Go Deep, Not Thin, to Win


In the 30 years I have worked as a therapist, I have had intense conversations with CEOs, union leaders, academics, business owners, housewives, geeks and non-geeks, baristas, consultants and unemployed, young and old people, Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and whites; the very wealthy, middle-class, poor, and destitute. I have tried to help, and have helped, thousands of people.

Eleven years ago, I co-founded a non-profit organization committed to building the power of progressives to win. My colleague, Larry McNeil, had been an organizer for 30 years. His practice led him to have thousands of conversations with leaders. We discovered common ground. We were both trying to move people to change, and we both had come to some firm and unshakeable conclusions about the human person. Two paths, same conclusions.

The first axiom to come from this collaboration is that logic, rationality and facts are overrated. If people made personal and political choices in accordance with their objective self-interest and in alignment with objective reality, the current Republican Party wouldn’t have a fraction of its power, global warming would stop, and oil company executives would be sharing jail cells with many of the senior partners of Goldman Sachs. Instead, too many people—citizens—are either passive and cynical or are irrationally drawn to movements and ideologies that seek to create a world directly opposed to their self-interest.

This isn’t a news flash to smart progressives. We know a lot about the power of money and the conservative echo chamber. We also know that people act from wellsprings of emotions, values and non-conscious fears and longings much more than they do from rational calculations of costs and benefits that, in an ideal world, should underlie their relationship to politics and social change.

Our view is that successful leaders, organizations and social movements are doomed unless they fully embrace these insights: 

1) People act from their hearts as much or more than their heads and are often unaware that they are doing so;

2) Non-economic needs for meaning, connectedness, recognition, and agency are every bit as important as economic needs, and;

3) Building healthy organizations and mobilizing huge numbers of people to acquire political power require understanding and addressing these “softer” and more intimate longings in every area and at every level of our work.

6 Progressive Biases That Keep Us from Winning

In our experience, progressives can’t seem to shed certain old biases in order to fully explore the consequences of broadening their appreciation of the real needs and interior conflicts that animate human beings.  These biases are evident everywhere in our leaders, staffs, members, organizations, and movements:

Bias #1: If you tell people the truth about the true causes of what ails them, they will want to join you in a movement for change.

Unfortunately, there is hardly a shred of evidence that supports this belief and a mountain that challenges it.

Bias #2:You can’t really systematically address people’s needs for recognition, meaning and community until you address their need for economic security.

The psychological literature, as well as the history of social change movements, decisively put the lie to this belief.

Bias #3:The spiritual impulses that animate many people to connect with something bigger than them, something transcendent, have been successfully hijacked by the Christian Right, and thus our only recourse is to redouble our efforts to keep “God” out of politics.

In fact, every spiritual tradition supports a progressive agenda as much or more than a conservative one, and our secularism risks sacrificing connections with millions of open-minded “believers.”

Bias #4:In the absence of time and both financial and human resources, progressives have no choice but to simply work harder, put in longer hours, and sacrifice more of their personal lives for the cause.

Sadly, we have repeatedly seen that the martyr culture that so often flows from this mistaken belief in so many progressive organizations creates debilitating burnout, inefficiency, high turnovers, and a devastating impairment in creativity and passion.

Bias #5:Young activists and others who don’t want to give up their lives for the cause are ultimately seen as more selfish than “we” were, and so become viewed as only ephemeral resources in our organizations. 

The tragedy of this bias is that, in contrast, many organizations on the Right, including the large mega-churches, set a low bar for entry and engagement—meeting people where they are “at,” not where they “should be”--and are growing as a result.

Bias #6: The necessity and obvious value of progressive leaders learning to take risks, think big, act boldly, and encourage experimentation while tolerating failures is given lip service, but is then undermined by assertions of limited resources and complaints about the constant demand on progressives to play defense against the relentless attacks of the Right. 

In fact, these are often simply rationalizations that cover up the great fear progressive leaders have about being bold and visionary, a fear based on insecurities about failure. These insecurities then often become manifested in a perverse psychic comfort in being the underdog rather than in shooting high and potentially acquiring and deploying real power. 

Most of these biases have been acquired honestly and often reflect a partially correct view of reality. Ultimately, though, they are based on false beliefs about what really makes people tick; they cover up fears under the guise of principles; they assume that what “is” is the way things are “supposed to be,” and as a result, are unwittingly at the heart of what makes our leaders, organizations and movement weak.

The Truth of the Matter

Here are some of the countervailing truths about motivation that have potentially profound implications for progressives:

1) People have a powerful need for recognition, for being understood and appreciated for who they are and for their unique contribution. When organizations create a culture of recognition, they thrive. We have seen one after another progressive organization claim they practice regular and meaningful recognition, but when we embed ourselves with them, we discover that recognition is actually sparse, that the members and leaders are like camels in the desert, trained to go for long distances without water (recognition), even though it is a vital resource easy to give in thoughtful and powerful ways. Dozens of studies have documented that organizations with high-recognition cultures are more effective, profitable and successful.

2) It is well documented that people will look for jobs that provide a sense of meaning and purpose even if such jobs pay less. Ironically, social activists often could command more money in the private sector but eschew such creature comforts in order to feel that they are contributing something of significance to the welfare of others, to something greater than their individual selves. Yet these same activists still believe that the only political fights worth having are ones stemming from economic disparity, as if those we champion (unlike us) only care about one narrow thing.

3) Hardly a single progressive leader we’ve spoken with has privileged his or her own personal development in the form of seeking out coaching, learning experiences outside his or her narrow job description, exposure to other cultures or radically different ways of doing things, etc. Beyond their evasive and false assumptions about lacking the time or money for such creative learning lies the real issue that they feel too guilty about promoting their own development.

4) Every important leader I’ve worked with has had a secret fear that he or she is a fraud and doesn’t deserve to be in a position of power. Such fears are ubiquitous but there is a seeming conspiracy of silence in progressive organizations when it comes to admitting to them. Some part of the problem of fraudulence has to do with guilt, others dimensions involve fears of failure and rejection. But the bottom line is that these fears and beliefs are common, dysfunctional, but are capable of being overcome if they are addressed.

5) Related to fears of fraudulence and power—every day, we meet leaders who are secretly afraid to grow and flatten their organizations for fear that the “wisdom of crowds” will result in their own diminution or irrelevance rather than that their power and esteem gets enhanced by growth and greater participation from the bottom up. Spreading responsibility and truly empowering others always adds to rather than subtracts from the power of the person doing so.

6) Consistent and deep personal coaching has been shown, over and over again, to have profound effects, if done well, on the performance and development of leaders, yet many progressive organizations opt for either superficial versions of coaching or eschew it altogether. Likewise, individuals thrive in healthy organizational cultures. Leaders need help in building cultures that are more strategic, more nimble, and give people at every level a chance to thrive. Leaders need help in the development of their public persona. Almost all of us need help in being more interesting and compelling. We believe that every progressive leader with substantial responsibility needs three kinds of coaching: personal coaching, organizational coaching and performance coaching.

The more leaders understand people, what makes them tick and what they need and fear, the better able they are to connect with their real interests—both inside with staff and outside with members or constituencies. This results in healthier staff cultures, deeper levels of collaboration and cooperation, enduring strategic partnerships, and more nuanced and thereby deeper connections to key constituencies.

We don’t win by staying thin, operating on old biases as if they are true, just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We win by having a deeper and more complex understanding of the human person.

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