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Ethics

How Much Do You Care?

In recent times I have noted an upswing in the frequency of conversations about the ethical dimension of software development. Although still early days, many aspects of the social implications of software are beginning to receive more attention.

Effective Software Development

The dog’s breakfast that is Agile in the real world today exemplifies, for me, a key aspect of these ethical questions. Not that ethical questions are at all limited to the software industry.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about how people with a clear understanding of e.g. Agile software development (yes, there are some) tolerate, even support, a pallid, ineffective version in their workplace because their jobs and livelihoods depend on not rocking the boat. I’m talking about how folks go along with an ineffective and crippled approach for an easy life. Although how easy is it to stand by and watch project after project fail or limp along, with the consequent frustration and angst for all concerned?

With the oft-reported woefully low levels of employee engagement in most organisations, it’s hardly surprising that people just let such things slide by with little or no comment, complaint or action.

Satyagraha

We might take a leaf out of Gandhi’s nonviolent campaign playbook. He placed the idea of satyagraha at the heart of his toolkit of civil resistance. What is satyagraha? Online references describe it as “truth-force” or “the force that is generated through adherence to truth”.

Note: In this context, I choose to regard “truth” as referring to ethical imperatives such as justice, fairness and righteousness, and not simply factual truth. And yes, everyone has their own “truths” a.k.a. assumptions and beliefs. As do groups, such as organisations.

At the core of satyagraha is the willingness to suffer for the truth. Spiritual, emotional and physical suffering, borne in public, serves to emphasise the degree to which the satyagrahi care about the issue upon which they are campaigning.

Do You Care Enough to Suffer?

In the case of Agile, as with other aspects of how organisations run themselves today, it’s fair for folks to ask:

“Is it any of my concern? Don’t senior people with much higher pay grades than me hold the responsibility for these things?”

How is this any different from the old defence “I was only following orders?” 

Do you care? Do you care enough to start to say “No.”? In a civil and polite way, of course.

Are you prepared to suffer to see things become better for all concerned?

– Bob

Let’s be Honest

Let’s be honest, honesty seems in pretty short supply in life, and especially in business. 

Let’s be honest…

  • It’s dangerous to speak one’s mind honestly.
  • Most folks are more interested in holding down a job than in being honest about what’s going on.
  • Being honest feels good, but has far more negative consequences than positive ones.
  • The more senior the person, the more lip-service is paid to honesty.
  • How often do you feel it necessary to hide what you’re doing, rather than honestly declaiming your actions?
  • The smarter folks are, the more acute their capacity for self-deception.
  • Character (as in “good character”) is lauded in public and ridiculed in private.
  • You’re not going to risk commenting on this post, lest someone influential sees your honest opinon.

– Bob

Further Reading

Radical Candor ~ Kim Scott

Two Suits, No Hoots

Two suits stood in the aisle of the busy open-plan office.

“These people really are dumb,” John said, “even whisper ‘the bottom line’ and they all jump to it.”

“Yup. No one realises that us managers are in it for ourselves, not the bottom line,” Ralph said.

John smiled. “Sure thing. Wouldn’t do to have them find out, though.”

“No problem. They’ve been so brainwashed by life that even if we shouted our self-interest, they’d not believe it.”

John raised his thumb. “Safe, then.”

Ralph grinned.

Where’s the flaw in John and Ralph’s assumptions and beliefs?

– Bob

Further Reading

Your REAL Job ~ Think Different blog post

Plausible

I’ve been on the receiving end of a bunch of presentations recently. Presentations generally along the lines of “I assume you have this (business) problem, here’s my/our solution for fixing it”.

To most of them, my response has been “Hmmm, plausible”.

And then I channel Feynman:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

– Richard P. Feynman

Then my own natural skepticism kicks in and I end up thinking “Meh“. Followed closely by “Witch doctors”. And “Pseudoscience”.

Falsifiability

Feynman suggests we look for all the details that could cast doubt on an idea.

“In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.”

– Richard P. Feynman

I have to confess I’m crap at this myself.

The Laity

Feynman goes on to discuss the relationship between scientists and lay people. Maybe his assertion holds equally for the relationship between specialist or expert, and non-expert, too:

“If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing – and if they don’t support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”

– Richard P. Feynman

I’d very much like to act congruently with Feynman’s admonitions. I’d really like to be able to test my ideas. I just don’t understand how to do that in my field (broadly speaking, social science). And so I often prefer to keep my ideas to myself. And take the stance of therapist, rather than pseudo-scientist.

I do wonder how many prospective clients would give a damn about “scientific” results in any case. It seems like most are just fine with Witch doctors and cargo cult science, thank you all the same.

– Bob

Further Reading

Cargo Cult Science ~ Richard Feynman

Some Homos

What is Man?

“There are depths in Man that go down to the lowest hell, and heights that reach the highest heaven.”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve come across various takes on the question of “What is Man?” These include:

Homo Sapiens

More specifically, Homo Sapiens sapiens. Homo meaning man, and Sapiens meaning wise. I find a certain irony in this name.

Homo Economicus

Man as a species of rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends. A.k.a. Homo Averiticus. I don’t buy this one at all.

Homo Biologicus

Man as a species shaped by biological processes such as natural and sexual selection.

Homo Narrans

Man as a species of story-tellers (and listeners). A collection of “individuals that develop a group consciousness around a problematic situation and act to solve the problematic situation”.

Yes, we tell and listen to stories. But as a defining characteristic? Hmmm.

Homo Evolutis

Man as a species that is taking control of its own evolution. See this article and related TED talk.

Homo Empathicus

Man as species predicated on empathy. Cf. Theory of Mind.

Homo Becoming

When Heraclitus looked at Nature he saw not stability or permanence, but incessant flux and transformation. This is a perspective in which I find much comfort. Man as a species forever part of Nature, of the Cosmos or wider universe, forever becoming something. Not a human being, but a human becoming.

I also like the implication that everyone is capable of becoming more than they are. A species of Infinite potential. A species with a growth mindset (cf. Dweck).

So What?

Would you be willing to consider how you see Man as a species? And how that colours your world, your relationships and your life?

