A Way Out of Burnout: Cultivating Differentiated Leadership Through Lament

Some interesting (and provocative) thoughts from the world of church leadership. “Lament” is not prominent in our culture anymore, at least not in our official culture… and one could wonder how to translate these ideas into a secular setting. Nevertheless, there is much to ponder here and I would feel that all in leadership positions – or roles susceptible to burnout – could benefit from reading this, whether they have religious faith or not.

I found the following paragraphs (of what is a long paper) especially resonated:

 

Leaders who are most likely to function poorly physically or emotionally are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.[12]

Many programs often aim to cure clergy burnout by offering retreats that focus on rest and relaxation. However, Friedman asserts, “Resting and refreshment do not change triangles. Furthermore, because these programs focus on the burned-out ‘family’ member, they can actually add to his or her burden if such individuals are inclined to be soul searchers to begin with.”[13] These same soul-searching and empathetic clergy are vulnerable to seeing the overwhelming burdens that they carry for others as crosses that they ought to bear. Friedman calls this way of thinking “sheer theological camouflage for an ineffective immune system.”[14] When clergy bear other people’s burdens, they are encouraging others not to take personal responsibility. And often in bearing other people’s burdens, clergy easily tend to ignore their own “burdens” (ie. marriage issues, financial problems, etc.) and thus fail to be personally responsible for themselves.

 

London also discusses how “lament” and in some ways “passing the buck onto God” has Biblical roots:

God responds with sympathy to Jesus’ ad deum accusation and lament. Furthermore, one may easily interpret the empty tomb at the end of the Gospel as a sign of God’s ultimate response to Jesus’ lament: the resurrection (Mark 16:4-7). In the psalms of lament and in the cry of dereliction, we see that God does not respond with hostility but with a sympathetic openness to our struggle, our need for someone to blame and, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, our “genuine covenant interaction.”[34] God responds with sympathetic openness to Jesus’ ad duem accusation and then dispels the blame and emotional burden that no human could ever bear. Jesus receives the blame that humans cast upon him and then gives it to God who receives it, absorbs it and dispels it. Jesus let go of the blame by giving it to God. His cry of dereliction became his cry for differentiation. In this way, Jesus serves as a role model for leaders who receive blame from others and then need to differentiate in order to not take accusations personally. By practicing lament, leaders can turn the ad hominem accusations against themselves into ad deum accusations against God, who responds with sympathetic openness while receiving and dispelling the blame. Moreover, leaders can respond with empathy to the suffering of others, knowing that they will not have to bear the emotional burden that they have taken on, indefinitely. They can let go of the emotional burden by passing it on to God through the practice of lament.

This “passing of the buck” to God does not encourage irresponsibility. Rather, it gives the emotional baggage away to the only One who can truly bear it, thus freeing the other to take personal responsibility, without feeling weighed down by unbearable burdens. With this practice, a pastor can therefore receive blame and emotional baggage from parishioners in a pastoral setting because they can differentiate through lament. They can take the blame like Jesus because they, like Jesus, can also pass the buck to God through ad deum accusation. Eventually, the pastor will want to teach the parishioners to redirect their human need to blame onto God as well so as to occlude the cycle of scapegoating in the community.[

 

Daniel DeForest London

This is the final paper I wrote for the class “Leading Through Lament” with Dr. Donn Morgan at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

INTRODUCTION

On August 1, 2010, New York Times published an article titled “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” which began with the following statements:  “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”[1] Although these are troubling reports, some of the statistics that came out of a study conducted by Fuller Theological Seminary in the late 1980s prove more disturbing: “80 percent [of pastors] believe that pastoral ministry is affecting their families negatively, 90 percent felt they were not adequately trained to cope with the ministry demands placed upon them, 70 percent…

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“Working here makes us better humans”

A daily thought from Leandro Herrero:

I have had a brilliant two day meeting with a brilliant client. One aspect of my
work with organizations that I truly enjoy is to help craft the ‘Behavioural DNA’ that shapes the culture of the company. This is a set of actionable behaviours that must be universal, from the CEO to the MRO (Mail Room Officer). They also need to pass the ‘new hire test’: would you put that list in front of a prospect employee and say ‘This is us’?

There was one ‘aspirational’ sentence that I put to the test: ‘Working here makes us better human beings’.

It was met with scepticism by the large group in the meeting, initially mainly manifested through body language including the, difficult to describe, cynical smiles. The rationalists in the group jumped in hard to ‘corporatize’ the sentence. ‘Do you mean better professionals?’ The long discussion had started. Or, perhaps, ‘do you mean…’ – and here the full blown corporate Academy of Language – from anything to do with skills, talent management, empowerment to being better managers, being better leaders, and so on.

‘No, I mean better human beings. Period!’- I pushed back. Silence.

Next stage was the litany of adjectives coming form the collective mental thesaurus: fluffy, fuzzy, soft, vague…

I felt compelled to reframe the question: ‘OK, so who is against working in a place that makes you inhuman? Everybody. OK, ‘ So who is against working in a place that makes you more human? Nobody. But still the defensive smiling.

