A Reality Check on #MeToo

This article has been put together after studying the issue in some depth; a series of informal interviews were conducted, information was gathered from a documentary shown on the BBC and some general internet based research was carried out. Finally the article was submitted to a focus group of females before its final publication for reasons that will be explained later.

In late February 2020 film producer Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and other related charges. The process that led to this started in 2017 when allegations began to surface that he had abused his position of power and influence to sexually abuse and rape many fledgling actresses and others within the movie industry. Almost all felt like they had no other choice, but to give in to him and remain silent. First one actress spoke out and then another and then another and before we knew it huge numbers of affected women were rising up and saying #MeToo.

The #MeToo movement had started over a decade earlier in 2006, but it was the Weinstein allegations that really brought it under the spotlight. It was a catalyst and it created a similar chain reaction to that seen in the UK when the Jimmy Saville scandal shone a light on the endemic culture of the BBC during the 1970s and 1980s.

Suddenly it seemed that Twitter in particular, but not only, was full of women from all walks of life who were also saying #MeToo.  My initial reaction was cynical as it seemed to me that many women were simply jumping on the bandwagon and this had some potential negative impacts. I was worried that such a deluge of complainants would cheapen the genuine testimonies of real victims and consequently securing convictions would become harder. It seemed to me that #MeToo was simply trending and that was all it was. It’s all too easy to align with a fashionable hashtag nowadays with no real integrity.

However, I know that cynicism can often be the enemy of truth so I carried out some informal research and was shocked by the results. A single question was asked:

Have you in your life, ever had somebody behave towards you in a way that is sexually inappropriate that has made you in the very least feel uncomfortable?

When asking I set strict limits on the question. I only asked ladies who were aged at least 18 as while sexual predation affects younger people too it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to approach such young girls with the question.  I asked respondents just to answer with a simple yes or no, without details. It wasn’t the purpose of the question to be intrusive and make the respondents feel uncomfortable.

Out of a sample group of more than 50 women all but one answered yes and in the most clear cut example one particular lady in her 20s looked me straight in the eyes, raised her hands, and simply said ‘me too.’ The lady who answered no went on to explain her view which I will comment on later.  This means that based on my small sample  an overwhelming 98% of respondents identified with ‘me too’.

My conclusion was simple and shocking. #MeToo is real and it affects almost every woman.

This is a profound indictment of at least a portion of the men in our society and it indeed challenges the behaviours of all men.

A lot has been made in recent years about how women should change their behaviours around men and the obvious response is – why should she?

I came across an early example of this when I was in secondary school in the 1980s. Back in those days boys were absolutely forbidden from wearing any kind of earrings in school, but girls were allowed to wear stud earrings, but no ‘dangly’ ones. This was possibly unfair to the boys too (but they were different times – even though that is never actually an excuse), but the primary reason why girls weren’t allowed to wear dangly earrings was for health and safety purposes – just in case they got hurt because boys thought it might be fun to pull on them or even yank them out.

This was the earliest example I know of girls having to change their behaviours to be safer around boys.  More recent examples have included encouraging girls never to go anywhere alone, especially at night, to carry keys between their fingers so they can slash out at any would be attacker and even telling girls to moderate what to do on a night out and even what they wear.

Again I ask the question – why should she?

It really should be as simple as ‘Hey guys just leave (wo)me(n) alone!’

A lot has been made about men needing to learn to control themselves, and while I am sure it only applies to a minority of men, I wholeheartedly agree. However, further research has shown that it is not necessarily so black and white and while it is always wrong to blame the girl there has to be wisdom and common sense rather than naivety.

I am definitely not defending any man who even slightly crosses the line, but society needs to take a serious hard look at how it projects women and the consequences of this image projection.

All too often opinions are influenced by the media. A particularly stark example of this is both the video and lyrical content of many pop videos.  I am no prude but when lyrics are reduced to sexualised and objectified language about a woman’s anatomy and what it’s for (!) and the video content exaggerates this, it projects an image.  It is bad enough when a male artiste is saying such a thing, but even worse when women allow themselves to be treated in such a way or even sing about themselves in accordance to this fashion.

Secondly some women have made a point of wearing the most provocative and revealing clothes they can find and wear legally to send a message that could be summarised as ‘I can wear what I want – it’s not an invitation – deal with it!’

I absolutely agree. Whatever she is wearing, it is never open permission for a guy to ‘help himself’.  The truth is that guys who have a problem with women wearing anything revealing are the ones who have the problem because the problem is their own thoughts and not what the women are wearing.  However, just as equally such women cannot then get offended when they find themselves being stared at.  You can’t have it both ways.

I was at a rock concert in the late 1990s and I was really pleasantly surprised by the good behaviour of the crowd.  I found myself in the mosh pit with an old school friend when he suddenly signalled that his shoelace had come undone.  Under the circumstances this was potentially catastrophic.  I indicated to those immediately around us and 8 to 10 people formed a protective circle so he could go down and tie his shoelace.

