Critical Decision Making in Uncertain Times

We are living through an unprecedented time in history when a tiny virus has brought the world to a virtual standstill. While this has many implications for us individually and personally, it creates extremely challenging times for anyone who runs a business, as the need to decide our best options for survival when the stakes are high means we have some tough decisions to make!

That nasty feeling of uncertainty about which way to go…

I first realized the severity of the global situation and the impact it was likely to have on my business when, in one 24 hour period, every contract I had underway was either canceled or postponed. Although I have had periods where business was slow, it quickly became apparent that this was far more widespread than anything I had experienced before. Like many others, I found myself reacting to the idea of going weeks or months with little or no income… and feeling that I needed to get this situation under control and fixed – NOW!

Since my normal avenues of business were closed or unavailable due to the pandemic, I found myself heading in the same direction I found that many business colleagues were going – with the immediate perception that the solution was to take the products I have and get them online ASAP. I immediately started to create a “to-do” list of things I would need to sort out in order to get this solution underway.

Does this sound familiar?

What rapid decisions did you make?

It took me a day or two to recognize the trap I was falling into…

Because – what if the choices I am making right now are going to come back to haunt me in the future? There is no crystal ball that can eliminate the risk of making poor decisions but there are some tools that can help!  

I consult with organizations to help them develop strategic plans to navigate through conflicts, complaints, toxic organizational cultures to create healthier workplaces. I realized that if I was my own client I would be strongly advocating for a more thorough and constructive decision-making process than what I was using. So, I took a step back and started to look at my situation through a different set of filters – the filters that have helped organizations avoid costly mistakes for many years now. Part of the challenge of determining the best course of action in a business crisis is to have an extremely honest, objective understanding of the business system we have created. This is not about a business process – it’s about the larger ‘system’ that is our business.

Understanding the ‘System’ that IS your business

In this context, our business ‘system’ is a compilation of all the parts of our business (including you), the relationship between all those parts and what is created when all those parts are ‘working’ together to BE the business. For a small business run by the owner the “System” likely looks like this:

  • The owner (and their knowledge, skills, experience, reputation etc.)
  • The products / services offered
  • The clients and their expectations
  • The environment in which the business offers its services
  • The mandate under which the business operates (legislation,    professional oversight body etc.)
  • The risk factors the business encounters
  • The reputation of the business and its owner,
  • Assets and liabilities
  • And likely a few more things…

It’s the difference between focusing on the parts of a car and having a car that is a functioning mode of transportation that can actually get you where you need to go!

In order to objectively understand our business system, we need to be willing to be brutally honest with ourselves about what we do well, what could be improved, what’s not working, what our objectives are, how we define ‘success’, our policies, how we deal with problems / failures and any other factor that contributes to how our ‘business system’ is functioning. These are important factors to understand in order to be able to sort out which are symptoms, and which are root causes that are contributing to our current reality.

Senge’s Rules of Systems

Business and organizational ‘Systems’ are not new – they have been well researched and analyzed to understand the underlying dynamics that affect their ability to be successful. One of the most practical tools I’ve found are Senge’s Rules of Systems. These are a set of practical ‘truisms’ that apply to any system but can be particularly poignant for businesses. There are others in Senge’s list – but these are the ones that resonated with me in this context.

I would invite you to think of examples of these related to your personal situation and your business.

Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. This is one of the most powerful statements and most common situations I have ever encountered. How often do we solve a problem only to discover that at some point in the future, the solutions we chose have now become the source of the problems we’re facing today?

Faster is slower.  As we look for ways to solve problems fast, we may miss critical components requiring us to then come back and fix / redo…  My grandmother would say this is a good argument for ‘Take the time to do it right the first time – and you won’t have to come back and fix it’.

Behaviour grows better before it gets worse. This is about short, medium and long term solutions. Short term solutions (often in the class of ‘quick fixes’) can temporarily address the situation and bring about an improvement. However short term solutions are rarely if ever sustainable in the medium and long term. This means that as the quick fix reaches the limit of what it can do, the situation will deteriorate. It may actually worsen to the point where things are more critical than they were initially. It’s not unusual for people to react by blaming the quick fix even though, at no point was it designed to be a long term solution. However, once it was in place, as busy business owners we tend to move on to other challenges and fail to monitor how the quick fix is working and assume it’s all good – until it fails…

Small changes can produce great growth. There are often small tweaks that we can make that can have a profound impact. When making decisions, the ultimate goal is to find solutions that will provide the greatest payback for the least amount of effort. This is leverage at work. (Tools to use this are at the end of the article).

