Short Stories To Spark Diversity Dialogue
By Steve L. Robbins
Nicholas Brealey Publishing Copyright © 2008 Steve L. Robbins
All rights reserved.
The Right Environment
We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are.
— Anaïs Nin
There is a small pond on our property that provides my family with all sorts of fun. In the winter, it's a makeshift skating rink that allows me to prove — over and over again — that humans were not designed to maneuver on ice, nor should two sharp blades be attached to shoes and used as a mode of travel. Come summer, after the bruises have faded from my rear, the pond transforms into a delightful fishing hole.
When the pond was created a number of years ago, it was stocked with bass and various pan fish. Those fish have survived and thrived with very little human intervention. Despite Michigan's frigid winters and warm, muggy summers, they flourish. The environment seems to suit them rather well.
If you enjoy fishing and have kids, as I do, there is nothing much better than having a pond stocked with fish right in your front yard. And if the fish are bass and pan fish, that's just icing on the cake. Why, you ask? Let's just say intelligence is not among those species' strengths, especially for the pan fish. Put another way, if those species were the only ones people fished for, there would be no need for fish stories. The only thing difficult about catching those fish is making sure they don't swallow your hook.
I get a kick out of fishing with my kids in our pond. On such occasions I rarely get to drop my line in the water, partly because I spend a good deal of time untangling my kids' lines, putting worms on hooks, and making sure fish are the only creatures being hooked. (If you ever want a random body piercing, I invite you to join us for an afternoon of fishing.) Another reason I don't fish in our pond much is that bobber fishing with a worm holds little appeal for me. It's not that bobber fishing is beneath me: Catching fish is always better than not catching fish. But, with that said, I like challenges, and for me fly-fishing is a more inviting challenge.
I don't fly-fish for just any old species. Some of my younger years were spent in the Pacific Northwest, where the fish of choice is trout. For me, it was rainbow trout. I fondly remember warm summer days when my mom would take me to a creek near our home and I would spend hours hunting rainbows. They are not easy fish to catch, especially for a ten-year-old. They are smart and wary, challenging the angler to think about how to approach them, how to present the bait. Needless to say, hooking a big rainbow was one of the more exciting things I had done up to that point in my life.
While rainbows can be difficult to catch, when you get one on your line, that's an appropriate reward for a plan well executed. Just watching a rainbow jump out of the water flashing its namesake range of colors is a beautiful thing. So, I have an affinity for rainbow trout, something I want to pass down to my kids.
That's why I decided to plant some rainbows in our pond. I wanted my kids to have the experience of delicately placing a fly in front of a feeding trout and then waiting for the water's surface to break as the fish sucked in the bait. The fight afterward is great, but it's the presentation and anticipation of a "hit" that makes fly-fishing a great sport. I began the search for a trout farm where I could get some of these beautiful fish. It wasn't easy, but I finally succeeded. Excited, I called the place.
"Stoney Creek, may I help you?" an enthusiastic young woman answered. I asked if I could speak with someone about obtaining some rainbow trout. "I'll get my dad," she said.
After a few minutes I heard, "Yes, this is Steve. I hear you need some information about our trout."
I told Steve that I wanted to plant some rainbows in our pond, and he promptly asked me a number of questions regarding the size of the pond, its water source, what types of fish were already in it, and so on. I answered as best I could: "a half-acre ... underground spring ... bass and pan fish."
"Hmmm," Steve responded. "Do you know the temperature of the water?"
"It gets into the 70s during the summer."
Again Steve responded with, "Hmmm." Some type of language he had picked up from being around fish all day, I surmised. "I don't think the environmental conditions as you've described them are well suited for rainbows."
"Rainbows need highly oxygenated, cool water, ideally between 55 and 65 degrees. They can survive at slightly warmer temperatures, but it puts a lot of stress on them."
"So you don't think I can put rainbows in our pond?" I asked, obviously disappointed.
"If you do a few things to get more oxygen in the water and put some big logs into the pond to give the trout some shade, they will have a good chance of surviving. All you can do is try." He added that those changes also would benefit the bass and pan fish already in the pond — a point I didn't consider seriously at the time. With renewed excitement I asked if he had the equipment I needed to oxygenate the pond, and he said he had aerators that would do the trick. The logs would be a cinch — we had a number of fallen trees on our property. I then asked Steve how many trout I should get and what size they should be. Steve asked me how big the bass in the pond were.
"The largest one I've caught was eighteen inches," I said.
"Hmmm." The fish talk again.
With cautious optimism I queried, "What's the problem?"