I was eagerly awaiting a review of the concert and in those days the internet was still in its infancy so I needed to wait for a magazine to come out.  I read the review and then the fan letters that were on the following page.

One girl had written that she was appalled that when she went crowd surfing she was groped and touched inappropriately by several men.  She had deliberately and consciously climbed on top of the crowd knowing that there would be huge numbers of men, many of whom had drunk large quantities of alcohol. Of course this shouldn’t have happened nor does it excuse the men’s behaviour. In an ideal world all would have been fine, but I found her outlook naïve.  When you climb on top of a crowd and let them carry you wherever they want (usually to the front as it is a tried and tested method of getting out of the crowd if it becomes too much) you are literally putting yourself in the hands of strangers.

When in a crowd like that the first thing anybody knows about a crowd surfer is an elbow or heel in the back of the head and instinctively the crowd just passes the person over without any real awareness of where they make contact. It is just possible that I was one of the guys who touched her ‘inappropriately’ as I tried to remove her foot from my ear.  Having said that, I have heard that girls can usually tell the difference between an accidental touch and a more lingering, intentional one.  Being a guy there is no way I can comment on this.

Which brings me to another point concerning responsibility.  Responsibility and blame are not synonyms and shouldn’t be interpreted as such and especially with what follows below.

A 2019 documentary A High School Rape goes Viral tells the story of a young girl who went to a party and according to at least one eye witness was very flirtatious and all around the boys earlier on until she got so drunk that she was barely conscious.  She was then driven to a second party by two boys after refusing the intervention of some of her classmates who urged her not to go because she didn’t know them. She was so drunk that at one point in the evening she was photographed being carried by a couple of people, one had hold of her arms and another, her legs. At some time after leaving the first party two boys had sex with her in front of witnesses and she woke up the next morning knowing something had happened, but not remembering a thing.

There is no doubt about this.  It was rape.

Consent is active and must always remain so. Passivity or failure to give permission is just that. Any answer other than an uncoerced YES is always NO; end of discussion.

However the story went viral with comments even being left using the word rape and other comments suggested she was so far gone that they thought she was dead.  This makes it even worse because witnesses failed to intervene, which in my mind makes them as guilty as those who raped her.

What challenged me was what was said on the radio, played in full on the documentary.  I wanted to disagree with him, but found myself unable to. To paraphrase:

When people go to a party things happen.  She was flirting and playing around with the boys and they took an interest and they probably did rape her, or maybe she consented and regretted it later.  It all comes down to ‘he said she said’ ultimately… just saying…

I think it is obvious why I find this objectionable, but it raises a valid point.  In the heat of the moment things happen – often regrettable and terrible things – and while the blame clearly lies with the boys (who were convicted later) the responsibility lies at the hands of all who were present, those who raped her, those who failed to intervene and the girl herself.

I know this may offend some, but responsibility means taking good care and behaving in such a way not to make oneself vulnerable and trusting in relative strangers is naivety at best.

Let me illustrate with a less inflammatory example. Many years ago a guy who I knew got so drunk he barely knew where he was and even walking was an effort.  I wasn’t there at any point in the evening, neither when he was drinking nor later when he was staggering home, but I was there to deal with the aftermath when he turned up at my home the next morning asking for help.

It was late and dark and to get home after his night out he had two choices. He could either take the shorter route through an unlit park by a river (which was more of a storm drain than a true river). The area around the park was a known haunt of gangs of drunken youths who had a reputation for yobbish and violent behaviour. Alternatively he could take a more circular route that was well lit, but would take probably 10-15 minutes longer. In his drunken state he chose to go through the park and he was confronted by five yobs who mugged him and stole his phone. He attempted to fight back and they threw him in the river. A few minutes later one of his attackers pulled him out. This was almost certainly not out of any compassion, but probably because he had enough wits about him to realise the serious legal implications if their hapless victim drowned or was really seriously hurt.

The first thing I knew about the incident was when he turned up at my door the next morning with a battered and bruised face and I went with him to the police and did the best I could to help him.

The point I am making is this.  There was no way that it was this guy’s fault and there is no excuse for violence and the mugging he was subjected to.  However his state had impaired his ability to make decisions and there were serious consequences that could have been so much worse.  He wasn’t lucky and he wasn’t to blame, but he needs to take some responsibility because his decisions had left him vulnerable. In an ideal world he would have gone home and woken up with a hangover and nothing worse.

In principle is this any different to the girl at the party? She had even turned down an easy opportunity not to go with the two guys to the second party where tragically she was raped.  I reiterate, like the mugging victim, it wasn’t her fault, but her state had left her vulnerable.

Finally I would like to come back to the one girl who didn’t say #MeToo as she had an interesting qualification to her point.  To summarise she said that at times people are too sensitive and there is too much political correctness nowadays and just maybe a comment that is meant to be lighthearted should be interpreted that way however vulgar it might be. Additionally a certain amount of messing about is just that and people shouldn’t make such a big deal of things.

I am quite sure that most will disagree with her, but her point raises an interesting point about interpretation. Words and gestures are interpreted by those they are aimed at.