The cure can be worse than the disease. Sometimes the solutions we put in place can create more problems than they solve or cost more than the initial problem overall – at that point we need to consider is “Is what I will gain, worth the investment?

Dividing the elephant in half does not create 2 small elephants. Human beings like to dissect problems to understand what we’re facing. It has been well researched that we run the risk of slipping into the trap of assuming, when looking at the dissected issue, that we’re looking at a microcosm of the whole picture. However, looking at one piece of a jigsaw puzzle is not the same thing as looking at the combined results of putting each piece in its place and seeing the whole picture. The same is true for our business – we always need to keep the bigger picture in mind – and that includes all the complex interconnections and relationships that are operating within the system… So, if I make ‘this’ change – What are all the possible outcomes that might arise? Do they take me at least in the direction I want to go? What are all the unintentional consequences that may show up to haunt me?

Which of Senge’s Rules resonate with you? How do they play out in your situation?

Now add in the next layer of ‘behind-the-scenes’ dynamics…

System Patterns – also known as Archetypes (or Traps!)

There is another set of well-researched patterns that operate within business systems and that can trap us into making unwise choices. These patterns are predictable and common but rarely recognized or understood. They also interconnect and one pattern can trigger another so that they are happening simultaneously creating negative pressures within our business that we have not foreseen. When you can’t figure out why something is happening – chances are it’s one or more of these patterns happening in the background!

The statement “Every ‘System’ is perfectly designed to get the results that it’s getting” is a profound summary of how these system dynamics work. If we want to understand the results, we need to understand how dynamics in the system are interacting with each other. To change the results, we need to alter the dynamics contributing to the issue and that means changing the system itself.

There are 12 of these archetypes (patterns) – I am going to focus on the ones I believe are most likely affecting your small business in this context.

Growth and Underinvestment:

When we’re busy we are focused on what we need to get done in the moment and risk not setting time aside to work ON the business. Then when things slow down, we realize all the things we should have had in place to handle a slow down and we panic and start exerting heroic efforts to try to catch up. The energy required to maintain this level of ‘heroic effort’ is not sustainable for more than a short period of time and can leave us exhausted just as we things start to pick up again… at which time we focus on what we need to get done in the moment and the cycle starts all over again… 

The solution: Have an ongoing plan that includes business growth and development so that you are continually investing in building capacity.

Limits to Success:

We face resource limits in our business – time, energy, resources, $$, knowledge, etc. As we become more successful, we can hit those limits and our success starts to level off as we realize we don’t have enough time / energy etc. to continue at the pace we’ve been growing.

The Solution:  Plan for your limits – know yourself, and your business, recognize where you are on the curve and integrate planning for these limits into all your decisions!

Attractiveness Principle: 

Clients are asking you for things that you can do – even if it’s not your strongest area of expertise, and rather than say ‘No’ – especially when business is slow, we take it on. This may take the form of trying to be everything to everybody… or not wanting to let someone down… or ‘faking it till you make it’.

The Solution: Know your strengths, set boundaries and keep yourself within those boundaries.

Fixes that Fail:

We have a problem that needs to be fixed so we look for strategies that we can implement quickly. The challenge is that short term solutions rarely work in the medium or the long term. Yet once the ‘quick fix’ is in place we move on to other issues, and rarely come back to adjust our solution or find other solutions that will work in the longer term. Then when the quick fix runs out of steam and fails – our tendency is to look at it and decide it was a bad solution. This is Senge’s Rule – “Behaviour gets better before it gets worse” in action. It is also likely that we will choose a solution that we’ve tried in the past – even if that solution wasn’t overly effective – not because of its track record but because we’re familiar with it – and maybe, just maybe it will work this time.

The Solution: Pick and implement a ‘quick fix’ in order to take the pressure off but knowing that at the same time you need to be designing a longer term solution. Recognize the risk of ‘unintentional consequences’, plan to mitigate the negative side effects and use the ‘quick fix’ to give you time to get it right in the longer term.

Tragedy of the Commons:

There are always common resources in any system – the photocopier in the office, ‘Mom” in a family, the manager / boss etc. In our current situation the most common resources I see, are the Internet and the videoconferencing platform Zoom. The common resource is available to everyone – and typically everyone feels they are entitled to full use of that resource. The challenge is that there are limits to what the common resource can handle – and when it is overused, it will burn out or break.

The Solution: Plan for how to use the resource taking others needs into consideration. If everyone thinks about their entitlement in conjunction with others entitlement, we are all more likely to enact a reasonable plan for managing the resource so it’s able to handle the load. For example – maybe we don’t need an all day Zoom meeting open – in case people want to connect… we can schedule for lower use time periods, we can avoid streaming high band width videos etc.