It went on for a while until the group, ‘organically’, by the collective hearing of pros and cons, turned 180 degrees until everybody agreed that ‘Working in a place that makes you a better human being’ was actually very neat. But – there was a but – ‘Our leadership team wont like it. They will say that its fluffy, fuzzy, soft etc… In the words of the group, it was not ‘them’ anymore who had a problem, it was the infamous ‘they’.

The “difficult to describe” cynical smiles are familiar…. indeed I am sure I have perpetrated such smiles more than once myself!

Medicine can be a dehumanising profession, sometimes literally. Dehumanising in both ways – patients, especially some categories of patient, colleagues, but also we ourselves. Of course, the rationalist part of us can pick apart what “better humans” means…

Anthropologizing Environmentalism – review by E Donald Elliot of “Risk and Culture”, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavksy, Yale Law Review, 1983

Recently I have been posting  on the cultural theory of risk developed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. This is a PDF of a review of Douglas and Wildavksy’s 1982 book “Risk and Culture” by E Donald Elliott adjunct professor of Law at Yale.

The review summarises Wildavksy and Douglas’ thought very well, and gets to the heart of one issue I struggle with in their writing ; their oft dismissive approach to environmental risk:

Most readers will be struck not by the abstract theory but by its application to the rise of environmentalism. This emphasis is unfortunate. The attempt to “explain” environmentalism makes a few good points, but on the whole this part of the book is crude, shortsighted, and snide. On the other hand, the sections that consider the relationship between risk and culture on a more fundamental level are sensitive and thoughtful.

I think it unfortunate that cultural theory of risk has ended up so much overshadowed by this “crude, shortsighted, and snide” discussion of environmental risk (Wildavksy, if I recall correctly, was revealed to have taken undisclosed payments from the chemical industry) It remains a powerful explanatory tool, and in clinical practice and team working one finds that different approaches to risk are rooted in cultural practices.

Elliott’s review focuses on the environmental realm, but serves as a good and sceptical discussion of the more general focus of cultural theory of risk – and an introduction to what is sometimes a less than lucidly explained theory.

“Development is always going to destabilize a fragile balance of social forces.”

Via the work of John Adams, I have had some familiarity with the Douglas-Wildavsky Cultural Theory of Risk. Like this reviewer, I find the Douglas/Wildavksy treatment of environmentalism rather crude, while their overall cultural typology of risk stimulating. As the reviewer points out:

Most readers will be struck not by the abstract theory but by its application to the rise of environmentalism. This emphasis is unfortunate. The attempt to “explain” environmentalism makes a few good points, but on the whole this part of the book is crude, shortsighted, and snide. On the other hand, the sections that consider the relationship between risk and culture on a more fundamental level are sensitive and thoughtful.
Even at its best, Risk and Culture is not entirely successful at explaining the paradox of risk – the problem of managing the unknown – but parts of the book deserve to be read seriously by people interested in the problem of risk, including environmental lawyers.

 

9781446254677

I am now reading Mary Douglas directly, currently her Culture and Crises.: Understanding Risk and Resolution  Although she has a prose style that sometimes grates, and I am wary of possibly being unaware of technical anthropological issues that may be taken-for-granted, there is much to enjoy and think about.

Here is a brief quote from one essay – Traditional Culture, Let’s Here No More About It, which follows a passage about the occasional pitting against each other of development and “traditional culture” (usually, under western eyes, to the detriment of traditional culture):

Development is always going to destabilise a fragile balance of social forces. The people are understandably reluctant to do the gruelling hard work and accept the diversion of resources if the resulting prosperity will only line the pockets of outsiders. Furthermore, if it going to erode the community’s accumulated store of trust, and dissolve their traditional readiness to collaborate, the well-being of the community may be worse after development than before. There certainly is inherent ambiguity about the moral case. At least we can say that what stops development is not cultural traditionalism so much as the way it arrives, how it is organised.

This applies – in spades – to the many many “cultural change” / “transformation” etc projects that health services become the subject of. The suspicion that sacrifice and hard work on the part of staff will benefit only a narrow few (the Minister getting good headlines, various outside consultancies, higher management) surely underlies some at least of the cynicism about such projects that is undoubtedly prevalent.

 

#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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Hype, The Life Study and trying to do too much

A while back I reviewed Helen Pearson’s, “The Life Project” in the TLS. I had previously blogged on the perils of trying to do too much and mission creep and overload.

From the original draft of the review (published version differed slightly):

Pearson is laudably clear that the story of the birth cohorts is also a study of failure; the failure of the NHS to improve the inequality of health incomes between social classes, the failure of educational reforms and re-reforms to broach the similar academic achievement gap. Indeed, the book culminates in a failure which introduces a darker tone to the story of the birth cohort studies.

Launched in January 2015, the Life Study was supposed to follow 80,000 babies born in 2015 and intended to be a birth cohort for the “Olympic Children.” It had a government patron in David Willetts, who departure from politics in May 2015 perhaps set the stage for its collapse. Overstuffed antenatal clinics and a lack of health visitors meant that the Life Study’s participants would have to self-select. The optimistic scenario has 16,000 women signing up in the first eighteen months; in the first six months, 249 women did. By October 2015, just as Pearson was completing five years of work on this book, the study had officially been abandoned.