Maybe it is an English thing but when I get together with two of my best friends from school, including the one who was at the rock concert, we do nothing but insult each other mercilessly. We don’t get offended as it is probably some kind of indirect affection and just the way we are.

So maybe some girls do feel like the one who has never categorised herself in the #MeToo camp and think we take things too seriously.  The point is this; if you don’t know a girl leave her alone or in the right social circumstances approach her with respect. If she is a stranger don’t say anything vulgar or do anything to make her feel threatened or uncomfortable and particularly sexually. Work on this assumption and you will never go wrong.  Good relationships grow and boundaries develop and change as they do so.

Appropriate behaviours are defined by respectful relationships; it really is as simple as that!

© Richard Horton Omega Support Services 2019

Feedback from the Focus Group

Before publishing I shared this article with a small group of women whose input I valued. I did this for one primary reason. Discussing such a difficult issue as #MeToo is undoubtedly hard enough for women and in another way it is hard for guys to have a real conversation about it as sensitivity seems to run contrary to candour. So it was my wish that I could express a real opinion without offense.

Some modifications were made to the original text thanks to the feedback and it is unnecessary to go into the details. However the views of some of those who asked are worth sharing. Their names have remained anonymous and their comments have been streamlined, but not posted without their express approval.

Some people may find it offensive. But it’s quite a sore subject

I agree with what you said. It was rape though. But everyone was in the wrong like you said

She shouldn't have got herself in such a state as that and then rely on random men to take care of her

I have been in a situation like that before... too drunk to make a decision. But i never went on about it. Mistakes happen.

K.

This means that the respondent is clearly also saying #MeToo while acknowledging her own responsibility. Please remember that I make a strong distinction between blame and responsibility. As with the girl in the documentary there is absolutely no blame attached.

Another person wrote:

I didn't find [the article] offensive – it’s subjective, but based on facts and discussions you had.

Well, it's interesting to see that guys have similar opinion […]

[I know it was written by a man but] if I hadn't known […] I would have said that it had been written by a woman  🙂

M.

A third commentator wrote:

I am so pleased that you asked me to read your piece of writing as it's something I do have an opinion on. You have not offended me in any way- in fact you have hit the nail right on the head! Like the girl that said 'no' to your question I feel people are too sensitive and that comments can be taken the wrong way & political correctness [has] gone mad.

When I think back to when we were school, boys would often be flirtatious but I wouldn't think anything of it & would laugh it off. Yes if the guy pushed & pushed & had no respect then that's a different issue. Working with engineers in my previous job, I enjoyed the banter & there were many things that could have been taken the wrong way but it was harmless banter & they knew their limits.

As for the subject of girls wearing provocative clothes, I agree it certainly doesn't give a man a right to help himself. However, women know by dressing this way they will get a reaction – it's one a way that a male is attracted to a female.

As for the drinking- everyone knows that you lose the ability to make sensible decisions. Back in our day people would [often] get off with someone after a few drinks & then regret it but that was the end of it. […] If drink is involved, both parties need to be careful with their actions. It does seem to sometimes get all blown out of proportion & men wrongly accused. I'm not saying there aren't some genuine cases as I know there are & these men have to punished. Your summary at the end is spot on'

K.

And finally,

The only paragraph I had a ‘problem’ with as such [was the paragraph that starts] “All too often” [when discussing pop culture]. The part I wasn’t sure about was “when women allow themselves to be treated in such a way”. Not quite sure how you could put it. I suppose I’m thinking along the lines of women buying into today’s sexualised culture because they feel they have no choice. It is what is expected of them because physical attractiveness and being sexy is positively valued. I think some may view the points raised as controversial. Some would argue that women shouldn’t have to moderate their behaviour at all. I think the points you make are valid that men should be taught “don’t rape” rather than teaching women to “avoid getting raped”. At the same time as a woman, and mother of daughters, this is balanced by common sense and not making oneself vulnerable, which we shouldn’t have to do but this is the world we live in sadly.

S.

Rather than adjusting the original text I decided a better approach was to leave it alone and include the opinion as I believe that S addressed the issues far better than I could have.

Finally I would just like to thank all of those who expressed their views in helping me shape this article.

Extinct Rebellion

In the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, Brian is a simple man who just happened to be born approximately 2000 years ago in an obscure Middle-Eastern town called Bethlehem.  As he grew he was mistaken for the Messiah and against his wishes was proclaimed as such and venerated by followers he never sought or wanted.  In one particularly funny scene his followers gathered at his home and demanded that he came out to greet them.  His mother appeared at the window and just before closing the shutters she shouted ‘He is not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’

Fiction has become reality and now we too have our own false Messiah.  She is a reluctant hero for many and as with Brian she doesn’t see herself as many do.  Her name is Greta Thunberg and she is a False Messiah for the start of this Millennium.