Making Wise Decisions That Work!

As we determine how we can adjust our business to be viable in these unprecedented times we need to determine what choices make sense – for us, for the business and most importantly, for our clients. Choosing to make changes while we’re in panic mode may lead us to choose solutions that are not useful or attractive to our client base. What we want to avoid is investing time, energy, limited cash and brain power in developing new products or services that are not saleable to clients. Is it wise to take your business online? I can’t answer that… but it may be worth checking with your clients to see if they will invest in your online products.

Once we determine what our options are, then we want to develop an action plan for how we’re going to move forward. This is where we want to choose the ‘High Leverage’ options we have – the options where we can get the largest payback in the shortest time frame for the least amount of investment.

A Leverage Matrix is a useful tool to figure this out:

  1.  Recreate the Matrix on a large sheet of paper.
  2.  Write all the possible options you have on Post-it Notes
  3. Assess each option in terms of Low, medium or high investment required (time, effort, $$$) and in terms of low, medium or high level of payback / value.
  4.  Stick the Post-it Note in the appropriate square on the Matrix
  5.  Choose the highest leverage options and start with them.
  6.  Plan a strategy to develop the medium and lower leverage options in the medium to longer term.
  7.  Monitor and evaluate the outcomes  

One final trap – Time Delay!

Whenever we initiate a new project it will take time for the full benefit to become apparent and it may take time before we start to see any results at all. If we fail to recognize Time Delay at work, there is a risk we will become impatient when we don’t see immediate results and pull the plug – often just as the results are starting to come in… So, then we try another solution, get impatient and pull the plug on that one too – before it can show results. The result is a vortex of start, get impatient, stop, start over, get impatient, stop… start over that short circuits the good work we’ve done on a project. Give it time… recognize that it’s often hard to see tangible results immediately… don’t negate the value of the project or the potential payback by stopping too soon!

In Summary:

We all make decisions all the time – some will be on point, and some will cause us grief. When we’re in crisis mode we need to recognize the risk of being reactive rather than strategic in how we navigate that crisis. There are many businesses that will navigate this pandemic and come out stronger, wiser and better equipped to serve their customers. The capacity to develop business strategies that build a level of robust flexibility and resilience into our business will help to position us for long term success. Businesses that struggle to adapt and change in this ever changing world will struggle to survive. Give yourself the gift of taking the time to assess what you can (and want) to do, the current environment, whether what you’re considering will be viable when this is over and we have a ‘new normal’ business environment – and most importantly – What are your clients’ needs at THIS point in time. Their needs, capabilities and priorities may be very different now than they were 6 weeks ago…

About Ruth:

Ruth Sirman is an Internationally Certified Mediator (International Mediation Institute), who specializes in helping organizations, and business create healthy thriving workplaces through effective organizational development strategies. She has run 3 successful businesses since 1982. She has a background in environmental biology, chemistry and wildlife toxicology along with being a retired turkey farmer and Mom to 4 amazing young adults and Grandma to 4 incredible grand-kids!

For more information, contact her at and check out her consulting website and her speakers website at

The Ontario College Faculty Strike – The Impact and Reality for Students!

The college faculty strike in Ontario is now in its 4th week… with no agreement reached yet and mixed messages about what is actually happening at the negotiating table.
Years ago I came across an old African Proverb that says “When 2 elephants fight – it’s the grass that suffers the most”.  I fully support the idea of employees being able to take action to support their need for fair employment; however a strike is an indication that the regular negotiating process has failed. Negotiating processes are rarely easy – typically there are contentious issues to resolve and strong opinions on all sides about what solutions will work.  As human beings, when we negotiate we will have a perspective about what the issues are and a position as to how these issues should be resolved.  We want to win which would mean that the other side would accept our proposal. And people get frustrated when the other ‘side’ is reluctant or unwilling to do so.  And the other side will be equally frustrated with us!

However one of the realities of a ‘strike’ is that it is a withdrawal of services for whatever group is served by the organization. So a bus strike removes the transit services for riders… a health care strike would remove (or reduce) services to patients and a teacher / faculty strike removes or reduces services to students.  The need to restore services is typically one of the pressures put on both sides to resolve the issues, reach an agreement and restore the services to an often vulnerable clientele. And in the case of the Ontario College strike – the impacted clientele (the student body) does not have a voice at the table so the true impact of the strike on students may not be adequately represented in the process.