– Bob

Further Reading

What Is Man? ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Empathic Civilisation ~ Jeremy Rifkin (RSAnimate video)
Mindset ~ Carol Dweck

 

I Don’t Want To Respect You

And I don’t want your respect, either. A lot of folks in the Lean community stress the importance of respect. And yes, respect sounds nice – and might indeed be an improvement on the less-than-respectful way many folks relate to each other in workplaces today.

But respect (root: specere – to look at; re – back, or again) implies judgement. Moralistic judgement. And there’s no way I want to judge you – or anyone for that matter. God knows I’m having enough trouble weening myself off that particular human foible.

So, if I’m not happy to respect people, what then? Disrespect? Indifference?

No. I’m happy when I can give – and receive – some empathy. Just being fully present for people, during their crises, during their joyful moments. Any time, really. Oh, and some compassion sweetens the deal. And from empathy, it’s but a short hop, skip and jump to attending to folks’ needs. And the joy that can bring to all concerned.

And if you tell me I have no choice. That I should respect people. That I have to respect people. Then that upsets me.

I guess that puts me beyond the pale, as far as the Lean folks go. Although, in their frame, perhaps they might be willing to find it in themselves to respect my point of view?

Or, perhaps, the choice of the word “respect” is a rather unfortunate error of translation. Perhaps the original Japanese term 人間性尊重 as used by Toyota, meaning

“Holding precious what it is to be human”

would have been more helpful? I feel that’s something I can get behind. Indeed, it’s very similar to Marshall Rosenberg’s stated purpose for Nonviolent Communication:

“Connecting with what’s alive in others and ourselves.”

How about you?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Equally Important “Respect For People” Principle ~ Bob Emiliani
Exploring the “Respect for People” Principle of the Toyota Way ~ Jon Miller
Spiritual Basis of Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall Rosenberg
Aikido – The Way Of Harmonious Spirit ~ Elizabeth Reninger

I Pledge

Two pink butterflies on a patterned pink background

As an organisational psychotherapist, I feel blessed in meeting many different people and working with them to make their workplaces more joyful and healthy.

By turns distressed, frazzled and hopeful, those seeking my help will only benefit when we have a bond of mutual trust and common purpose.

My pledge to you as an Organisational Psychotherapist:

To be worthy of your trust,

  • I pledge to hold in the strictest confidence everything that I hear, see and learn.
  • I will share as much as possible, as widely and transparently as possible, with as many people as possible, bearing in mind the need for keeping confidences.
  • I will at all times attempt to restrain my inclination for moralistic judgements.
  • I acknowledge the power of empathy, towards individuals and groups both, and place this at the foundation of my relationships and practice.
  • I will apply the same degree of effort, and the same standards, to my relationships with everyone, regardless of position, seniority, race, gender, orientation, beliefs, actions, or affiliations.
  • I pledge to allow people and groups to come to their own answers, for themselves, and in their own time.
  • I will only ever offer advice or “answers” when sorely pressed to do so, but then freely and with good grace.
  • I must always be aware that I may participate in my clients’ journeys only as a listener, friend and invited guide, choosing to believe that ultimately each and all must make their own way.
  • I will act with integrity, compassion and understanding.
  • I make no promises about outcomes, only that I will do my best – and invite others to do the same.
  • I pledge never to flatter, encourage or attempt to motivate people.
  • I will always speak my own truth, and listen attentively to others’.
  • The only loyalty I acknowledge is to the welfare and wellbeing of the people and groups with whom I come into contact (myself included).
  • I will not shy away from asking difficult or disconcerting questions when I believe it’s in folks’ best interests to do so.
  • I will show understanding and respect to those who do not wish to participate.
  • I will never knowingly attempt to influence, coerce or motivate others or myself.
  • I will try to choose my words with compassion, and with understanding for the impact they may unwittingly have, and the emotions they may trigger.
  • I will always defer to appropriate, qualified people in matters of e.g. personal and emotional issues of individuals.
  • Though I may be paid for my services, my joy derives from attending to folks’ needs, not primarily remuneration, and I will never allow payment to become more important than my desire to see folks’ needs met.
  • I will always be aware of my clients’ investment of time, money, and effort, and endeavour to maximise the effectiveness of my efforts.
  • Knowing that I may become an exemplar to many, I will strive to be authentic, mindful, and to pursue my own personal growth.
  • With an appreciation for the uniqueness of every organisation, I will strive to help each and every client organisation to realise its full potential.

– Bob

Further Reading

A Psychotherapist’s Pledge ~ Ken Seigmann
The Nine Principles of Organisational Psychotherapy ~ FlowchainSensei
The Business Case for Organisational Psychotherapy ~ FlowchainSensei

 

Health Warning

WarningSign

Observations

I regularly read posts and articles informing managers and the like of this or that new technique for them to apply in their work. Here’s just one example amongst many.

Many of these techniques come from Agile folks, attempting – it seems – to encourage managers to move towards a more Agile stance in their methods, and in their relationships with the people they manage.

Feelings

I always feel a little anxious and peeved when seeing this kind of advice promoted without a health warning. I have in mind something like:

“Caution! Attempting to follow this advice without winning the active support of your higher-ups and your peers may cause alienation, organisational cognitive dissonance, damage to your credibility, and to your career.”

The question of safety is just beginning to gain a wider profile in the Agile community. Is safety of managers as much of an issue as safety of developers and testers when it comes to trying things out – such as adopting certain new, Agile-ish behaviours?

Needs

Such posts fail to meet my needs for “avoiding possible negative consequences (on behalf of readers)” and for “doing no harm”. I feel that encouraging managers (or other folks) to put themselves in harm’s way fails to meet principles 1. and 2. of my Nine Principles.

Requests

If you’re someone who publishes such advices to managers, would you be willing to include a health warning of some kind in your posts?

And if you’re someone who reads such posts or articles, would you be wiling to signal the absence of such warnings to their authors – and to other readers?

– Bob

Warning

WarningSign Caution! Including a health warning in a blog post or article may cause some folks to think twice about following your advice.

Further Reading

The Hippocratic Oath (Never do harm) ~ Wikipedia
Organisational Cognitive Dissonance ~ FlowChainSensei (blog post)

Optionality – The Double-Edged Sword

Having asked some difficult questions in my previous post, and not found many clear answers, I’d also like to bring up the question of optionality.