Don’t get me wrong.  Please read on and don’t fall into one of the two polarised camps and judge me.  I am not going to condemn her outright nor am I going to raise my hands in worship as many Extinction Rebellion devotees appear to be doing.   A lot of memes deride her for her age, inexperience and lack of education, but this unfairly denies her a voice and smacks of elitism.  Some adults are more educated than others. Does this mean that those less educated have no right to a voice?  Some have even lowered themselves to making personal remarks about her, which are both unfounded and unhelpful.  Even at the Golden Globes Awards in January 2020 comedian Ricky Gervais took a sideswipe at her while criticising many of his peers by accusing them of spending less time in school than she has.

I get her passion and understand her desire for change to save the planet.  I even get the way she sees the world in black and white absolutes.  Is she a figurehead merely being used by others around her?  She denies this but ask yourself how much control does she really have over a worldwide movement that has millions of followers?  She has been proclaimed – just as Brian was – to be more than she is.

Incidentally, I have read her book (paperback) which in itself raises ecological issues.  Her book is short and full of repetition but it is fair to say it is a de facto manifesto.  In it she calls for an absolute halt to greenhouse emission producing activities and she is not only focused on carbon.  From time to time she goes back to her ticking time bomb that has been winding down since climate experts declared we have 12 years to do something before climate change spins out of control and goes beyond the tipping point.  The book is essentially the passionate rantings of a teenager.

Greta:  How many trees were destroyed during the print run?  Were they sustainable?  And what about the ink?  Just asking…

She advocates strikes by school children, having initiated this herself.  This is where I understand her desire for change, but it is counterproductive.  To harm children’s education only harms them and has little or no effect on others.  At best it galvanised more followers and she may consider that to be a price worth paying.

I was in KFC recently (for my sins) and my attention was drawn to a young girl who was probably no more than 12.  She was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘My Generation will Save the World’.

‘What arrogance.’ I commented to my wife.

The young girl tucked into her unsustainable chicken while sitting there dressed in her fast fashion (of which the t-shirt was a major part).  At best she was a hypocrite and at worst she was doing something just because it is trending and covered in hashtags.  I might be being a bit judgemental as she may well be oblivious to everything and I am unfairly maligning her.  However, the point remains that the whole Extinction Rebellion thing is rife with hypocrisy, unless of course its members are scraping a subsistence living which is completely off the grid.

Extinction Rebellion is arrogant and a borderline terrorist organisation.  It is impossible to do the wrong thing for the right reasons with integrity.  In late 2019 Sky News did a special feature called Inside the Rebellion and through the lens of a handful of members it showed how they function and how they train new joiners.  Let us consider their modus operandi.

Members are generally organised into cells that come together to form mass protests, such as those seen in London in recent months and they believe in non-violent protests and training is provided on how to do this.

Activist Roman Paluch Machnik compares himself to both Gandhi and Martin Luther King and states categorically that a key strategy of Extinction Rebellion is to clog up the legal system and drain police and other legal resources.  When he converted (his words not mine!) to Extinction Rebellion he had to agree that he was willing to be arrested.  Disposable phones are used to help make members untraceable and according to Extinction Rebellion artist Miles Glyn they ‘are non-violent and aiming to create a new society.’

Another activist, Dr Bing Jones, claims that as a representative of a literate scientific group he wants to use Extinction Rebellion ‘to make a splash’.  He says, ‘The idea is that people can do what they like so long as it is within the principles of Extinction Rebellion and self-organising systems and self-organising groups are a key part to the whole thing.  The downside is it can be a bit chaotic.  It is very much a mixed bag and it’s rather marvellous.’

After gluing himself to the front door of the Department for Business and Energy he was eventually unglued and led away by the police.  As they took him away, he declared that ‘today was a real achievement – good work today!’

Another protester, 19 year old Daisy Wyatt, helps provide ‘protest training’.  During an interview her mother commented that Daisy has got more tattoos and a nose ring since joining Extinction Rebellion although she does concede that Daisy seems to have found her identity.   Of course Daisy can do what she wants, but the nose ring and tattoos seem to be more indicative of a 19 year old rebelling and looking for identity more than anything else as further demonstrated by her at the protest site in Trafalgar Square.   Daisy shows the cameras her tent and says brazenly with the police in the background, ‘Of course I won’t show you what’s in it because of present company.’

I may be wrong, but it has to be a reference to something illegal and bearing in mind Extinction Rebellion believe in lawful protests it not too much of an assumption to think she is talking about illegal substances.

Protest sites spring up as tent cities, as precedented by Occupy Wall Street and alongside the campers other tents appear that are dedicated to well-being and meditation.  These sites are examples of what Extinction Rebellion call regenerative culture.  Again there is no problem with this, but is Extinction Rebellion a climate protest group or a quasi-religion – an idea further reinforced by the group’s own ‘eco-prayer’.

Furthermore how far has this drifted away from Greta’s vision and how much control does she really have?

Angie Selter, described as a middle class and middle aged member stated, ‘I have been arrested and to prison many times.  […] In this country it’s fine, we don’t get tortured and we get some food.  We get an hour’s exercise in the fresh air so compared to what most people in the world have to suffer – absolutely nothing – I don’t know why people are so scared of it.’