Some of the impacts and bigger implications that I have heard are:
–    Major financial stress if the term has to be repeated or extended…
–    International students who may have visas that will now expire before they can finish their studies due to the disruption and the extended terms.
–    Students with leases who will now either incur extra costs or lose their housing before the extended terms are complete
–    Students
–     Or students who have already bought plane tickets and will now have to choose between finishing their studies or going home to take that summer job  that they’ve been offered.
–    Students in residence who may have to pay more and stay longer if the semester is extended.
Add to that the additional emotional stress of not knowing what will happen, trying to figure out how to juggle the ripple effect  of unplanned  weeks out of class ($$$, time, career implications, jobs, housing, mental well-being etc.). Research shows that stress and mental health issues are significant for post-secondary students. Add in the burden of a strike and there is a risk that students may not be able to cope.

Nadia Ayotte-Samson, a young student attending Algonquin College in Police Foundations has her own strong opinion on the matter…
On October 15 2017, I heard the worst possible news, education wise. I received an email by the President of Algonquin College, officially stating that the rumours of a strike were true, and it was starting that Monday(the next day) six weeks into my two year program, all assignments, midterm studies, teaching and marking hit a dead stop. No more eight AM classes, study sessions and stories. At first, students were fine with the thought of the strike lasting a few days, giving a few days of relaxation and having lots of time to study! As the strike hit four days then five, we started getting nervous. Hearing about past Ontario College strikes lasting 23 days started to frighten us. Most stayed on top of assignments that were still open online and kept up with notes. Once the end of the second week of the strike hit, we knew we were in trouble.
As all Ontario colleges are on strike, the news stations are keeping on top of the process so there’s lots of information online keeping us up to date. Two weeks in, the two sides were not negotiating. It doesn’t take much for young adults to get mad about things, especially things that mess with their future. The Algonquin College group page on Facebook exploded. Students saying things such as dropping out and getting a refund, calling the two sides “childish”, that the union is not looking at the best interest of the students, and that we are paying thousands of dollars to sit at home. They aren’t pretty posts to read, but I understand where they are coming from…
Three months before my first year of College my parents told me that they were no longer paying for my education. With prom and graduation coming up and paying over five thousand dollars to go to school, it hit me all at once. At this point I didn’t have a job, but did have a small amount of money saved up. I went out and got a job the next week at a local grocery store, I worked part-time while in high school while also playing sports with the school. I was working four shifts a week just to be able to pay for all the events and schooling coming up. Luckily, after working full time in the summer I saved enough money to pay for first year.  I expected to get the full education I am paying for, and that didn’t include missing a month+.
Another student who I met in my class already has a University degree but recently found policing is a passion and path he wants to take. He is from Brazil, he and his family moved to Canada a few months ago so that he can have an education in Canada. He is paying over $40 thousand dollars to go to Algonquin College being an exchange student. That doesn’t include textbooks, uniform, transportation etc. Also, his family’s expenses, he has siblings who also are here for school, his parents are working hard to afford everything with recently buying a house in Canada.
We thought the teachers had our back and were looking to get us back to school as quickly as possible, but it appears we thought wrong. We have no voice in this situation. It is all about the union and what the teachers want, they are stopping us from learning what we love and it’s frustrating because we sit quiet in class and be respectful to them and their opinions but they don’t necessarily care about our opinions on this situation; due to the fact that the union and teachers are not asking us about our needs within the class room.
Today, we are near the end of week four of the strike. We only have 15 weeks in a semester so that is a large chunk of the semester. Now, students are very frustrated, the thought of not going back to school is getting more and more real. The latest email from the president stated that they are disappointed with this issue and “answering” some questions regarding the semester that people have asked. Every answer was that they won’t have an answer until the strike is over. Which is extremely unsettling because who knows when that will be. If we return to class to finish this semester, weeks of work will be crammed into days. Assignments will be taken out and have one or two large assignments worth 20-25%, which is scary numbers to look at. Not to mention, the anxiety of returning to four weeks missed of school and jumping straight into midterms. Midterms are stressful enough for students- 25% of your final grade for a three hour exam, students study weeks for these exams. The stress level coming back from the strike jumping straight to exams will increase causing higher levels of anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. The school has great resources for situations listed above, but once school starts back up, they won’t be able to take care of all the students who are struggling with these problems. Now students are starting to give up hope that we will return to class and continue the education in a program that we love and chose for a reason. This situation ruins our college experience as a whole and has financial implications, long term career implications and life implications.”