I’m pretty sure that many people, particularly those of an implicitly violent predisposition, might rail against the idea of folks being free to choose whether to participate in change, and what changes to embrace or decline. Is this not a recipe for anarchy and the undermining of all discipline and authority?

Well, as I see it, folks choose whether to participate in change, and what changes they will each embrace or decline, in any case—whether they are nominally “free” to choose, or not. It’s just that in many situations, they keep their choices secret, and when their opting-out of certain changes IS somehow noticed, other folks remark on their apparent “disengagement”.

We can of course choose to treat people like children, coercing or otherwise motivating them to (pretend) to accept the changes.

But in organisations more Theory-Y in outlook, where the idea of treating people like consenting adults has more traction, is it not more congruent to make the optionality of involvement in change something clear and unambiguous? Might this not reap benefits in term of the health of the social fabric of the organisation? And might it not allow us all to see more clearly which changes have wide support, and which are seen as unhelpful or irrelevant?

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”

― Gautama Buddha

I titled this post “…the Double-Edged Sword” because optionality cuts both ways. If folks are free to opt in or out of something, both options will likely have consequences.

I have found that folks often think deeply about the consequences of change (the opting-in to change choice) but little or not at all about the consequences of no-change (the opting-out of change choice). Ackoff refers to this phenomenon as “errors of commission vs errors of omission” and observes that people rarely get criticised for errors of omission (e.g. not taking a decision).

Whatever the reason, sticking with the status quo generally has at least as many consequences as opting for change.

Disclaimer: It would make my life a bit easier if folks could wake up to this.

– Bob

The Ethics of Change

Engaged as I am in what some might choose to call a “change programme”, I’ve had some occasions to ponder recently the ethics of change.

It is ethical to change people? Even given the truism that we can’t change others, we can only change ourselves, is it ethical to even contemplate changes to a system (the way the work works) with the idea of maybe seeing some behavioral changes in the folks working within that system?

As my ethical system these days is fairly bound up with nonviolence, for me the question resolves to “is asking questions with an intent to raise folks’ awareness actually a kind of violence?”

And given that’s what I’ve been doing recently —asking such questions—how far can one travel down that road before it becomes an act of violence? Put another way, where does “making meaningful connections with folks, through dialogue” end, and “coercion through asking leading questions” begin?

My working position on the question, presently, revolves around the twin notions of informed choice and need.

Informed Choice

To the extent that people realise what’s going on, and that they understand that they have a choice whether to participate or not, then I can live with the situation.

Needs

In the vernacular of Rosenberg, do folks need some change? If not, then forcing or coercing anyone into change seems to cross the ethical line. But how to broach the question of needs with each individual? Is even asking the question, starting the conversation, on dodgy ground. How about if we ask the question “Would you be willing to have a conversation about the prospect of change here, and what your needs might be therein?”?

What about folks that don’t realise what’s going on? Or have not (yet) understood the optionality of the situation? Does it behove us to do everything possible to help them understand, or is that effort—in the absence of their consent and need for realisation—in itself unethical?

– Bob

Introducing Rightshifting

I recently saw a tweet which read:

“Change is about the interaction of competing narratives, whilst change management aims to impose a dominant narrative on others.”

~ @aptviator

When I saw this I thought “Nooooooo”. Not imposition! I hope I don’t do that. Or rather, I hope people don’t perceive my presentations on the subject of Rightshifting and the Marshall Model as an imposition, or an exercise of dominance. Especially after writing much about nonviolence and nonviolent change.

But then I thought about it a bit more. And saw that maybe the tweet in question has some valuable insights to offer.

Looking back, I can certainly recall management consultants and change agents attempting to impose a dominant narrative on others – and in particular on their client and that client’s people. Generally (with complicity by management) in a coercive and violent fashion.

And I can definitely agreed with the first half of the tweet – that change is about the interaction of competing narratives – and moreover the memes and memeplexes underlying those narratives. With the Core Group’s narrative and memeplex generally winning out – however dysfunctional it might be.

I feel uneasy because I need to believe that folks have the freedom to both construct and to follow their own narratives.

“I’m interested in learning that’s motivated by reverence for life, that’s motivated by a desire to learn skills, to learn new things that help us to better contribute to our own well-being and the well-being of others. And what fills me with great sadness is any learning that I see motivated by coercion.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

I’ve been making quite a few Rightshifting presentations to groups of people recently, and I’d hate to think I’d been inadvertently giving folks the impression that Rightshifting was the new party line. My position of relative influence – at least, as possibly perceived by my audiences – also compounds the risk that some folks may have thought they had and have little option other than to comply or agree.

So, for any of those folks that may be reading this, and as a reminder to myself to make things more conspicuous in future, here’s the kind of introduction that might make my intent clearer:

“Today I’m going to explain Rightshifting, and the Marshall Model. I find these ideas useful to help explain and understand what I see as the root causes of effectiveness – and Ineffectiveness – in today’s knowledge work organisations, both large and small.

“I’d be delighted to hear if anyone here has any alternative explanations – or even partial explanations – for organisational effectiveness. This would meet my need for dialogue, for meaningful personal connections and for learning new things.

“To the extent that the ideas I’m presenting here today meet your needs in explaining these things, please take, use and share as much or as little of these ideas as you see fit.

“I’d be delighted to hear in the future what aspects of these ideas – if any – you have actually found useful and adopted. And which have proven less than useful, or even downright unhelpful, too.

“And I’d also be entirely delighted if you folks would be willing to contribute further to the evolutions of these ideas, and in tailoring them for best fit in this organisation.”

“We should not expect an application to work in environments for which its assumptions are not valid.” #Goldratt #TPS #Lean #tocot

~ @goldrattbooks

– Bob

Further Reading

Beware Eumemics ~ Blog post
Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success
~ Art Kleiner

Nonviolent Change

Photo of a room full of business people in silhouette against a window

Change initiatives, and their generally bigger cousins “change programmes”, almost always involve fear, obligation, guilt and shame. And start from a position of coercive violence.

Here’s a typical posture I’ve seen time and again in the context of organisational change both large and small:

“The company needs to make some changes to become more profitable. We judge you, you and you to be of the right stuff for this assignment. You will work on this change effort. Here’s a list of the changes we want to see. And here’s how we insist you should go about these changes. Do things our way and you’ll be ‘right’. Anything else and you’ll be ‘wrong’. If things go well you can hope for some minor level of gratitude and/or recognition. But woe betide things going badly (veiled threats or implicit allusions to the effect that you could be punished or fired in such circumstances). Actually, however things turn out, we’ll classify you all into various shades of right or wrong. Oh, and we also insist that you feel obliged to look happy and motivated whilst doing this.”