Her idealism is at least in part fuelled by the fact that she can protest whereas the greatest global sinners in the world are autocratic states like China and Russia or emerging economic powerhouses such as Brazil and India.

The fact is that she is targeting the wrong nations.  Britain is among many nations that are moving in the right direction – even if not fast enough for some.  Maybe she should stand before the Kremlin or in Tiananmen Square and protest?  According to recent figures more than half of Britain’s energy now comes from renewables and the proportions are growing all the time.  One of the London group’s aims is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025, 25 years ahead of government targets at the time of the news report.  Since then, as a vote winner, all of the major parties (with the exception of the Green Party who already had a short time frame) revised this figure downwards.

Extinction Rebellion believes in people power but that can mean chaos and inconvenience for those not involved and consequently aviation and airports are primary targets.  London City Airport has been a primary target.  One protester, actually managed to climb on top of an aeroplane, just imagine the public outcry if he had been a Muslim, not that it matters.  He endangered an aircraft and therefore it has to be understood as an act of terrorism.  Another protester who looked more like an anarchist than a really passionate climate change protester, climbed on the building and declared, ‘We’re taking this airport’

airport taken

Picture: ‘We’re taking this airport.’

How dare he?  And how dare they?  A fact of modern living is travelling.  How would they feel if a bunch of protestors ruined their holiday that they had been looking forward to all year?  What makes them better and have the right to destroy others’ plans?  Travel in general does have a heavy environmental cost but persuasion rather than coercion is going to me more effective.

This brings me neatly to the next absurdity that is Extinction Rebellion.

For some inexplicable reason one of the targets of the recent London protests was the London Transport Network.  Protesters climbed on top of a London Underground train and unfurled a banner.  Why are they targeting public mass transport systems?  These are far more environmentally friendly than individuals using their cars.

Activisim demands real action and not just words and anarchy.  It is almost inconceivable that I consider well-known petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson as a paradigm of this.  In a recent interview (The Jonathan Ross Show broadcast on ITV on 7th December 2019) he slammed Greta Thunberg as dangerous, although he admits that after a recent visit to Cambodia when he witnessed the dramatic effects of climate change for himself he too now has come to understand the devastation we are causing.  He commented with a smirk that it would be far better to plant 7000 trees and be carbon neutral than to sail across the Atlantic to New York on a yacht that was essentially plastic with a diesel engine as a reserve.

Extinction Rebellion is essentially hypocritical and until they withdraw to their caves it will always be so.  Predominantly teenaged groupies, clad in fast fashion and adorned with cheap plastic accessories, are Extinction Rebellion’s army.  Zealous millennials ready to fight for their planet – on this point I concede respect for them – but so wrapped up in the trappings of modernity they cannot see the lie their lifestyles make of their beliefs    Smartphones and laptops powered by toxic batteries, that even endanger the exploited factory workers often in the Far East, drive the rebellion that is reliant on sharing information and rapid communication.

During the making of their documentary, Sky News filmed an Extinction Rebellion planning meeting taking place.  And there it was for the whole world to see.  In prominent view was a single use plastic bottle – the archenemy of the environment.  If the purchaser’s principles are so strong, why didn’t he order a drink in a glass or cup or go to a more ethical café or even better bring a flask from home?

Extinction Rebellion with Plastic bottle

Extinction Rebellion complete with a plastic bottle.

According to Sky News a certain fringe of Extinction Rebellion members believe that breaking the law is ‘considered a necessary sacrifice’.  In one example a protester jumped in front of a taxi.  The driver said if he had hit her he would have lost his licence and his livelihood through no fault of his own and this brings me to my final point.

Extinction Rebellion are misdirecting their protests and not only by targeting the London Underground.  The truth is that with the exception of the few, most of us cannot make any meaningful change to the climate as an individual (we cannot all plant 7000 trees like Jeremy Clarkson did),

Yes collective actions can make a difference, but my household recycling won’t make a drop of difference on its own.  Only total community engagement can do this.

So rather than targeting the masses, Extinction Rebellion would be better off targeting large corporations such as supermarkets that individually wrap cucumbers in single use plastic and package meat in oversized plastic containers.  The same can be said for toy manufacturers who are just as guilty for overusing packaging; and these are just two simple examples that quickly jump to mind.

Targeting the producers and educating the end users is a far better idea than denying that family who have save up all year and not had a holiday in 5 years.

Greta started by thinking she was taking a stand and for this I respect her, but the whole thing has got out of control and there is no way a teenager has overall control of everything that Extinction Rebellion does.  Extinction Rebellion is full of hypocrisy and is frequently downright dangerous and often misdirects its protests.  Most are idealists, but some are anarchists.  The whole organisation is flawed as is their Messiah’s thinking.

Brian wasn’t the Messiah, nor is Greta and the whole Rebellion should go extinct!

Much of the information for this article has been taken from Greta Thunberg’s own book and a Sky News documentary ‘Inside the Rebellion.’