So is the need to restore services enough incentive for negotiating teams to settle in and stick with the negotiations through the tough discussions that need to happen? It often appears not… Maybe they just don’t have enough skin in the game? Maybe it’s not personal enough for them to make it imperative to get it sorted out…  What options are available to help raise the stakes for the negotiating teams?
•    Well… what if the negotiating teams in a transit strike were denied access to vehicles (cars, taxis etc.) so that they were put in the same position as the transit riders in having to find alternative ways to get to the negotiations?
•    What if those who are not on strike and those doing the negotiating (managers, executives, union and management negotiating teams) had their regular pay withheld until they reached an agreement…  and were paid the same amount as what the striking employees receive as strike pay… Would that provide incentive?
•    What if there were fines imposed for any interruption in negotiations that stalled the discussions?
•    What if colleges knew that they would not only have to refund tuition but that they would have to pay a penalty to students for breach of contract?

In no way do I want to imply that the collective bargaining process including strikes should be shut down… but having now watched numerous strikes that have dragged on unnecessarily long due to one (or both) sides refusal to keep talking I believe that we can make the process more efficient.


The Conflict Resolution Workout!
When negotiations fail, the repercussions for those involved or affected can be significant.
1. How can the impact of failed negotiations be minimized on those who do not have a say in the discussions but who are adversely affected by the strike?
2. When a strike drags on, at what point should someone step in and help?
3. How can those affected by the loss of service have a voice in the negotiations given that they are rarely have standing in the negotiations.

Ruth Sirman is a mediator and organizational conflict consultant who has been helping organizations turn toxic workplaces into healthier working environments since 1996. She is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer and mediator / consultant who has helped hundreds of workplaces and thousands of people regain the joy in going to work! For more information –

“I worked in a workplace that spiraled out of control. Ruth works tirelessly to get results. She gained everybody’s trust and gave us the tools to be successful. It’s unbelievable the difference in the workplace. People now love to come to work. I’ve been with this company 35 years and I’ve never seen anybody do what Ruth has empowered people to do.” A Miller, BCWS

When Promotions Become a Source of Conflict!

Congratulations banner 27feb17 In most organizations, for those employees who excel at their jobs – (i.e. they are great litigators, great classroom teachers, excellent researchers or practitioners) the standard career progression stream is to move up the hierarchy into management. However the ‘reward’ too frequently sets the star employee up to fail.
The skills and aptitudes required to succeed as a ‘practitioner’ in the courtroom, the classroom, the operating room or the laboratory are rarely the same skills that make for a good manager or a good administrator. Nor are these skills taught as part of the education programs for scientists, lawyers, doctors, mechanics or other professionals and trades. And comprehensive management development programs are becoming increasingly rare.

Employees have high expectations of their managers, and lack of management knowledge, skills and ability to create a healthy and productive work environment. When a manager is not able to achieve this, the manager can expect conflict with the employees.

As a mediator specializing in organizational / workplace conflicts, many of the cases I have worked with in the past 20+ years involve conflicts between employees and managers. Management style and lack of skill in managing people are common issues that arise in discussions with staff. Frequently, the manager themselves will identify that they are struggling and uncomfortable in the role of manager. As one senior manager said “I miss my previous job – I was excellent at it and people respected me. Here I feel totally unprepared and out of my league and I’m starting to hate coming to work. And my employees are just as unhappy”.

Is this a new phenomenon?

One of the common problems facing many new managers is that as budgets becoming increasingly tight, management development programs, training, mentoring and professional development are often some of the first areas to be cut. This can leave new managers essentially to fend for themselves with minimal training in how to supervise people effectively, resolve conflict, engage cooperation and manage the wide variety of administrative tasks they now face daily.

Cutting training and professional development can seem to be a logical choice. In the short term, people seem able to manage, and longer term implications haven’t kicked in yet. However, the lack of ongoing solid investment in professional development and skill building in the management cohort can have serious implications in the medium and long-term. As frustration on the part of employees mounts, the level of distraction increases as employees spend increasing amounts of time focusing on what is not working, the negative impact of poor management, productivity decreases, absenteeism and turnover rates increase, and the risk of harassment, human rights and Bill 168 (Ontario Workplace Violence legislation) complaints increases. Grievances will also increase in unionized environments. And the tangible and intangible costs to you as an employer risk increasing significantly.

Take, for example, an escalating conflict between the manager and an employee who is alleging that the manager has failed to address issues of workplace bullying or inter-employee conflict. In Canada, as an employer you have a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of harassment and discrimination… yet you may have managers and staff who are putting that legal requirement in jeopardy – not because they have any level of malicious intent, but rather because they are unaware of how to manage the situation effectively and in many cases oblivious to the impact their actions and choices are having on their staff.

