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Doing good: At what cost?

What happens when organisations become dysfunctional, where the mission becomes more important than taking care of the people working to make it happen? Silvia Zuur, Lani Evans, and Marianne Elliott explain - and what we can do to fix things.

The following has been written by a group of women and has been published by Silvia, Marianne, and Lani. We hope it starts a conversation and is seen as an invitation to begin addressing some of the common patterns we have spotted.

It’s easy to pick holes in unethical businesses, but it’s hard to criticise organisations that aspire to create positive change. So what happens when organisations with an inspiring ethical vision are dysfunctional, or even toxic beneath the surface, where the mission becomes more important than taking care of the people working to make it happen?

Lately, we’ve been noticing some questionable practices happening in organisations that are held up as shining lights for creating a better society. As a community, we’re happy to point the finger at industries that externalise negative impacts. We believe it’s time to start calling in social-good organisations who do so too.

To a point, all of us — the people running organisations, leading projects or getting initiatives off the ground — do this. We ignore and transfer some of the costs of our work. We’re low on resources, tired, and may not have a HR team or relevant legal or management experience. We don’t prioritise providing care structures. The contracts, the reviews, the time with our employees or teams — the things that support people in an organisation — are the things that are always on the “Up Next” list. When we build organisations focussed on outcomes and impact, it can be easy to leave internal values by the wayside. But work can only fulfil its ultimate long lasting goal if it is done in a healthy way, by healthy people.

Chances are, you’ve seen this behaviour, heard it on the grapevine, or engaged in hushed conversations, but we rarely talk about it openly. The social good community protects its own. It makes sense in a sector where reputation is precious, where we are all constantly seeking funding and validation. But we need to start talking.

So, to ignite the conversation, we have named four challenges and some ideas of responses that we could all start implementing, to work towards resolving those challenges.

Four challenges

1. The hero leader constantly thinking success is just around the corner

Social-impact organisations are often led by visionaries who want to make the world a better place. They get quoted in the media, supported by their crowd, and lauded for the work they do. And we love to parade our hero leaders. We love to idolise those who have “made it” — whether that be in the sporting or the entrepreneurship world — but we don’t often scratch the surface to see how they play with others.

Some of the symptoms of a hero leader can include:

  • Good at bold visions, but not good at managing personnel/operations
  • Lots of words (and promises), but not a lot of action
  • Perfectionism, paired with a lack of delegation
  • Lack of appreciation/understanding for another’s experience
  • Disregard for the team — in terms of building team culture and listening to opinions
  • Good at self-promotion and brand promotion

Each one of these symptoms has an impact on the value felt within a team. What happens? What’s the impact?

  • Individual names become synonymous with, and are expected to deliver, exceptional results
  • ‘The team’ get overworked and under recognised
  • People get burned, or burn out, and things fall over
  • The brand becomes more important than the mission, and the people who the organisation is supposed to support end up suffering
  • Less good happens

2. Positional power and privilege

Positional power and privilege can be invisible to those who have them. Privilege is an unearned advantage available to a person or group based on things like race, gender or social status. Positional power is an advantage conferred by a role or position. In many cases positional power and privilege overlap resulting in skewed power dynamics within relationships.

These positional-power differences are often hard to see in flexible organisations like those aiming for non-hierarchical leadership. Unnamed power structures can be harder to navigate. It’s easier to fight against workplace sexism when your boss slaps you on the ass, but it’s harder when the same sexism manifests as micro-aggressions like interruptions or unacknowledged emotional labour.

The impact of unnamed power structures can be seen when the voice of the founder is given precedence in “equal” conversations. This leads to frustration among the staff and team, who can feel like they are never listened to.

Talking about privilege is hard, and understanding your own privilege is even harder. Everyone experiences privilege (or, a lack of it) to some degree. If you don’t know the power you have, then chances are you’re also not aware of, or in control of, the consequences of that power.

What happens? What’s the impact?

  • The privileged and powerful blunder through life, unwittingly trampling others in the process
  • Everyone else gets exhausted by constantly resisting this oppression
  • Systematic inequality is reinforced
  • Less good happens

3. Lack of robust organisational learning

Most staff in small organisations report directly to the CEO or Director. That one person manages everything and there is no HR support, or alternative reporting mechanism.

This means two things. Firstly, if something goes wrong or staff want to give feedback, there might not be a safe way to do so.