© Richard Horton, Omega Support Services. 2020

Dealing with Dissenting Voices

A recent post on Facebook drew my attention to this issue and I thought it worthy of some further exploration.

However before dealing directly with the matter at hand I want us to remind ourselves of what Omega have written before concerning criticism as it may help inform the debate.  While the value of constructive criticism has long been accepted as a positive force we also believe that criticism can always be helpful in driving improvement and creating positive change.

Loosely speaking criticism falls into three categories and they should elicit certain responses, although responses to the second and third type are similar.

  • The criticism is right, I did something wrong, I behaved badly, it was my fault – or simply I messed up. The response is obvious, put it right, change your behaviour, upskill or go for extra training.  If you still can’t do what is required reconsider whether or not you are even in the right place and if not change where you work.
  • The criticism is right, but it wasn’t me! This is harsh and unfair, but there has to be a reason that the blame has been levelled at you.  Is it a personality issue? Does the person not like you?  Have they misunderstood something?  The truth is something went wrong and it needs fixing, so take a positive stance and look for solutions rather than finger pointing or even blame evasion.  Take responsibility and own the issue and at the same time do your best to be perfect in attitude and deed.  Deal with facts that can be empirically demonstrated.  The truth always outs in the end.
  • The criticism is totally wrong. The one who is criticising has the wrong end of the stick, they have been misinformed, have made a bad judgment call or simply are malicious.  As with the second case it is not fair, it is not right and it is unacceptable.  As with the second type of criticism described above the response is to deal with empirical facts and use the truth to create the correct perception.  Ask yourself why this person is playing the blame game.  Interestingly current research suggested that good people often leave their job because of the way they are treated by the person immediately above them in their vertical, in other words it is more likely to be the supervisor or team leader than the department head or CEO.

The second and third type of criticism has to be managed by shaping and improving the perception of those around you.  A few years ago I knew somebody who was the expert in his particular field in the company he worked for.  He delivered high quality solutions on time every time without fail.  In other words he was an extremely good worker who the company would be foolish to let go.  However, he had charged relationships with those around him and especially his team leader who was incredibly frustrated with him.   His work simply wasn’t enough for her.

So I found myself in a coaching situation with him and without any information from his team leader I immediately worked out what the issue was.  During our coaching sessions he would slouch in his chair and frequently sit with his arms folded.  Furthermore he would give minimal answers and look around the room.  Yes he would always answer my questions but his input was minimal and his behaviour suggested a lack of interest and engagement.  It was also clear that his behaviour towards me wasn’t personal – we got on really well and had a good rapport – it was just the way he was, very phlegmatic and laid back.  So at the start of a coaching session I told him to sit up straight, maintain eye contact and expand his answers beyond simple headlines.  The result was a revelation.  He became a different person, more engaged, more enthusiastic and more dynamic.  He reported back to me that he increased his level of engagement with his team leader and it revolutionised their working relationship.  His excellent quality, work rate and reliability did not change, only the way he presented himself and shaped the perceptions of those around him.  We all have the power to do this.

A final note on criticism is that ideally it should always be delivered positively and politely (pleases and thank yous as well as other polite respectful phrases cost nothing).  However even if it is badly delivered it is wise to hear the message behind the words used.

So now to the matter at hand – how do we deal with dissenting voices?

Before we start though we must remember that a little bit of disagreement is healthy for an organisation.  The ability to voice our own view is vital even if it is in disagreement with the leader.  A leader surrounded by ‘Yes Men’ is a formula for disaster.  The leader may steer the ship towards the metaphorical iceberg and the ‘Yes Men’ will hold the wheel on course!

Dissenting voices are often the consequence of dissatisfaction and the key to dealing with them is to understand the root course of this dissatisfaction.  It should always start with self-examination.

Is my vision and leadership style correct and appropriate, does the dissenting voice have some validity.  Should I tweak my vision and/or the way I communicate it?  Should I increase engagement and inclusiveness?  How much should I share and how much should I expect others to give?  Am I setting the right tone and providing an example of the values and working practices that I demand of my people?

Leaders should never be untouchable in their ivory towers.  A young man who I know, who has recently found himself in a leadership position has come under a lot of criticism, but having spent time with him he has the two key qualities that matter; he is teachable and humble and while he is still very much learning the ropes, these two qualities stand him in good stead.

Next we should examine the dissenter.  Why is (s)he dissenting?  Key to this is understanding the underlying motive.  Is the person a builder or destroyer?  Are they seeking to usurp power?  Do they just want to bring you down?  The answers to these questions defines our approach to how we deal with things:

The Arguer:  This person just disagrees because they know they can.  Although it is not in the capacity of leadership I have a friend who disagrees strongly on one of my views and he likes to engage me in this just to provoke debate.  It is pointless and a waste of time, I will never convince him to my view nor me to his.  Don’t use valuable time on meaningless activities like this and focus on leading.  Hot air is empty and the chances are if the leader doesn’t take him seriously then nobody will.  Don’t indulge him and he will give up.