However, oblivious or malicious, if the behaviour constitutes bullying, harassment or discrimination, or is creating conflict with staff, it has to be addressed. It is critical to be cautious with deciding there is malicious intent. As human beings we are quick to decide that someone is just nasty and malicious because of the severity of the impact we have experienced… but impact alone is not enough. Determining intent needs to be done carefully and objectively. We assess and coach managers and staff whose behaviour is inappropriate – and for the vast majority when they become aware of the impact of their choices on others they are shocked as it is not congruent with how they have viewed their actions or themselves. At that point the potential for change is excellent if the manager is provided with solid coaching, training and mentoring to learn more constructive ways of exercising their managerial authority.

It is also critical that employees receive training as well. They need to know what behaviour is acceptable (and expected). They also benefit from skill development, training, and the availability of different recourse options they can use when needed. Many inter-staff conflicts are created by the situations in which employees find themselves – tight deadlines, heavy workloads, limited resources ($$, equipment and people). When staff members have the training to recognize the warning indicators and the skills to be able to resolve the issues before they escalate into full-blown conflicts the resolution of the situation is typically fast and effective. Conflicts that staff members are unable to resolve can be addressed quickly and effectively through the recourse options (mediation, management intervention, coaching etc) available to them when the employer has a well-designed conflict management process in place. This ensures that the manager is only required to get involved in the more serious issues and the level of noise and distraction caused by conflict in the workplace is minimized.

Training and professional development is an investment in creating a skilled work force. As employers we want loyalty from our employees. It’s a two-way street… employees give loyalty when they feel that their employer and managers care about them and are willing to invest in their professional development and happiness at work.

The Conflict Resolution Workout:

Think of a situation that escalated unnecessarily into a major conflict:
1. What were the key decision points where each of the players could have made a different choice that would have changed the outcome? Please focus equally on ALL players (including you if you had a role) not just on the individual(s) you believe caused the problem.
2. What skills were people lacking that might have helped in this situation?
3. What training would be helpful to give people more skills to avoid similar escalation in the future?
4. What influence do you have to help create a healthier approach to building skills in Executives? Managers? Employees? Union representatives? HR?
5. How can you build a business case to initiate changes?

Ruth Sirman is a mediator and organizational conflict consultant who has been helping organizations turn toxic workplaces into healthier working environments since 1996. She is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer and mediator / consultant who has helped hundreds of workplaces and thousands of people regain the joy in going to work! For more information –

“I worked in a workplace that spiraled out of control. Ruth works tirelessly to get results. She gained everybody’s trust and gave us the tools to be successful. It’s unbelievable the difference in the workplace. People now love to come to work. I’ve been with this company 35 years and I’ve never seen anybody do what Ruth has empowered people to do.” A Miller, BCWS

What Is Your ‘Burning Question’?

A colleague challenged me to think about  “What is your burning question?” Initially my response was – I don’t have one… and then I realized that I do. And I realized that I have sat with this question now for several years… and I have not come up with any answers.

My burning question is: “How do we build capacity within our organizational systems to value “others” in the global system to the same degree we value ourselves – our own opinions and those of our close network?” And I mean how can we value ALL others – every human being on the planet irrespective of where they live, what religion or nationality they are, what they do, what they believe, what they have (or don’t have…).

We are facing a major global crisis of overwhelming proportions and we need to find a way to leverage our human capacity for understanding and resolving this before we implode into a global war… I’m a people and systems ‘watcher’ and I have come to notice a number of things over the past couple of decades.