Do you see the violence inherent in this system? Walter Wink would describe this as a “Domination System”. Marshall Rosenberg might call it a “Jackal culture”:

“In Jackal culture, feelings and wants are severely punished. People are expected to be docile, subservient to authority; slave-like in their reactions, and alienated from their feelings and needs.

“In Jackal, we expect other people to prove their loyalty to us by doing what we want.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

What’s Wrong With this Picture?

This posture inevitably provokes defensiveness, resistance, and counterattack. We often call this a “passive aggressive” response. Although outright aggression is possible, too. This posture impacts the morale and (initial) goodwill of the people chosen. It robs involvement and motivation, and induces a state of fear, insecurity and learned helplessness. Ultimately, it’s a key contributing factor to increasing the poor health of the organisation.

Yet it’s so much the norm that it’s beyond most folks’ imagination to even notice that there could be an alternative. Let’s take a look at just one viable alternative:

The Nonviolent Posture

“I guess you share some of our concerns about the future of the company. We have noticed X and Y and Z as signs that the company needs to make some changes to become more profitable. How do you feel about this? We feel concerned enough that we’d like to see a group come together to work on this. Who shares our view on this need (to become more profitable)? What need (purpose) would best align with your needs? What would you each need (request) to sign up to this group? If things go well we can all hope for things to be mutually more wonderful. If things don’t go so well, we’ll all see what we can do about it, at the appropriate time. Actually, however things turn out, are you willing to share in our choice to believe that everyone was doing their best?”

“How could this possibly work?”

“Isn’t this lunatic optimism run riot?”

These are questions which often follow as a common response to nonviolence in general, yet time and again nonviolent means have wrought unlikely (positive and beneficial) outcomes.

Aside: Note the general NVC framework in this posture: Empathy, observations, feelings, needs, requests.

In such a scenario as here described, a genuine posture of nonviolence offers the opportunity for everyone to have their needs met. And when folks have their needs met, they’re likely to feel engaged, hopeful, confident, excited and inspired, to name but a few of the positive emotions.

Of course, it’s a matter of personal belief as to whether such emotions are appropriate, and beneficial, in e.g. a business setting.

What do you believe? Which posture do you see as have more benefit? As having more chance of success? As more humane?

And under which posture would you flourish more? Which would best meet your needs?

Afterword

I chose to characterise both of the above postures in the context of an Analytic-minded organisation. This was both to make the idea more accessible to folks with that worldview, and to illustrate that even in such organisations, it doesn’t require a wholesale shift in the organisational mindset to begin using Nonviolent Communication in e.g. change initiatives.

Just for the record though, here’s the second posture recast in the context of a Synergistic-minded organisation:

“I guess we all share some concerns about the future of our company. Some folks have mentioned X and Y and Z as signs that we need to make some changes. Changes that might incidentally also help improve e.g. profitability. How do we all feel about this? I feel concerned enough to ask whether we’d like to see a group come together specifically to work on this. Who shares our view on this need (to do something, now)? What need (purpose) would best align with each of our own needs at the moment? What would folks each need (request) to sign up to this group? If things go well we can all hope for things to be mutually more wonderful. If things don’t go so well, we’ll all see what we can do about it, at the appropriate time. Maybe it’s not necessary to remind ourselves that actually, however things turn out, we choose to believe that everyone was doing their best?”

And, in a Chaordic-minded organisation, it’s highly unlikely that this conversation would ever even be necessary, as the need for change, the enrolment of people, and the whole nine yards, would be an integral part of daily business-as-usual.

– Bob

Further Reading

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall Rosenberg
Empowerment: The Emperor’s New Clothes ~ Chris Argyris

What is Violence?

Photo of a hand writing the word "violence" on a chalkboard

I guess it’s fair to say I’ve been writing (and moreover, thinking) a lot about nonviolence over the past year. That reflection has raise the question not only of “what is nonviolence?”, but more fundamentally, “what is violence?”.

Some folks have expressed confusion or even disbelief over the kinds of things which nonviolence includes under the heading of “violence”. The term “violence”, in this context, does not refer soley to acts of physical violence, such as assault, but also to psychological violence (often referred-to as “abuse” or “mental cruelty”) and, most notably, to passive violence:

“Passive violence is the conscious ignoring of the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of a person; the conscious failure to ensure the safety of someone under one’s care; or the failure to ensure the development of well-being of someone under one’s care.”

~ Glen Anderson

Here’s what Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, has to say:

“Classifying and judging people promotes violence.

“At the root of much, if not all, violence – whether verbal, psychological, or physical, whether among family members, tribes, or nations – is a kind of thinking that attributes the cause of conflict to wrongness in one’s adversaries…”

And the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi has written about his experiences as a child, learning about nonviolence with his grandfather:

“We often don’t acknowledge our violence because we are ignorant about it; we assume we are not violent because our vision of violence is one of fighting, killing, beating, and wars – the types of things that average individuals dont do.”

~ Arun Gandhi

The World Health Organisation defines “violence” thus:

“Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

Note here the inclusion of “the use of power” or “the threat of the use of force or power” which “(may) result in…psychological harm, or deprivation“. Although couched in somewhat bureaucratic language, the gist of this definition remains very much in line with that of the nonviolent community.

Aside: the implicit notion that violence requires intentionality is not a premise to which I subscribe. I believe that unintentional violence can be at least as harmful and pernicious as violence wreaked intentionally.

Domination Systems

Walter Wink was a scholar, Christian theologian and activist, who spent his life studying the roots of violence. He died earlier this year. He writings refer often to the idea of “Domination Structures”, “Domination Systems” or a “Domination Culture”.

He also coined the phrase “The Myth of Redemptive Violence“, and its ubiquity and dominion:

“The greatest religion on the planet is not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Judaism but the pervasive faith in violence.”

~ Walter Wink

The Myth of Redemptive Violence provides Domination Systems with a narrative that can be reproduced in an infinite number of ways. A narrative which convinces all involved in Domination Systems (oppressors and oppressed alike) that without the Domination System the world would collapse, and only the violence perpetrated by it (or in its name) can save us from this fate.