The Influencer: This person has the respect of many and his voice carries a great deal of weight.  He is dangerous and can use misinformation and charisma to challenge the leader and direct others away.  People can often be easily influenced, just look at the constant bombardment of fake news that we encounter on a daily basis.  People will ultimately make up their own minds, but the way forward is to communicate the truth with clarity and no ambiguity.  A sound voice that gives clear direction will minimise the disruptive power of the influencer.

The Insurrectionist:  This person is gunning for the leader.  We know the type, they do nothing but tear down, they think they can do a better job, they gather a band of followers and poison them against the leadership.  He is a thorn in the leader’s side, a threat and a challenge.  This is the most dangerous dissenter especially if equipped with charisma and popularity.  You could present an opportunity to the Insurrectionist in that you give them something to do.  Create a sink or swim situation, while secretly hoping they sink.  But what if they succeed, even for a short period of time?  They become validated.  This is an unwise move because even if they do succeed their behaviour sets a template of behaviour for others to follow and it won’t be long until another Insurrectionist threatens them.  The culture of the organisation becomes destabilised and can potentially lose everything.  The insurrectionist cannot have a future in an organisation.  If they know better encourage them to strike out on their own and they can sink or swim and understand the consequences of their own actions.

Finally I would like to finish with a relatively well known story that brings things together.  I have paraphrased it slightly and glossed over and simplified some of the details, but the point remains.

There was once a king who had come from very humble origins and who by all accounts was a very good king.  However, after he had been ruling his kingdom for a while he became complacent and forgot about how he had risen to such a position.  One day he was walking on the rooftop of his palace and surveying all that he had and he saw a beautiful naked woman relaxing.  In his mind he immediately decided he must have her.  He was the king after all, so why shouldn’t he?

He soon realised that she was married and he contrived a situation where he was able to seduce her and furthermore to protect his secret he put her husband on the front line of the next great battle he faced.  Of course the husband was killed and the king had removed the threat.

Meanwhile because the king was distracted his son had positioned himself at the palace gate and was telling the people not to disturb the king as he was no longer interested.  It would be better if they shared their problems and injustices with him.  In time the son became a confidant to many and they trusted him with their secrets.  Eventually the son decided that he would make a better king than his father and led a rebellion that very nearly succeeded.

The king wised up just in time and moved against his son and quashed the rebellion.  The king lost his son and his kingdom was irreparably damaged.  His glory and the glory of his kingdom was never the same again and his reign became a shadow of what it had been.  Later when one of his surviving sons inherited the kingdom he was able to bring it to its greatest glory, but it was a short-lived golden age and by the time of the next generation it was faded and divided.  The remaining part of the original kingdom had some periods that were better than others, but it eventually disappeared into the mists of history.

Concerning our discussion there are three key things to observe.

  • The king was in the wrong. He had become distracted and lost his way.  He had become more concerned with fulfilling his desires than leading his people.  An early mentor of mine once said ‘it is a dangerous thing to spend time walking on the rooftop instead of engaging with your people’.  Leaders need to stay focused and engaged and not lose sight of their vision and responsibility.
  • The son was in the wrong, he set himself up in opposition and for a time offered an alternative. He was no leader he was an usurper who took advantage when the king was distracted.  To use a modern phrase, when the cat is away the mice will play comes to mind.
  • The people were confused. Lack of clear leadership meant that many of the people chose the alternative as it seemed to be accessible and presented what appeared to be the better option.

Ultimately it was the king’s fault.  His failure of leadership resulted in dissention and conflict.  If he had remained focused and consistent and even gone down to the palace gate instead of spending time on his rooftop disaster could have been averted.   So do not allow dissenters to destroy what you are building, but also keep an eye on your own leadership style and approach to others.  To make sure the message gets through I repeat do not spend your time walking on the rooftop.

Story Telling

Storytelling has been around since the dawn of mankind and was a great way of memorising traditions and history .  Oral tradition was the only means of keeping records before the invention of writing.  Writing which was developed in the Middle East (probably by the Sumerians in modern day Iran or Iraq) provided an alternative way to record the histories of people and it was a natural process for histories to become simply stories.  The Epic of Gilgamesh that dates from earlier than 1000 BC is widely considered to be the first written story and prior to being recorded it had been kept alive by oral tradition.  Later what we recognise now as the Old Testament was recorded that traced the formation and travails of Israel before moving into the New Testament.

Pilgrim’s Progress written in 1678

Stories don’t only entertain, but can be used to inform and educate.

While not unique among the ancients, for story telling, Jesus is widely recognised as an outstanding example through his use of parable and allegory.  John Bunyan used The Pilgrim’s Progress to convey the Christian journey and a similar trend has continued into modernity.  In the 20th century the Christian apologist C S Lewis picked up this theme again with the Narnia books and in particular The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which is a transparent allegory of the Christian message and even references Old Testament principles in the light of New Testament interpretations.  Some elements were obvious like the sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan; while others were less so – such as the deep magic which represented the law that condemned and the deeper magic which stood for the grace of God

Away from Christianity a personal favourite, that I was introduced to as a teenager, was Pawn of Prophecy (Part 1 of the Belgariad series) by David Eddings, a  coming of age novel set in a fantasy world.  A key character is Belgarath the Sorcerer who is initially introduced as the Storyteller who provides the back story for the boy Garion as he starts his epic quest..  Eddings drew on real world oral traditions as his methodology for bringing the world to life with its vibrant history of the Wars of Gods and Men in their fight for supremacy as good sought to overcome evil.

