Civility and Authenticity in the Workplace

Thank you, in advance, for listening to this perhaps half-baked thought – this is one of those, “No, I have way too much to say in a Facebook post,” kind of blog posts.

This article has been open in a tab in my browser at work for several days now while I stewed on it, and particularly how a call for civility meshes with a call for authenticity, something I’ve been talking abouta lotlately.

Sometimes, workplace brawls really do happen, although they are altogether more often cold wars.

Sometimes, workplace brawls really do happen, although they are altogether more often cold wars.

I’ve been arguing that we have a huge untapped sea of potential in our own people that is blocked by failing to let them be authentic – not just in the sense of the way we treat LGBT or ethnic minority workers, but in a much broader sense of masks we wear, masks we force each other to wear, without reason at work. Now, I’m generally a composed, civil person at work. I get mad relatively rarely, and I don’t swear or shout when I’m mad, although I do raise my voice (very rarely*) and I occasionally do say things I regret (and for which I consistently apologize). I will also admit to being uncivil in my professional / work life at times, and it is something I want to continue working on. And I’m still fairly new to having these kinds of formal leadership responsibilities – particularly managing large teams and overseeing increasingly large budgets. Apropos of that, this paragraph is particularly striking to me:

Bosses produce demoralized employees through a string of actions: walking away from a conversation because they lose interest; answering calls in the middle of meetings without leaving the room; openly mocking people by pointing out their flaws or personality quirks in front of others; reminding their subordinates of their ‘role’ in the organization and ‘title’; taking credit for wins, but pointing the finger at others when problems arise. Employees who are harmed by this behavior, instead of sharing ideas or asking for help, hold back.

Certainly this is not authenticity, or anyways a kind of authenticity we should encourage (that is, we should not be making a place for people who think like this, or we should do so with great caution, in our congregate lives). So there’s a sobering question there for me with respect to how to be a good leader. Certainly, if you met me five or ten years ago, I’ve made a conscious investment in being more poised and careful about what I say, in part driven by all the times I’ve engaged with the media – although I will push hard for what I believe in, I am more considerate in many ways of others concerns and priorities, and even if I am more assertive about what I think needs to be done (whereas I might have been a pushover, ten or twenty years ago), I try to do it in an inclusive way.

Really, the problem cited above is a problem that (for me, for instance, since this behavior is inconsistent with my values) I should be avoiding during recruitment and retention. It is not evidence that I should not let people be authentic (because that authenticity is authentically dangerous!) but rather that the risk or lack of safety (apropos of my much favored Mr. Beaver quote from C. S. Lewis) associated with this is that an authentic organization can be better, but with the greater unleashing of agency as well as progress through community amongst one’s team, there is also greater risk associated with bringing on board people whose values disrupt the authenticity ecosystem. So, I also argue that, rather than opening us to these kinds of dangers, when we let people be authentic, we also give them the keys to our real mission (not just our mission statement), and that lets them take a level of ownership in the organization they’ve never had before. And if they’re the right people, who belong in our ecosystem, magic happens.

Medical errors cause a lot more harm than we think... besides clinician skill, are there civility or workplace authenticity - personnel factors - that could help us save these lives? Source: Wikimedia

Medical errors cause a lot more harm than we think… besides clinician skill, are there civility or workplace authenticity – personnel factors – that could help us save these lives? Source: Wikimedia

I also tweeted about this striking comment from the piece:

According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.

Again, expressing these feelings in this way is not authenticity. It is bullying, and bullying is not okay**. In some cases, it reflects selecting for the wrong things at the entry to the ecosystem (and there has been much discussion about how we choose people for grad school, medical school, etc., and some of the dangers inherent in our implicit value matrix). It is perhaps also a sign of creating an environment in which frustrations cannot be aired (civility and honesty are not always good friends), and in such a situation, “bottled up” frustrations may explode in unwanted ways. Finally, this situation is not authenticity-positive in the sense that, when one person is a bully, or coercive, and they are allowed to do this with impunity (a situation I’ve personally encountered / to which I have been victim) they have a chilling effect organizationally, and that chilling effect destroys value that a whole sea of talent, who could be authentic, but are not, because of fear, are not demonstrating.

This is where it gets dicey for me. I’m personally not a big fan of cell phone boxes at the door (and I’ve been in meetings with them). My experience is that, much more often, the problem is excessive meetings, without clear agendas (especially routine meetings). And it seems to be particularly those meetings that are disrespectful abuses of our time that have cell phone boxes. There is also the danger that expecting people to be instantly and perpetually available, but then disrespecting them when they make valid business decisions to prioritize other issues over talking to you, itself, is more than a little, itself, uncivil.