“Instead of defining domination systems as one set of clearly defined behaviors in opposition to partnership as another set of clearly defined behaviours, we might begin from a view that all human behaviors and structures lie somewhere on a domination / partnership continuum…

“The domination end of the spectrum is characterized by hierarchy (a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority), authoritarianism (favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom; showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others), enforcement of the status quo through systemic beliefs, training, and often coercive violence.

“The partnership end of the spectrum is characterised by egalitarian (of, relating to, or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities), mutually respectful and affirming relationships, with teachings and beliefs that teach and value empathy and understanding.”

~ Eric Mosley

In this video introduction to nonviolence, Marshall Rosenberg explains e.g. Walter Wink’s perspective on how, circa eight thousand years ago, today’s pervasive language of domination emerged to support the emerging Domination Structures of that time.

And let’s not delude ourselves that violence is predominantly the domain of rebels, revolutionaries, free thinkers or the “mentally ill”:

“The horrors that we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untameable men are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase in the number of obedient, docile men.”

~ George Bernanos

The Connection With Business and Software Development

Why is the topic of violence relevant?

How likely is it that folks see the connection between nonviolence and the day-to-day work of business, and in particular, software development?

How likely is it that folks see the domination structures within which they live and work, and the harm done to individuals within such structures?

My own personal commitment to nonviolence is borne of the same motivations that led me to start the Rightshifting campaign some years ago. Namely, the egregious waste of people’s lives and talents that come from working in ineffective organisations.

I believe it’s no coincidence that there’s a close correlation between ineffectiveness and domination structures, in knowledge-work organisations in particular. In the Rightshifting vernacular, the more left-shifted an organisation, the more violence and domination we are likely to see.

Indeed, it’s been my experience over many years that there is not just a close correlation, but a causal link, between domination structures in organisations and ineffectiveness (including a lack of employee engagement, low morale, social loafing, etc).

I’ll be writing more about the harm done by violence and domination structures in the workplace, and perhaps more importantly, what to do about it, in a forthcoming post.

– Bob

Further Reading

How Walter Wink Confronted Violence ~ Ken Butigan
The Albert Einstein Institute – Website
The Myth of Redemptive Violence ~ Walter Wink
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

Wax On Jerk Off

Photo of a white duck shaking off water

Or, the perils of judging people…

Seventeen years ago Jim McCarthy said “don’t flip the bozo bit“.

“By taking that lazy way out, you poison team interactions and cannot avail yourself of help from the “bozo” ever again.”

~ Jim McCarthy

Yet every day we see folks writing off other folks as “jerks”, “assholes”, “know-nothings”, “lamers” and a whole host of other uncomplimentary epithets.

And regularly we see folks opine that some others have “no talent”, “no ethics” or some other supposedly fundamental character flaw.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

~ Elie Wiesel

When we judge someone we are saying, in effect, “I am indifferent to you, who you are, what’s happened and happening in your life, what you care about, your needs.” When I see this happening, I feel profoundly despondent (and also, in a bind), as it fails to meet my need for mutual respect and meaningful connection.

“Judgment is one of the Crimes. We go on judging other people, and we do the same with ourselves. We go on judging our thoughts, our actions, what is good, what is bad, what should have been done, what should not have been done; and we are constantly creating conflict and duality.”

~ Osho

Marshall Rosenberg, found of Nonviolent Communication, writes about the spirituality at the heart of helping people recognise (and then meet) their needs.

Many have spoken of the need for love, rather than judgement. Reflecting, I suppose, the wide preponderance of the latter over the former.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

~ Mother Teresa of Calcutta

And the essential role of empathy.

“Don’t judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”

~ Native American Proverb

As I mentioned in a previous post “Respect for People“, we can regard judgement as a bright, flashing neon sign of unmet needs:

“[Our] judgements of others are alienated expressions of our own unmet needs.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Some see love and judgement as being in implacable opposition:

“The more one judges, the less one loves.”

~ Honoré de Balzac

And much as the cause of our feelings always lies within us (other people may be a trigger of our emotions, but never the cause), judgement tells us much more about ourselves than about those we judge:

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

~ Wayne Dyer

Have we still learned so little from Deming (95% of people’s performance is a consequence of the system within which they’re working), the psychology of cognitive biases (e.g. the Fundamental attribution error), Kahneman (Ego depletion), etc.?

And even if it were true that some folks were less blessed with “gifts” than others, what benefits does it bring to continually grump through life in an unremittingly judgemental frame of mind?

How likely is it that judgment will bring ennoblement or insight? The stress it induces makes us tired, physically tired. We feel compelled to pronounce our judgments and to correct the errors of the world around us – an onerous, even distasteful task that drains our energy. Yet, ironically, we appear to cherish judgmentalism. We constantly choose to judge, and we find the idea of giving up judgment to threaten “who we are” (ironic self-judgmentalism, there). Why? Why is it that we want to continue with judging others, when the effect on ourselves (and them) can be so negative?

Aside: Katherine Kirk has spoken eloquently on the topic of equanimity.

Of course, there will be folks with undiscovered talents, and those with talents that don’t match their current role too well. To write them off as “useless” or worse, “worthless”, strike me as inhumane, and wasteful, in equal measure. Toyota has long had a more humane – and respectful – policy in this area. Called the Three Rs, their policy is to first

  • Retrain the individual (make sure they have the information necessary to do the work well), then if that doesn’t work out too well,
  • Redeploy them to another role, and only (finally and in extremis)
  • Release them from the company.

Toyota understands the investment they make in their people, moral as well as commercial. And the value – not least, to their business – of respect for the individual. Although maybe they haven’t managed (sic) a complete adoption of the precepts of nonviolence, just yet.

I recently tweeted several variations of a (nonviolent, non-judgmental) definition for “idiot”. The most-retweeted variant was:

 “Idiot”: Anyone who is just trying to meet their needs, in the best way they know how, where their way makes little or no sense to us.

How do you feel about judgmentalism? Is it part of what defines you? Do you see the violence inherent in the system?