Before I get too distracted I want to underline the point that story telling is an essential communicative tool and it has a role in the workplace too.

The best and most effective communicators have always used stories to help make their point.

So what do good story tellers do?

  1. Real life stories make the speaker more real and can help hold the interest of the listener when well delivered.
  2. Stories illustrate better than abstract principles and ideas.  A good story can be used as an anchor to make a salient point or simplify an idea.
  3. Stories can entertain and amuse and enable greater rapport with the audience.
  4. A good story should engage the emotions, build anticipation and stimulate the imagination.

Some Does and Don’ts for Story Tellers.

  1.  If you decide to tell a story or anecdote it must be short and make a point or illustrate something
  2. Don’t make the story too long because the story then becomes the dominant element rather than the point that is being made.
  3. Don’t allow the story to sidetrack you into a memory trawl.  Stay on point.
  4. Use stories sparingly as there needs to be real content behind the message
  5. Employ your full soft skills tool set to communicate and engage the audience as much as possible.  Do so as naturally as you can while avoiding repeated fillers and unnecessary sounds like ‘erh’ and ‘erm’.

Can you think of any more?  Please use the form below to let us know about any ideas you have.

Omega will soon be launching some training on how to develop and use Story Telling as a communicative tool in a business environment, so keep in touch.

In Search of Meritocracy

I am going to start this article as unpolitically-correctly as possible, but I challenge you to read it to the end and see if you still disagree with me.

When it comes to work I don’t believe in minority rights, nor do I believe in feminist agendas or staff quotas.  I do not see race, religion or disability nor do I see sexual orientation.

I see people.

The fact is that when we compartmentalise people we end up creating an us and them agenda, however noble our motivations may be.  What really matters is the person’s ability to do the job, nothing more and nothing less.  This is the bottom line.

In other words what I am searching for is that ever so elusive thing known as meritocracy; or put simply people get on (or don’t) at work because of their qualifications, knowledge and experience.  When recruiting or promoting it is for the good of a company to have the best person in that position they are hiring for and everything else is irrelevant.  The best person for the job can be defined as a correct blend of competence, experience, soft skills and ambition.

It is patronising to – let’s go with stereotype here – give a woman a job to make up a quota or to make the boardroom seem more balanced.  They know she is there to make up the numbers and she knows that it is highly unlikely that she is there because she deserves it on an equal footing.  She may be the best woman for the job, but if being a woman was the key qualifying criteria, this shows nothing more than blatant disrespect that in my view is counterproductive.

Furthermore if an organisation is that skewed towards male hegemony, offering a woman a token position to fulfil their need to appear as an equal opportunities employer is not going to make any difference.

I can make similar arguments about any other marginalised or minority group and while I accede to the points many of these people raise, quotas and pushing a minority agenda is not the solution.  I will also further agree that there is a need for greater tolerance and understanding in society as a whole and not just in the workplace, but forming (often militantly minded) groups has the habit of provoking even greater hostility from the intolerant and hateful.

This is consistent with meritocracy because if a gay employee is experiencing any kind of discrimination it is wrong.  However, meritocracy argues that sexuality is irrelevant in the workplace and assuming ‘ze’ [1] is a competent employee it is the intolerant who should be reprimanded or even sacked.

‘Mobbing’ – I hate that word – just call it bullying – has many similar characteristics and in each case the hostile party should be shown the door.   There is no difference.

The solution is somehow elusive.  We must ensure recruitment practices focus only on merit, and not the agenda of recruiting individuals with all of their pre-formed opinions and expectations.  One way of doing this is to widen the decision making body who initially shortlists and then interviews the candidate.  This same body can also make a shortlist based on a limited CV that has had all of its personal biographical data removed; name (some names can be indicative of age too). DOB, gender etc.  This limited CV then presents competences, knowledge and experience as their primary indicators.  Finally if employers (and many do) can create some kind of empirical scoring system then a successful job interview will come down to a points total.

That is meritocracy in action.

Ultimately employers will recruit who they want and this is even more so in smaller companies that have less resources.  If they want a pretty girl they will take her on irrelevant of her competences or if they want a young male manager that is what they will take even if a better qualified woman applies for the same job.  Sadly there is very little anyone can do about this other than appeal to the employer’s integrity.

Decency and humanity demand that merit and merit alone is how we get on in the workplace.

Related Content

What are your values worth?

Notes

[1] In recent years the definition of gender has moved beyond tradition male, female and neuter classifications and pronouns such as he/she/it are no longer sufficient and an attempt to resolve this has come with the introduction of the word ‘ze’ (which rhymes with he and she) has been suggested as a cover all for gender pronouns.