to the panelists (who included several members of parliament), she asked for written questions to be submitted, which she chose and read aloud, often with editorial commentary. The order-keeping function of chairing a meeting became an opportunity for stardom."
Metta, this is factually inaccurate, it’s wrong. I facilitated the roundtable on Friday night following the keynote speaker, and the first plenary on Saturday morning. The co-chairs facilitated the second morning session before lunch, during the afternoon, and Sunday. So I did NOT chair almost all sessions As far as the Friday night model, it was agreed on by the group in advance that this is the way we would do it. We modeled it as best we could on Steve Paiken’s roundtables. (We invited him but he declined.) I did not choose the questions, except for asking for the first one to be from the student group there. They were handed to me. We didn’t want to do the usual type of line up at a microphone, we chose a different model. Clearly you didn’t like it. I got a lot of positive feedback and I thought it worked well. It’s fine if you had a different take on it, but it is not okay to make it out that this was all because of me.
"I was not surprised to see who else had been chosen to speak on the panel... There are three older women in my city who love to be seen in prominent places. Somehow they are often invited to speak in public events."
Why do you want to publicly criticize women who have given decades of their life to work for peace? Such people are not easily replaced I can assure you. Two of the women you seem to be thinking of are providing an invaluable service as peace group representatives in time consuming drawn out public processes that those of us who are working can’t even attend (meetings during the day), As far as need for recognition, it’s a natural human need, and we just need to keep it in balance with the group as a whole. That’s where feedback is helpful. I could say more on this when we talk.

…. "She proposed an elaborate revamping of the organizational structure by adding two more co-chairs, so as to make four in all — two of whom would be women. The number of board members would be doubled as well, and a secretary-treasurer would be added. No one indicated that the present organization had become inadequate."
Metta, you weren’t in on the planning phone calls or the exchange of emails regarding structure. These issues WERE raised in advance, and it was suggested that people bring them to the meeting. Some people do want to see the organization change. After it became clear the group as a whole didn’t support that at this time this was accepted. We hardly had the time it would take to make a decision, but the ideas were recorded for future consideration., Maybe we could have anticipated this difficulty if we had spent more time on planning the Sunday agenda, but we had a lot to think about in advance. The woman you are referring to stepped in when tension was rising. The co-chairs wisely let her offer her approach to clarifying the issues and finding a way to move forward. If you ask them, they will tell you this was fine with them.

..."After listening with mounting irritation I spoke up, declaring that the changes would be counterproductive and that there was no need for any changes whatever." That is your view, others in the room did feel a need for change. That’s when a facilitator has a challenge..
"The self-appointed chairwoman suggested instead that we all do some kind of Quaker meditation because there was stress in the room…. The co-chairs resumed control of the meeting"
The person suggesting a few quiet moments is not a Quaker (she just knew this to be a method used in Quaker meetings). She was drawing upon a technique open to anyone to defuse conflict. Was it so terrible to be quiet for a few minutes, or just unfamiliar, and in your view, unnecessary? I think it helped.

"Why does this sort of thing happen? It certainly proves to be an obstacle to the effectiveness of a new organization, and yet I have seen the same kind of power-grab happen time after time. It's not based on the fight over a substantive issue; it's simply a reflection of the need for recognition that prevails among peace workers."
How we are perceived in public and issues of representation and voice in the organization ARE substantive issues for many people. For you, it’s not substantive. But for others it is. What I felt as a need that day was to recognize the major work that the co-chairs have done to get the organization to this point as well as be open to new ideas. Conflict in a growing organization is to be expected. Facilitators call this cycle: ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ and the challenge for facilitators is to move people from ‘storming’ – expressing new ideas and differences in a challenging way – to ‘norming’ – establishing the ways the group will work together. Making decisions together when people are just getting to know each other can be difficult, it is much harder for the group than presentation sessions.
…, "the scholars who achieve eminence seem not to be motivated by a desire for glory, but rather by an interest in the problems that they are addressing in their research...Most academics would rather be doing their research than receiving awards or chairing committees or departments or even whole universities. …"
How can you judge that scholars are not motivated by glory but peace activists are? I hardly think that peace activists get tons of recognition in the normal state of things. I’ve been a peace activist for forty years, it goes right back to high school, and I’m sure as heck not motivated by rewards, financial or otherwise, but by concerns over the world we are leaving our children.

..."Peace activists, on the other hand, have no security and few rewards. They are almost all unpaid, and those who do receive salaries always subsist at poverty levels, supported by some charitable organization or other." .. Now you are onto something here. Peace work is mostly unpaid. Yet achieving a peaceful future is absolutely vital. We cannot continue to have billions and trillions spent on war. We need to demonstrate that investing in programs such as peace education, unarmed peacekeeping, leadership development with youth, tackling nuclear disarmament, and involving women in peacebuilding are worthwhile initiatives that can have practical positive results. A tiny percentage of the current military budgets from around the world would be enough to meet all of the Millenium Development Goals established by the UN. We need to end war, and use the funds to build peaceful societies and environmental sustainability. The only way this will happen is if we work together to press for this.

…"Theoretically, activists all believe in equality…."
.
We do try to bring our best values into our work. We all have different personalities, different gifts, and different challenges present themselves in our learning how to work together. The important thing in my view is that we be learners. We all make mistakes, none of us is perfect, but I don’t see the need to excoriate anyone over a mistake. I’d rather see us learn from it.

..."There's a significant number of resentful middle-class women in this world who try very hard to serve society in an altruistic way. These are mainly women who have never pursued careers in the business world, where there are standards that declare rather objectively how well one is performing. Their altruism is genuine. I truly respect these women — even those whom I don't especially like"
This I find patronizing. As explained above many of us are professionals in our field. Those of us who have worked in the nonprofit sector have also had to meet standards, accept feedback, learn and grow in our work whether paid or unpaid. All of us who engage as volunteers are altruistic, donating our time to causes we believe in.. It’s nice for you to express respect but you rather undo it with your next statement ‘even those I don’t especially like’; why add a negative after a positive?
..."The persons chosen to chair organizations or speak on panels will therefore be selected on the basis of their expertise or astuteness as a speaker…" Okay, then those with years of experience should have taken a leadership role in this event? That’s exactly what happened. And there were many leaders in this event, one person could never have pulled it off, it was a team effort.

I notice that there is no mention here of the outstanding work of our intern-organizer who really made this whole event come together. Surely it wasn’t perfect however there is much to appreciate. I am surprised that you are not balancing your criticism with appreciation.

We had an amazing group of volunteers who helped during the conference. We were supported by an amazing group of people across the country who believe in this initiative. Let’s appreciate and support them, and yes, let’s recognize their contributions. And let’s move forward together.

8:01 AM  

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