– Bob

Further Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman
First Break All the Rules ~ Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
The Talent Code ~ Daniel Coyle
Bounce ~ Matthew Syed
Talent is Overrated ~ Geoff Colvin
Why Judging People Makes Us Unhappy ~ TinyBuddha.com article
Emotional Energy is More Real Thank You Might Think ~ Blog post at People-Triggers (cf Ego depletion)
Rule 7: Don’t Flip the Bozo Bit ~ Jim McCarthy (video)

Damning with Fulsome Praise

A cartoon dwarf

Many folks write about how Positive Reinforcement is a Good Thing. Some folks use the grander (yet, smellier?) term “Appreciative Performance Remediation“.

Yet Rosenberg said

“In Nonviolent Communication, we consider praise and complimentsviolent form of communication.

I’m so much with Rosenberg on this one. Here’s a longer extract, with Rosenberg explaining the issue, from the Nonviolent Communication perspective, in some more depth:

“In NVC, we consider praise and compliments a violent form of communication. Because they are part of the language of domination, it is one passing judgment on another. What makes it more complex is that people are trained to use praise as reward, as a manipulation to get people to do what they want. For example, parents I work with, teachers, managers in industry have been trained in courses and by other people to use praise and compliments as rewards. In a family, we are taught that if you praise and compliment children daily, they are more likely to do what you want. Teachers do the same in school to get children to work more. And managers in industry are trained to do this, showing them how to use praise and compliments as rewards. To me, this is a violent form of communication because it is using language as a manipulation that destroys the beauty of sincere gratitude. So in NVC we show people to make sure that before you open your mouth to get clear that the purpose is not to manipulate a person by rewarding them. Your only purpose is to celebrate. To celebrate the life that has been enriched by what the other person has contributed to you. Then, once conscious to make clear three things in this celebration; first, what the person did that enriched your life, not a generality, like ‘your so kind, beautiful, or wonderful’ but what concretely did they do for you. Second, how do you feel inside about their action? And third, what need of yours was fulfilled inside you by their contribution?

“I had just finished saying this to a group of teachers, telling them about the dangers of using praise and complements as rewards. I showed them how to do it this other way and I must not have done a good job of explaining this because afterward, a woman came up and said, ‘You were brilliant.’ I said, ‘That is no help. I have been called a lot of names in my life some positive and some far from positive and I could never recall learning anything of value from someone telling me what I am. I don’t think anybody does but I can see by the look in your eyes you want to express gratitude.’ She said, ‘yes’ and I said, ‘I want to receive it [the gratitude] but telling me what I am doesn’t help.’ She said, ‘What do you want to hear?’ ‘What did I say in the workshop that made life more wonderful for you?’ She said, ‘You are so intelligent.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t help.’ She thought for a moment and then opened her notebook and said, ‘Here these two things that you said really made a difference.’ I said, ‘How do you feel?’ She said, ‘Hopeful and relieved.’ I said, ‘It would help me if I knew what needs of your were met.’ She said, ‘I have this 18 year old son and when we fight, it is horrible. It can go on for days. I have been needing some concrete direction and these two things have made such a difference for me.’

“When I give this example, people can see the difference between praise and gratitude and how different in value both are. In the case of celebration, you can trust it is being done with no manipulation so that you will keep doing it or say something nice about them. Instead, it is really coming from the heart. It is a sincere celebration of the exchange between two people.”

Application to Organisations

This same perspective – that praise and compliments are a violent form of communication – applies at least as much to groups as it does to individuals. And, ultimately, to organisations in toto.

Are you motivated to praise or compliment your teams? Where did you learn that? Do you have any evidence for its efficacy? How likely is it that praise is actually causing more harm than good? How would you know?

Oh yes, praise or compliments may be better than harsh words, criticism, and punishment. But how likely is it that there might be a better way?

Personally, I can imagine some folks subconsciously resenting the attempt at manipulation implicit in receiving praise or compliments.

Might it not be more likely to see folks’ needs met by taking the path of Nonviolent Communication?:

  1. Say what you saw, or heard (a simple evaluation-free statement)
  2. Say what you felt (it can help, initially, to pick from a list)
    “I feel…”
  3. Say what you need (again here’s a handy list)
    “…because I need/value…”
  4. Make a request (the concrete actions you would like)
    “Would you be willing to…?”

Further Reading

Speak Peace in a World of Conflict ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” ~ Alfie Kohn
The Four-Part NVC Process
Praise vs Encouragement, Gratitude ~ Duen Hsi Yen

The Ties that Bind

Picture of someone wandering in a maze

Recently, I’ve been studying and practicing Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, along with the ideas of his mentor, Carl Rogers – the founder of the client-centered therapy movement. At the heart of both methods (and many other modern humanistic psychotherapies besides) is Rogers’ idea of Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR).

The idea seems simple, but I find the practise of it extremely challenging – even though the idea is quite congruent with my long-standing Theory Y disposition towards people.

This post explores the concept of UPR, and its relationship with a particular bind I have, and which I see many other folks, especially coaches, struggling with too.

The Bind

The “bind” (for many, a double bind) in question revolves around wanting to change things. In particular, the wish to change things that depend on people (other people) changing e.g. their behaviours, attitudes, assumptions or mindset.

Let’s use an example to help illustrate this general nature of this bind – animal cruelty.

When I see reports of animals, such as cats, dogs or horses, suffering through neglect, starvation, isolation, and other such travails, it makes me sad. It contradicts my need for seeing compassionate treatment for all living things. I realise this as an attachment to a moral or sentimental position, and as the Buddha said:

“Attachment leads to suffering.”

~ Siddhārtha Gautama

So in this example I feel I have at least two options:

  1. Change myself – become more equanimous – so that I might be feel less troubled by, in this case, the actions of others as they affect “innocent” animals.
  2. Change others – i.e. feckless owners – so that fewer animals might suffer from uncaring or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally harsh treatment.

My bind arises because I don’t much like either option. I’m not averse to changing myself, in principle, but abandoning poor defenceless animals forevermore to the whimsy of brutes seems unappealing. Yet the thought of approaching others from a position of wanting them to change, even maybe coercing them to change, however much kindness and Unconditional Positive Regard I might feign, seems at least as unappealing.

UPR – A Definition

Carl Rogers describes Unconditional Positive Regard as “a quality of a therapist’s experience towards their client”.