"No problem," he said. "Just that you'll have to get some big trout. Bass can eat fish nearly as big as they are, or at least they'll try. If you don't get the right size trout, they won't have much of a chance in a small pond like yours. You'll need ten- to twelve-inch trout to be safe. About twenty-five to thirty of them will do."
A few days later I drove out to Steve's farm and picked up the trout and the aerator. Steve reiterated the importance of setting up the aerator promptly and getting the logs in the water, not only for shade but also to provide some cover and safety for the trout. He was concerned that relocating the trout would make them weak and vulnerable to the bass, so they would need places to hide. I told him I would get everything set up pronto.
I brought the trout home and, with kid-like eagerness, released them in the water. They all survived the trip and, after getting their bearings, swam off into the deeper parts of the pond. I then began to set up the aerator, but it was getting dark and a refreshing evening rain had begun. I told myself I would get to the aerator and the logs the next day.
Well, I got busy. The "next day" turned into "next week," which turned into "next month." As time passed, I noticed signs that something was wrong. After putting the rainbows in the pond, I often watched for rings of water gently disturbing the pond's serene surface, signaling that the trout were rising to the top to feed. Initially, I observed frequent flurries of surface-breaking activity in the morning and evening hours as the trout rose to grab their bug-filled breakfasts and dinners. But over time the telltale rings, the observable indicators of trout life, gradually faded. By the time I put the aerator and logs into the pond, it was too late.
In their own way, the trout had been telling me they were struggling in their new home. But I didn't listen or pay attention. I assumed that, since they are considered to be strong fish, the rainbows would be okay until I had time to create the environment that would give them the best chance for survival. I waited too long, and the trout paid the price.
I learned a valuable lesson about having the right environment when planting trout. No matter how strong and healthy the fish were when I put them in the pond, unless I was willing to change the environment, taking their needs into consideration, I was doomed to lose them. The lesson was an expensive one: Big rainbow trout aren't cheap.
What's in Your Pond?
People are much the same as rainbow trout when it comes to their environment. We put a lot of stress on people when we don't develop an environment for them in which they can survive and, ultimately, thrive. The emotional, cognitive, and physical energy it takes to cope with an unfriendly and intolerant environment will drain even the best and brightest of their potential. The stress will eventually take its toll in the form of inefficiency, poor performance, absenteeism, and even declining health.
In the same way that I didn't take responsibility for the newcomers to our pond, many organizations don't provide for the needs of new employees. Worse, they blame the people themselves for their inability to thrive in an environment that's not conducive to their even surviving. Organizations often blame people for problems that have their roots in structures, systems, and scripts. Situational, organizational factors depriving "new fish" of a healthy workplace are commonly seen as dispositional, individual traits. That is, problems are seen to lie with the individual. And when individuals are seen as the "problem," usually little effort is made to uncover systemic issues of exclusion, inequity, and intolerance.
Just as there are real and meaningful differences between various species of fish and the environments they need, there are real and meaningful differences between people and their workplace requirements. Whether the differences are between people of color and white folks, between Baby Boomers and members of Generation Y, or between men and women, failure to develop an open-minded and respectful organization that takes people's needs into account makes us less efficient and hampers our ability to compete with organizations that have created truly inclusive and conducive environments.
Like me with the knowledge I gained from trout farmer Steve, some organizations do their homework and become aware of the meaningful differences between people. They become enlightened about what it means and what it takes to be truly diverse and inclusive. But, also like me, some don't do anything with that knowledge. These organizations conceptually understand the need to change their environment or culture, but they feel no urgency or motivating passion to do so. Important knowledge is not activated. Strategy is not executed.
Often, there is an underlying belief that the existing environment should be adequate for anyone because it suits the majority of people already there relatively well. But evidence points to the contrary. Indeed, differences do matter. And those organizations that understand this fundamental concept will be the most competitive in the future in terms of recruiting, hiring, and retaining the "best and brightest" candidates, a pool that demographers say is only growing more diverse.
If I were to do it again, I would put the aerator and logs in the pond well before I put in the trout. The pond would be prepared before the trout arrived, ensuring their best chance of survival. It really wouldn't take much effort on my part to develop an environment in which trout could thrive. If I had done what I knew I needed to do, my family and I would now have the benefit and thrill of catching rainbows right in our front yard. And as trout farmer Steve said to me, if I had taken the steps to make the environment good for the trout, I also would have made it better for the bass and pan fish. Doing right for some actually can make things better for all. Wow, what a great concept! An inclusive environment that respects the many, as well as the few, is the hallmark of successful organizations in the twenty-first century.
Improving the Pond's Environment
To help you start improving the water in your organization's pond, here are some questions to ask, an activity, and an assignment for this week.