Another way in which I’m concerned is that I have a strong sense that I want to develop an investment in the idea of family and shared identity with my team. And I want people to be real, even if real means they have feelings, although I want to empower them to be real but focused. I’ve said very clearly, that I feel that a significant contributor to how I’ve accomplished the things I’ve accomplished is that I take things personally. I also tell my leadership team that we are precisely who and what we are, because of unique factors each of them brought to the table. We wouldn’t be where we are, for instance with the Center, if I didn’t take things personally, and if they hadn’t brought their personalities into what we built, together. And taking things personally does include leveraging not only my thoughts and rationality but also my feelings. This doesn’t mean being mean – but civility can often be a call for a certain kind of dispassionate engagement that some majority culture men engage in, particularly, and more than once, it’s been a way to gaslight women in professional life and to roadblock the development of other minority talent.

So the article gave me a lot to think about. I do think, that as we help people be assertive (which enhances authenticity), to own their perspective but recognize others disagree, much civility naturally follows – because people are generally pretty cool, in the absence of a reason to get heated up. I’m not sure that civility, in itself, though is the right goal, organizationally, to seek – I think at this point incivility is a symptom of an underlying problem.

* There is a famous-ish story, that involved perhaps mild voice raising, but not yelling or shouting, about an interaction with me and our HR people, related to arbitrary decisions that affected my operations and caused threats to our sustainability. I will admit to getting uncivil (apparently a co-worker of the HR person thought I would become violent and was ready to call the police… seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever even thrown a punch in my life, and I’m not about to start). If there was incivility, I will not say it was all my fault – I felt completely unheard, and in a situation with which any operations leadership can sympathize, others were making decisions but I, to me, seemed to have all the responsibility of their impact. The person talking to me (we’ve since had many pleasant interactions) could certainly have worked harder to understand why I was concerned, and take my business interests, particularly, and my organizational stake in the situation, much more seriously.

** In this case, the price of that bullying is ultimate for the patient, in the form of loss of life.

Towards a World Where Every Child Belongs

A few weeks ago, a mom brought her tween son in to the Center without an appointment, to ask about resources. I knew, since I know all my families, that she wasn’t the mom of any of our kids in the ABA clinic, and we weren’t seeing new patients at that day or time, that she wasn’t someone we knew. I caught enough of her facial expression to gently interrupt and offer to help in any way I could. They came back to my office for a chat. Her son told me about his experience being bullied by kids in his school. I spent some time getting to know them, what’s he’s good at, and what he likes. I told him briefly that I had been bullied at his age, too – I don’t talk about it a lot, but when I was in sixth grade, there were these boys who used to gang up on me and hit me. I was too ashamed to complain. My mom ultimately saw bruises, and then she went on the warpath, much as this mom was doing now. If you know me, you know I have an ugly mamma bear side, that doesn’t come out often, but it comes out when someone bullies or threatens our kids, so maybe this is where it came from. So, I supported mom in her warpath – you fight, sister, tooth and nail. I gave them some resources – my friend Anthony Ianni’s Relentless Tour to stop bullying, a toolkit from a national anti-bullying center, and also some resources for places to go to be social with people who won’t bully you or tease you and adults watching over who wouldn’t stand for that – our friends at the local YMCA, I told him about cool things going on like Autcraft. And I wanted him to know that there are people who think autistic kids are cool. We cried a little bit and he gave me a big hug, and to be honest, I haven’t seen him since then, and I don’t know how the story turns out. It seemed like an imposition on my time – there are lots of demands on my time – but it turned out to be a really healing conversation for me, too*. And it’s a good introduction to this topic.

Yeah right, you're going to bully this guy. But back then, when he wasn't 6' 9

Yeah right, you’re going to bully this guy. But back then, when he wasn’t 6′ 9″ and he didn’t know how to stand up for himself, you did.

Teri and I watched this movie last night, After the Dark (it’s on Netflix). It’s about this senior philosophy class, and their last gedanken is that they are in a remote place, and atomic bombs are about to go off, and they have a bunker that can only save ten of them, and they have to decide whom. We really liked it – I gave it five stars on Netflix.

It fit really delightfully with this recent business of using personality inventories for leadership at work (in our management development series, we did a profile called the DiSC – see more in a prior blog post of mine). Elyse kind of went crazy on this, and may possibly have taken it multiple times to get the results she wanted. We had a couple of our newer leaders who hadn’t done the profile do it, and on a profile wheel, she mapped out all of my leadership team, so that we could see how our styles as twelve different people were similar or complementary. It turned out that many of our people were clustered together, and it taught me some important things about their desire for harmony and dislike for open competition (although, apparently not in the context of really long, admittedly slightly dorky board games, but that’s another story that’s apparently happening next month). We talked a little bit also about how we cluster leading to a gap space in our wheel – it turns out that we lack someone who is comfortable as a conductor, and this is true. I bring to the table at least some ability to inspire and motivate, and to give people a really amazing vision, that enables them to achieve explosive growth. Elyse brings to the table uncanny acumen and a brilliantly scientific mind that pushes us to be technically excellent. And a big group of our leaders bring steadiness and harmony – they are critical, because the pace of what we’re trying to accomplish can burn people out without steadiness and harmony. But, when there are things that would go more smoothly if someone just implemented a concrete process and held everyone to it, like schedules and managing our productivity and stuff like that, we honestly kind of struggle. This is a concrete way in which more diversity would help us, even if we also generate strength from what we have in common. Rather than being in conflict, the dynamic balance of the two is what makes us strong**.