  • As human beings we tend to believe that we ‘know’ better than others how to do things, fix things, resolve things etc… Consequently we tend to believe we have the answers and somehow our solutions are superior to the way others would do something – particularly if the ‘others’ are from a country whose development is not at the same stage as ours… or their approach to managing situations is not a good fit with how I / we would do things.
  • As white North Americans we spend a lot of time talking down to others… and expecting them to be grateful that we are willing to tell them how to solve their problems…
  • There is a significant lack of empathy for others that particularly seems to be missing when we consider people who are different from us. And if that empathy is missing, how do we help people develop the empathy, respect and basic human decency that will help us believes that none of us are successful until all of us are successful? I don’t mean to suggest that success equals everyone in the world having the same number of televisions or a job that pays the same irrespective of where we live. But I do mean that people have what they need to live comfortable, secure lives – food, housing, education, healthcare, meaningful occupations, security and resources that will allow every human being to live without the fear that permeates much of our world today.
  • The status quo favours maintaining the inequities in the world today – it will take a serious investment of political and personal will plus effort, resources and understanding to make any level of sustainable change happen…
  • That as human beings we tend not to be willing to make those changes until something catches our attention and it gets personal…
  • If I don’t value your insights, experience, perspective and opinions then it is easier for me to dismiss your value in the overall scheme of things. Taken to the extreme I may even consciously or unconsciously decide that your life is not as valuable as mine…
  • For example – As members of ‘Western’ culture and ‘developed’ countries – if the AIDS crisis had hit Europe or North America rather than Africa – would our involvement in helping / supporting / addressing the situation be different? I am guessing that it would be seen as a major crisis with all of the resources we have being channeled into dealing with the crisis and the fallout…
  • If the Ebola crisis did not have the potential to threaten our existence would we find it easier to go about our daily lives because it’s a far away faceless tragedy…?
  • When we provide foreign aid to another country who decides what THEY need? Is it them? Or is it us? How can I know what you need better than you? – Particularly if there is minimal consultation….
  • What is the impact on individuals, groups and countries when they feel minimized or devalued? How is that influencing some of the negative dynamics in our world these days – things like radicalization, terrorism, pervasive, deep rooted conflicts and wars?

Most of us really don’t want to have to own our personal and national contribution to some of the major issues we are facing on a global level. However we ignore our contributing role at our peril. If we truly believe that the system owns everything that happens within it, then it follows that if we are part of the system, then we own what is happening… which taken to the next step means we also have an obligation to work to resolve it. If we don’t like what is happening in our system it is up to us as members of the system to work together to fix it. And since they are also members of the system, how will we work with the ‘others’ to create the change we need?

This may be a challenge as it also means that I need to accountable for the choices, actions, behaviours and beliefs that I bring to the system… And so do the others…

And I wonder – How well will I value your (or their) contribution if I fundamentally disagree with you on every level.. and if I find your approach intolerable?

There are more questions than answers in my mind these days…

The Conflict Resolution Workout!
1. Think of a situation which you struggle to comprehend… what is your burning question about it?
2. Take your ‘burning question’ from #1 and ask yourself ‘why’ is that an issue… Don’t let yourself off the hook!! (sometimes it’s easier to have someone else ask ‘why’?
3. Take your response to the Why? in #2 and ask yourself Why? to that answer…
4. Keep asking ‘Why?’ to each response you come up with until you cannot break it down any further…
5. Look at your deepest ‘why’ and reflect on what you have uncovered for yourself… what did you learn?

We rarely take the time to reflect on the fundamental questions that are resonating at our deepest core… and yet that is often where our best learning resides! Happy reflecting!!!

We Have a New Website!

Check Out the NEW Website!

We have completely rebuilt and rewritten the website to provide you with a clearer picture of the work that we do and how we do it. This site is for you – our clients and our potential clients (and people who just like cool water pictures!)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Nature provides us with powerful examples of interactions and challenges… and we believe that human situations are often mirrors of what happens in nature… So you will see our love of nature reflected throughout the site. But take a look and reflect on whether or not what is going on in your organization is similar to what you see on the water!

We are in the process of adding downloadable docs that will provide further detail on different topics – some are already here… others are on the way!

We would like this to be a resource site with solid content that will help you determine whether you can address the issues you have on your own or whether you may need support or on-site help.

If you ever have questions about your situation… you can call… we will be happy to provide you with a FREE (and no obligation) consult about what type of services may be the best fit for your situation…

Want to shop around? No problem – we’ll give you names of other experienced and well qualified groups to check out… If that sounds strange coming from a consulting group – it’s not unusual for us… We want you to get what you need, when you need it at a cost that is manageable and reasonable!

And one of our fundamental operating principles is that if at any point we have concerns about the approach you are proposing… we’ll tell you… and explain why it’s a concern and what we see as the potential for things to go wrong…

PS – all the amazing pictures of rivers, oceans, and activities on the water involve Ruth and her family… and have been taken in Canada and internationally on their adventures on the water! And we have more… check back occasionally and you may see different ones!

All the best – whatever is facing you and your team!
Ruth and the CanMediate team…

Never Push A Person To The Point Where They Have Nothing To Lose…

Conflict Resolution Tip #5 – There are times when conflict seems to escalate uncontrollably – creating stress, hurt and even in cases of some conflicts – danger for those involved. And the more things escalate the more those involved can feel justified by the choices they make and the actions they take.