  • Unconditional
    Someone experiencing UPR holds ‘no conditions of acceptance… It is at the opposite pole from a selective, evaluating attitude.’
  • Positive
    One offers ‘warm acceptance . . . a “prizing” of the person, as Dewey has used that term…It means a caring for the client…’
  • Regard
    One regards ‘each aspect of the client’s experience as being part of that client… It means a caring for the client, but not in a possessive way or in such a way as simply to satisfy the therapist’s own needs. It means caring for the client as a separate person, with permission to have their own feelings, their own experiences.’

Rogers noted that far from being a black-and-while, all-or-nothing experience for the therapist, UPR probably occurs sometimes (‘at many moments’) and not at other times, and to varying degrees.

Rogers theorised that the therapist’s modelling of UPR allows the client to build-up or restore their own positive self-regard.

The Bind in Mind

Moving on then from a general example of the kind of bind I have in mind, we come to my specific case, in the world of organisations. Organisations are of course made up of people. And some of those people sometimes, for their own reasons, can do things which make other folks’ lives less rich and less worth the living.

So, as in the more general example, I see “change agents”, myself included, as having at least two options:

  1. Change myself – become more equanimous – so that I might be feel less troubled by, in this case, the actions of others as they affect their employees and co-workers. After all, I have in some sense chosen to care about this issue.
  2. Change others – i.e. feckless managers, etc. – so that fewer folks might suffer from uncaring or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally harsh treatment.

I find option one highly unpalatable, yet I find option two reeking of judgementalism and contrary to the idea of Unconditional Positive Regard.

I’m sure I’m not the only one struggling with this question. I’m not sure even the Buddha had a good answer. Excepting perhaps:

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

~ The Buddha

And although I have no clear answer as to the better (less worse) option, I have at least made peace with myself – and the question. The idea of Unconditional Positive Regard has helped me greatly in finding a nonviolent way forward.

So, I have chosen the path of the humanistic therapist, making myself available to those who have some wish to change themselves, but maybe feel that they need some help in tackling that, someone to walk with them on their journey.

Or more accurately, I have chosen the path of the humanistic organisational therapist, making myself available to those organisations who have some wish to change themselves, but maybe feel that they need some help in tackling that, some companion to walk with them, for a while, on their journey of improving self-regard and well-being.

in other words, and to paraphrase Gandhi:

“We can choose to model the changes we need to see in the world.”

How about you?

Do you struggle with the question of which is the best option?

Do you just let folks get on with their lives? Keep you head down and turn a blind eye to their potential sufferings? Choose to let them – or fate – sort things out?

Or do you try to help, try to get involved when e.g. injustice, ignorance, egregious self-interest or other circumstances cause folks worry, suffering and pain?

And where, if anywhere,  does Unconditional Positive Regard come into that, for you?

– Bob

Further Reading

Unconditional Positive Regard – Constituent Activities ~ James R. Iberg
When Bad Things Happen to Good People ~ Rabbi Harold S Kushner
Nonviolent Communication ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg

A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Integrity

 

I am grateful to @ionel_condor for the suggestion which kicked off this post.

It may strike you as odd that some folks might need a Beginners’ Guide to Personal Integrity. Most of the folks I know have personal integrity coming out of their ears. But I do note its absence or lack, in some quarters.

I have until now put “integrity” down to a certain predisposition. Something someone either has, or does not have.

Maybe it’s not a predisposition though, nor an aspect of character. Maybe it’s just a lack of exposure, of role models, of education. God knows, we can hardly look to people in the public eye for role models these days. And I can distinctly remember no integrity classes at school.

Is Integrity teachable, anyway? I’m hardly qualified to judge. Aside: If anyone has a more informed opinion on this point, please do let me know.

But let’s assume for the moment that, through diligent application and study, one can improve one’s integrity, should one so choose. Why might folks chose to invest time and effort in integrity?

Before we look at that question, let’s attempt a definition:

What is Integrity?

Integrity is the characteristic of behaving and thinking congruently with one’s personal values and beliefs. Put another way, integrity is doing what you believe to be right, irrespective of the costs, downside, hardships involved.

“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

~ Oprah Winfrey

Consider the story of the Scorpion and the Frog. Did the Scorpion have integrity? I believe so.

I think I like Robert Brault’s (reverse) definition best:

“Loss of integrity comes from those thousand tiny surrenders of self-respect to self-interest.”

~ Robert Brault

What it is Not

Some conflate integrity with virtue, honesty or “goodness” of some kind. I do not. I suggest even evil men can have integrity, should they but behave congruently with their beliefs. Here, “the Right Thing” is a personal relativism.

Nor do I choose to mix-up integrity with honesty, excepting honesty-with-oneself. Neither does e.g. cheating or sociopathy signify a lack of integrity, if we suppose that the cheater’s or sociopath’s thoughts and actions remain congruent with their personal values.

What are the Benefits of Integrity?

From an individual’s perspective, acting with integrity can confer a certain calm self-satisfaction. I attribute this to a reduction or elimination of cognitive dissonance. Note I say *acting” with integrity. Just “having” integrity to me seems to confer few if any benefits, save perhaps as a fillip to the ego.

“Integrity has no need of rules.”

~ Albert Camus

From a group perspective, integrity contributes to the ties of goodwill, trust and mutual concern which help bind a team, group or community closer together. Fellowship thrives on acts of integrity.

“There can be no friendship without confidence, and no confidence without integrity.”

~ Samuel Johnson

How to Build Your Integrity

  • First off, ask yourself whether integrity has any place in your life. It is, after all, not for everyone.
  • Assuming you want to build your personal integrity, how about reflecting from time to time on what you believe? Come to understand yourself and your world-view a little better, by degrees.
  • Every time life invites you to make a choice, consider the options, even (especially) the unpalatable ones, and ask yourself which options are most congruent with what you believe. After the event (the action), find time to reflect on your choice, with the glorious benefit of hindsight. Did the choice feel comfortable, or did it effect some unease, some kind of cognitive dissonance?
  • Associate with other folks of outstanding integrity. Their definitions of “right” and “wrong” may differ from yours, but the way they remain faithful to them might inspire you to do the same.
  • Discuss integrity with your loved ones, your peers, your associates. Explore the issues, the trade-offs, the costs and the rewards.
  • Find time to listen quietly to your inner voice – some call this “intuition”.