Along with the cancellation of the National Institute for Health’s National Children’s Study in December 2014, this made it clear that birth cohorts have been victims of their own success. An understandable tendency to include as much potentially useful information as possible seemed to have created massive, and ultimately unworkable cohorts. The Life Study would have generated vast data sets: “80,000 babies, warehouses of stool samples of placentas, gigabytes of video clips, several hundred thousand questionnaires and much more” (the history of the 1982 study repeated itself, perhaps.) Then there is the recruitment issue. Pregnant women volunteering for the Life Study would “travel to special recruitment centres set up for the study and then spend two hours there, answering questions and giving their samples of urine and blood.” Perhaps the surprise is that 249 pregnant women actually did volunteer for this.

Pearson’s book illustrates how tempting mission creep is. She recounts how birth cohorts went from obscure beginnings to official neglect with perpetual funding issues to suddenly becoming a crown jewel of British research. Indeed, as I observe in the review, while relatively few countries  have emulated the NHS’ structure and funding model, very many have tried to get on the birth cohort train.

This situation of an understandable enthusiasm and sudden fascination has parallels across health services and research. It is particularly a risk in eHealth and connected health, especially as the systems are inherently complex, and there is a great deal of fashionability to using technology more effectively in healthcare. It is one of those mom-and-apple-pie things, a god term, that can shut down critical thinking at times.

Megaprojects are seductive also in an age where the politics of funding research loom large. The big, “transformative” projects can squeeze out the less ambitious, less hype-y, more human-scale approaches. It can be another version of the Big Man theory of leadership.

Whatever we do, it is made up of a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, near-reflexes, and is embedded in some kind of system beyond ourselves that is ultimately made up of other people performing and enacting a collection of tiny, often implicit actions, attitudes, and near-reflexes.

 

Leandro Herrero: “An enlightened top leadership is sometimes a fantastic alibi for a non-enlightened management to do whatever they want”

From Leandro Herrero’s  website, a “Daily Thought” which I am going to take the liberty of quoting in full:

Nothing is more rewarding than having a CEO who says world-changing things in the news, and who produces bold, enlightened and progressive quotes for all admirers to be. That organization is lucky to have one of these. The logic says that all those enlightened statements about trust, empowerment, humanity and purpose, will be percolated down the system, and will inform and shape behaviours in the milfeulle of management layers below.

I take a view, observed many times, that this is wishful thinking. In fact, quite the opposite, I have seen more than once how management below devolves all greatness to the top, happily, whilst ignoring it and playing games in very opposite directions. Having the very good and clever and enlightened people at the top is a relief for them. They don’t have to pretend that they are as well, so they can exercise their ‘practical power’ with more freedom. That enlightened department is covered in the system, and the corporate showcase guaranteed.

The distance between the top and the next layer down may not be great in organizational chart terms, yet the top may not have a clue that there is a behavioural fabric mismatch just a few centimeters down in the organization chat.

I used to think years ago, when I was older, that a front page top notch leader stressing human values provided a safe shelter against inhuman values for his/her organization below. I am not so sure today. In fact, my alarm bell system goes mad when I see too much charismatic, purpose driven, top leadership talk. I simply smell lots of alibis below. And I often find them. After all, there is usually no much room for many Good Cops

Yet, I very much welcome the headline grabbing by powerful business people who stress human values, and purpose, and a quest for a decent world. The alternative would be sad. I don’t want them to stop that. But let’s not fool ourselves about how much of that truly represents their organizations. In many cases it represents them.

I guess it all goes back, again, to the grossly overrated Role Model Power attributed to the leadership of organizations, a relic of traditional thinking, well linked to the Big Man Theory of history. Years of Edelman’s Trust Barometer, never attributing the CEO more than 30% of the trust stock in the organization, have not convinced people that the ‘looking up’ is just a small part of the story. What happens in organizations has a far more powerful ‘looking sideways’ traction: manager to manager, employee to employee. Lots of ritualistic dis-empowering management practices can site very nicely under the umbrella of a high empowerment narrative at the top, and nobody would care much. The top floor music and the music coming from the floor below, and below, are parallel universes.

Traditional management and MBA thinking has told us that if this is the case, the dysfunctionality of the system will force it to break down. My view is the opposite. The system survives nicely under those contradictions. In fact it needs them.

 

I found this reflection, especially the final three paragraphs, particularly striking. Health care organisations are getting better and better at talking the talk at the highest levels about empowerment and respect and [insert Good Thing here] – but how much that really has an impact on the daily management practices that are the day to day reality of working within that organisation?

I also like the scepticism about Role Model Power of the Big Man (or Woman) on top. Dr Herrero, described on his Twitter as an “organisational architect”, clearly has a healthy view of the reality that underlies much rhetoric. I look forward to the HSE’s Values in Action project which is very much following the lines of his work.