Secondly, evaluations of organisational effectiveness tend to reflect on what has been done rather than what has been achieved. The discussion remains focussed on what to do differently and how to iterate on existing work. If there are no robust feedback cycles, the discussion will never formally question the fundamental assumption of whether the work is actually making a positive difference to the people that the organisation is designed to help.

What happens? What’s the impact?

  • Eventually something goes wrong. Sometimes explosively, other times over a slow and wearing period of degradation
  • Workplace bullying has no process to be resolved
  • People get burned or burn out, and leave
  • Nothing changes
  • Less good happens

4. Two degrees of separation prevents us talking about bad behaviour

The challenges above mainly happen within the boundaries of an organisation. But the fourth challenge is causing the biggest negative impact: that we don’t, or can’t, speak about it. This is partly because the ecosystem in New Zealand is very small and interconnected, and partly because people are often given a payout to keep their mouths shut.

Bad employment practice in New Zealand’s social enterprise ecosystems, include:

  • Unfair dismissals
  • Pay discrepancies
  • Failure to comply with employment law
  • Verbal promises not followed by contracts
  • Staff being treated like founders and coerced to put in huge hours for no benefit
  • Over-reliance on volunteer labour

Locally, these stories aren’t told, but there are plenty of international examples to learn from. Menstruation underwear startup THINX’s (now ex) CEO Miki Agrawal has been in the news for “erratic behaviour and refusal to shoulder blame for problems with the business while taking credit — often in very public forums — for its successes.” You can read the full article here.

Her behaviour is uncomfortably familiar:

  • Claiming someone else’s work as your own
  • Undermining the team’s achievements to claim credit
  • Making other people feel undervalued to boost your own sense of self worth
  • Refusal to accept any fault or failure
  • Culture of compliance and secrecy, and silencing of “deviants”

One reason for this is that the startup scene, with it’s sometimes questionable ethics and hustle, is colliding with the martyrdom of the social impact world where people often have limited business skills. So we see the collision of limited people skills AND limited business skills in one sector.

We can do better

We all sometimes fall short of our own values in the ways we act. We sometimes end up in impossible positions and unfortunate financial situations — but none of those things should ever be excuses to treat the people in sub-standard manners. We do not believe there is ever a time when the mission should be considered more important that the humans around you.

We need to be better at naming this kind of behaviour and working together to stop it. We can be constantly improving the way we treat people so that we individually, and collectively, have the resilience to keep doing this important work.

So, how do we make change? Here is the beginning of a list of some responses. By no means is this exhaustive nor a complete description of the end goal. It’s a journey. So we encourage you to read through each point and consider whether there are small adjustments that you or your organisation could make.

  1. Mandate robust support structures — Does every person in your organisation have clear support structures around them? Do they have someone to go to that they do not report to if things are not working well? Are there regular opportunities for them to discreetly raise issues?
  2. Embed organisational feedback processes — Are there clear feedback processes? What role does anonymous information play? Can you foster a culture of constructive criticism when needed?
  3. Complete self-awareness training — Do you know that you are in a position of power? Are you aware of your own privilege? Have you considered a Feedback feast?
  4. Improve feedback mechanisms — Have you tried a 360 appraisal? How can staff give feedback to management? Do you have anonymous surveys? Who reviews them? What happens with the information?
  5. Understand the law — Have you got the basics right? If you don’t understand employment law, read up on it here. Has everyone got a contract? Are you clear on the differences between employees and contractors? Do you track leave correctly?
  6. Ensure your team know their rights — Does everyone on your team know what their employment rights are? Are they clear on where they can go if they feel uncomfortable about anything at work? Both internally (e.g. to your Board) and externally, to employment relations bodies.
  7. Get good governance — If your Board doesn’t challenge you, something needs to change! If your Board doesn’t give you adequate support, something needs to change. If your Board isn’t adding value with each meeting, something needs to change. Additionally, in smaller organisations the CEO should not be the only person attending a Board meeting. How does the board connect with staff? How do they know what is going on?
  8. Know your organisational allies — and meet with them often to share and learn. These might be organisations working in similar impact areas as you, or organisations working on similar theories of change as you. Be open to these allies changing over time, if we’re really solving problems then things should be changing often.

If any of this is intimately real for you or someone you know right now — you are not alone. There are a bunch of support networks you could go to for advice, from your own friends to the Community Advice Bureau and Community Law. Being on the receiving end of some of these challenges can be stressful and emotionally exhausting — you can also call the Anxiety or Depression helpline.

This story was first published on Medium.

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