Final Words

Much recruitment effort is spent looking for new hires “with integrity”. I suspect few who seek this rarest of character attributes have a good operational definition. After all, “we all know integrity when we see it”, don’t we? Kahneman, for one, may differ.

Actually, I suspect that much lip-service is paid to the search for candidates with “integrity”, whilst quietly letting that requirement pass, because it’s “too difficult”.

And that’s hardly acting with integrity, is it?

– Bob

Further Reading

What is Integrity, Really? – About.com
Preserving Integrity – Article at MindTools.com
Thinking, Fast and Slow ~ Daniel Kahneman

Faith

 

No. I’m not talking about religion, theology, faith in some divine being. I’m talking about beliefs in general, and particularly beliefs that have no justifications, no basis in demonstrable evidence.

“Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.”

~ Voltaire

Why write a post about faith? Because I see it everywhere, but little talked-about. Because I see the joys it brings to people – and the heartaches, too. Because I believe it’s an essential aspect of mindset. And because, ultimately, I think it matters.

My faith gives me both hope and courage. I hope your does, too.

Here’s some of the things I have faith in:

People

I have faith in people. More specifically. I have faith that people, together, can sort out almost anything. That groups, teams, companies, communities and societies can come together and make the things that are important to them, happen. Incidentally, as this faith grows, my faith in the divine right of kings, a.k.a. leadership and management, diminishes. Faith in individuals? Not so much.

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

Justice

I have faith that we must call out injustice whenever and wherever we see it. Remaining silent in the face of injustice only makes us complicit.

Reason

I have faith in reason, in rational thought, in data and evidence. This has to be, ultimately, a matter of faith, does it not?

“A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Dialogue

I have faith in the power of dialogue – talking skilfully together. In mutual exploration of ideas, and in mutual learning. When we learn to talk with one another in ways that minimise judgmentalism, defensiveness and the associated unintended consequences, we can see each other better, and make life more wonderful together.

“It’s a good idea to seek valid knowledge, it’s a good idea to craft your conversations so you make explicit what you are thinking and trying to examine. You craft them in such a way that you can test, as clearly as you can, the validity of your claims. Truth is a good idea.”

~ Chris Argyris

The Universe

I have faith that things will turn out the way they are “meant” to.

“We must have faith that the Universe will unfold as it should.”

~ Mr. Spock

I do not see this as a license for fatalism nor for derogation of self-will.

“Look within. Be still.
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of living in the way.”

~ Buddha

Respect and Compassion

I have faith that unconditional respect, mutual respect, and compassion can bring enormous benefits to peoples’ lives (and incidentally, make for good and effective business).

“You cannot save people. You can only love them.”

~ Anaïs Nin

Discipline

I have faith that discipline (the self-imposed kind) can help folks lead healthier, more fulfilling lives, both inside and outside of work.

“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”

~ Buddha

Nonviolence

I have faith in non-violence as an effective strategy for meeting peoples’ needs (including my own).

“Non-violence requires a double faith, faith in [the Universe] and also faith in man.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

Intuition

I have faith in the value of intuition and emotion, and their role in complementing rational thought.

“Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”

~ Khalil Gibran

And I’m always mindful of (my own) need for balance between intuition and reason.

“Faith… must be enforced by reason… when faith becomes blind it dies.”

~ Mahatma Gandhi

Myself

Yes, it’s not a sin nor a conceit to have faith in oneself. I have faith in my own humanity, my compassion, my capacity for unconditional love, my own intuition, my ability to see things that maybe sometimes others do not, and in my ineffable fallibility.

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”

~ Norman Vincent Peale

I’d love to hear from you about what you have faith in.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Familiar Credo – Blog post

Nonviolent Programming

The idea of Linguistic Relativity has been around since at least the Eighteenth Century. Many folks may have heard of the (misnomerous) Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

In a nutshell, Linguistic Relativity suggests that language influences the way we humans think. ‘Whorfianism of the third kind’ proposes that language is ‘a key to culture’.

Setting aside the Rightshifting implications of this for now, I’ve been considering the implications of Linguistic Relativity from the perspective of the humble programmer (a.k.a. coder), especially in the light of Donald Knuth’s description of the job of programming:

“Let us change our traditional attitude to the construction of programs. Instead of imagining that our main task is to instruct a computer what to do, let us concentrate rather on explaining to human beings what we want a computer to do.”

~ Donald Knuth

Most programming involves the imperative style. Defining instructions to the computer to tell it what to do. If this, then that. Do this. Do that some number of times.

Actually, I’m surprised there is, as yet, no programming language called “Jackal”. (Although, for the record, there is a ‘compiler-driven distributed shared memory implementation of the Java programming language’ named Jackal).

Does daily immersion in the imperative style of communication, in imperative languages, shape the programmer’s thinking in such a way as to increase the tolerance for command-and-control behaviour? Does such implicit imperativism contribute to the preservation of the status quo in our knowledge-work organisations?

Should We, Could We?

In Rosenberg’s NonViolent Communication, he cautions against the assumptions implicit in the word “should”:

“Avoid ‘shoulding’ on others and yourself!”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

I note with irony the use of the word “should” at the heart of modern BDD, for example. This is but one example of what we might choose to call “rampant imperativism”.

E-Prime

The idea of modifying language to aid thinking is not without precedent. D. David Bourland, Jr. first proposed E-Prime (in my mind, a close cousin of Giraffe language) in order to help people “reduce the possibility of misunderstanding or conflict”.

New Language, New Feelings

Could we conceive of a different style, a different language of BDD, of coding in general, built upon the Four Steps of Nonviolent Communication? What would a Nonviolent Programming language look like, feel like to use? Would there be knock-on advantages to Nonviolent Programming and e.g. Nonviolent BDD?

If Gandhi had been a programmer rather than a lawyer, what might his code have looked like?

Conversely, If he had been immersed in COBOL, FORTRAN or Java for forty-plus hours a week, would he ever have come hold his views on the paramountcy of non-violence?

What implications – seen through the lens of Linguistic Relativity – would adoption of such a language and style have in our communications as individuals? Could forty hours a week of Nonviolent Programming contribute positively to the health and well-being of our human dialogues, our personal interactions and our organisations?

– Bob

Further Reading

Linguistic Relativity ~ Lera Boroditski MIT paper
The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

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