1. First glance. Historically, who has survived and flourished in your organizational "pond"? What steps have been taken to develop an environment conducive to the survival of all "fish"?
2. Looking inward. What is your own experience in the pond? Are you flourishing or barely surviving? What about the environment needs to change for you to thrive? For others to thrive?
3. What if? What if the next generation of employees contains new species of fish? How will you make sure your pond is ready?
4. Activity. Ask participants to assess the water quality of your pond by identifying five or six cultural characteristics of the organization and how they contribute to a healthy or unhealthy environment. What new fish might be entering your pond soon? What conditions are necessary for them and the existing fish to flourish? Work together to identify the elements needed for your new and improved organizational pond. Determine action steps needed to create the type of pond environment in which everyone can flourish. And then do them!
5. This week's assignment. Identify one deficit in your organizational pond that you can begin addressing immediately.
A Better Script
The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.
— Albert Einstein
Recently, I learned a lesson about how different perspectives and experiences produce different ways of seeing problems and, ultimately, different solutions to those problems. It's an embarrassing story, but I feel compelled to tell you about the power of "cognitive scripts."
The story begins with me being named the CVO ("Chief Vacuuming Officer") of my house, an honor bestowed by my wife. As CVO I report directly to the CEO (my wife) and I am responsible for vacuuming our house every week ... or so. Yes, indeed, I am in charge of sucking dust!
I gave myself a nice budget for a vacuum cleaner and promptly spent it on the best money could buy. This is no ordinary vacuum cleaner. It has six wheels that all swivel for great maneuverability. Its 6-amp motor has sucking power akin to that of distant relatives of a new lottery winner. If you want a hose attachment, any hose attachment, this vacuum cleaner has it. It has lights to tell you when an area is clean or dirty. And talk about technology: It has this HEPA filter thing that the manufacturer claims will trap 99.9998 percent of all harmful particles. So you get the picture. I bought a twenty-fourth-century machine to wreak havoc on twenty-first-century dirt!
One day while vacuuming with this technological marvel, I heard a pop and suddenly felt air blowing on my leg. I looked down to see that the door holding the HEPA filter had popped open. Not a problem, I thought, as I closed the filter door and resumed my duties. Not long after, however, the door flew open again. I turned off the vacuum cleaner to take a closer look and noticed something wrong with the latch. It didn't seem like a big deal, so I tried one more time to see if the door might hold against the pressure of the vacuum. It did not. The latch was broken. And as I thought the word broken, a little script activated in my head and the word tape emerged.
At this point I need to let you in on a bit of my history. I am a tape man. That is, if something is broken, I use tape to fix it. It could be any kind of tape — Scotch, electrical, masking, or the Holy Grail of tapes ... DUCT TAPE. Where did I learn this? Where did I get this "script"? Well, my stepfather taught me to use tape when I was a young boy. When things were broken, his solution was tape. He used tape to repair the torn wings of my paper airplanes, to hem his pants, and to seal leaky air hoses in our car. Tape wasn't messy and, more important, it always seemed to work.
So, to fix my vacuum cleaner, I retrieved some masking tape from our desk, placed a strip on the filter door, and then turned on the vacuum. I waited several minutes to see if the door would stay shut. And it did, as I knew it would. Fixed!
As I maneuvered the vacuum cleaner through the rooms on our main floor, I pondered the healing qualities of tape. Deep in thought and a little distraught about why tape has not received the credit it deserves, I again felt air blowing on my leg. The filter door had swung open again. Needs more tape, I thought.
I strategically placed more strips of masking tape until the filter door resembled a little cocoon. Surely this would hold. I began to vacuum again, but five minutes later the door flew open. Now I was getting frustrated. Obviously, I needed more tape. Not more quantity, more quality. Yes, I needed duct tape! With the roll in hand, using great care, I cut off a small piece, stuck it to my hand, and made my way back to the vacuum cleaner.
At about this time, my wife appeared, curious about why the vacuum cleaner was being turned on and off so often. She asked what was going on with the duct tape on my hand. As I explained about the filter door, she gave me that look that wives can give their husbands. You know, the one that says, "You're just stupid, aren't you?"
Without a word, but with a shake of her head, she walked over to the desk. At first I thought she was reaching for some tape, but her hand emerged holding a little rubber band. "Crazy woman," I thought. But I tried her solution because, after all, she is the CEO. I resumed vacuuming the carpet, certain that the dainty little rubber band soon would break. Secretly, I wanted the door to fly open, but five minutes went by, and then ten. The door remained shut. The rubber band was working. "Please break," I prayed to the tape gods. But the rubber band did not break. (Continues...)
Excerpted from What If? by Steve L. Robbins. Copyright © 2008 Steve L. Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
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