However, the worst possible strategy for the more powerful party in any conflict is to push the ‘other’ to the point where they feel they have no control over the situation because at that point they have nothing left to lose… it seems there is no way out except to fight back (and they will)… At that point those in power have created a situation where they have chosen to put themselves in jeopardy and escalated the situation unnecessarily. And if we fail to recognize our role in the situation we are deluding ourselves… and that willful blindness is an unconscionable sin against everyone involved and affected…

It’s not easy – but it is critical that in this type of situation people in positions of power realize that the ‘other’ party may not be able to react according to what is considered normal or reasonable. That sense of being trapped and subjected to situations where the consequences are out of proportion to the infraction risks turning any human being into a reactionary who will fight for their survival.

Look at the resistance movement in WW2 and the level of commitment to ‘fighting back’ demonstrated by those who used any means possible to derail the German war machine. We are seeing similar resistance in many of our global conflicts these days – and we are seeing governments implementing strategies that are marketed as being necessary and justified but seem doomed to create more problems than they will solve. Part of this is that in many cases the powerful group(s) justify their attacks on the other through a victim mindset that looks only at the resistance without looking at the provocation for the resistance – and that ignores the power balance in the situation and denies the reality that the ‘other’ is facing – and that deflection and denial of the bigger picture is a recipe for disaster…

In a school yard if a larger, stronger individual attacks someone who is smaller / less able to fight back we call it bullying and condemn it as unreasonable, unjustified and just wrong. On a larger global scale when governments choose strategies that attack others when it is not a level playing field feels to me like bullying on a much larger scale… and I have the sense that it feeds that sense desperation that breeds more people who are willing to resist – through whatever means they have at hand. On a global level we need to hold those countries (including our own) to account when their choices and actions create more problems than they solve.

Albert Einstein once said “Never push a loyal person until they no longer care…” I would say, never push anyone (loyal or otherwise) to the point where they have nothing to lose. It is easy to reach a tipping point where further pressure on them will escalate their response to desperation levels. And desperate people have very little to lose and a lot to gain by continuing the resistance… and even escalating it.

Ensure that everyone sees that they have some control, dignity, input and hope… and the chances for a non-violent solution increase dramatically!!! Maybe it’s time to try a different strategy… Just sayin…

The Conflict Resolution Workout…

Think of some of the global situations that involve serious deep rooted conflicts…
What self-justifications do the group(s) in power use to justify their actions and choices?
How does that self-justification impede their ability to see how their actions and choices are actually escalating the conflict they say they want to resolve?
What will it take for both sides to step back from the stance they have taken?
What can you do to help?

Bullying and The Challenge of Stopping It…

By Ruth Sirman and Julie Lowry

There are many old proverbs / truisms / adages that talk about how we should interact with others. We are brought up to ‘treat others the way we want to be treated’, be kind and respectful and not bully others. The reality is that bullying, disrespect and nastiness are common – and they cost us individually and collectively.

And sometimes we say one thing and do the opposite. I wonder what message our kids get when we tell them they need to be respectful but they witness adults and public figures being negative, mean-spirited and nasty.
When we harass or attack others it is common to rationalize our actions to deal with the cognitive dissonance / discomfort created when we do something that is not congruent with our values, beliefs and stated expectations. We see many examples of this – when parents make nasty comments to their kids or teachers put a child down in front of the class or when colleagues say one thing to someone’s face but then are disrespectful behind their back. Evidence of this is everywhere and it points to a double standard that speaks to “Treat ME the way I want to be treated but I can treat you however I feel in the moment”. Other times we whitewash our nastiness by calling it something more ‘acceptable’ in an effort to disguise what it really is.

One of the most recent political examples is the incongruence between the Canadian government’s declaration of May 1st as the National Day to end Bullying which allows for increased public awareness and demonstrates our government’s commitment to the issue. On the other hand we have the Harper government’s current advertisement campaign that puts down new Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau. There is a dis-connect here – this seems to be a ‘do as I say but not as I do’ situation (at least as I see it). And the rationalization? Mr. Harper identifies the recent attack ads as ‘political debate’ which I am sure is much easier to justify than what comes across as intentional disrespectful spitefulness.

While Mr. Harper seems to have missed this message – so have many of us… We will end bullying and harassment when we truly believe that how you do anything is how you do everything and we learn to be hard on the problems we need to address and find ways to make our points without disparaging others.

The Conflict Resolution Workout!

Take a moment to consider:
When have you seen people say one thing and do the opposite?
What impact does it have on relationships? credibility? trust?
When have you done the same thing? (the opportunity to be objectively honest if you are willing? 🙂 )
How did you rationalize the choice(s) you made?
How might the results have been different if you had chosen to act more constructively?

Managing Stress Over the Holidays (video)

I was on an Ottawa Morning show, enjoy 🙂