One of the barriers in getting to this kind of realization, often, is reticence to accept the idea that people, in their dimensionality, bring both strength and struggle to the table. There are these questions, right, when you interview, and someone asks you what your weakness is? And you’re supposed to say something that sounds loosely like a witness, but which you can spin into a strength, to show that you know how to make lemonade out of lemons. But you can’t say you’re a perfectionist, because everybody says they’re a perfectionist. And, of course, you can’t admit to a weakness from which you don’t know how to benefit, because that’s the way the Bizarro world of interviewing works. One of my biggest weaknesses, which is hardly hidden from anyone, is that I take things personally. When our kids suffer, I cry, I feel it along with them. When an injustice is done to them, I rage. I don’t ask for ownership in the things going on in my life – I take it as a birthright. I’m unapologetic about my weakness – I know that it inspires people to both extremes in their feelings for me. I know that it can make things difficult. It really was also how and why I came to do the things I’ve done in the last few years, when I had the biggest chance in my life to take something personally.


Like MLK, I argue that a world where your children and mine can play together, side by side, is a better world for your children and mine, for you and me, … for everybody.

After the Dark also took on this topic of weaknesses in an interesting and critical way. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the kids in the movie are repeatedly pressed to be analytical, to accept that one person can objectively be classified as better than another, and to make choices based only on that kind of holistic and reductionist value judgment. And this goes wrong – terribly wrong. There is something to be said for seeing in our whole strength, our unified personality, that even when we come together, we are not just a collection of strengths, but also a collection of struggles and challenges and weaknesses, and that doesn’t necessarily just make us weak – it is also what makes us beautiful.

In a talk I recently did, I argued that failures in diversity and inclusion often begin with a failed value equation like this one.

In a talk I recently did, I argued that failures in diversity and inclusion often begin with a failed value equation like this one.

I feel like there’s some of this with the model of diversity and inclusion that we have. “We’re” afraid “them,” rather than thinking about how a broader definition of “us” would make us all better. And we set really exclusive ideas of things, and we set them in kids’ minds really early. Another example – I can’t talk a lot, yet, about this project, but I got to spend Friday morning on it, and it’s soooooo cool – I’m collaborating with some people on a  really cool science education project. I was brought in to help with things like sensory sensitivities the autism community may have, and to help make it accessible to a neurodiverse audience. But as it unfolded, I really saw some cool opportunities to be inclusive in so many more ways. For instance, telling the human story of sciences like physics is a great opportunity to critically address the fact that, if you talk about this stuff to a group of early grade schoolers, all the girls will be engaged and raise their hands, but if you talk to the middle schoolers, many of them will already think this is boy stuff and not really participate or identify. They ought to know stories of women like Shirley Jackson or Lise Meitner. Or even the great Marie Curie herself. If they do, they might get to see that doing science like a girl is pretty great, and that if they’re interested in science, they should be able to feel like they belong in science***. And people who are different in the way their brains are wired – well, there is more than a passing interest in the possibility that Einstein was autistic, and he, Feynman, and some of the others even among the most famous of that era, were nothing if not unique. So I’m taking the opportunity to go beyond making this project neurodiverse in the sense of sensory supports, but I’m pushing the team (and they’re being really receptive) to the idea that inclusion starts with how the story is told, and that stories like the one we’re working on can be a powerful vehicle to help make sure that those girls, those ethnic minorities, those autistic kids, those whoever is different for whatever reason – who might make really good scientists, don’t get faulty messaging from a bad value equation that tells them that they don’t belong.

People need to belong not just in professions, or, say, with the diversity of the leaders in my leadership team, in a place in leadership if they want one, but that they also deserve to belong, socially. Back to the young man’s who paid me an unexpected office visit a few weeks ago, the problem is that kids in his school don’t know how much better their life would be if they had an autistic friend. I live in a bubble, especially where I work, where every single person I interact with loves someone autistic. Where every single neurotypical person is aware – my fifty staff, our parents, our kids’ siblings – of the beauty a child with autism has brought to their life. And it’s more than that – some of our graduates, who are older now and in school – are rock stars. So many other kids have found out how cool it is to be their friends. In one case, a boy who was at our Center was in a class with a bully. But the bully didn’t have any friends. And our boy made friends with the bully, and the bully stopped being a bully. That’s the kind of magic I’m talking about. That’s what makes me dream that someday, we’ll all belong, we’ll all be a part of community as a birthright. I dream of a day when every kid has a friend with autism. And a world where everybody, more generally, has a friend who is “different” from them. And like all the people in my life who know and love someone “different,” I think you’ll all love it, when it comes true. Because it will. That’s what I mean by taking things personally.

* This boy wasn’t my patient, but this does also bring in this whole topic of therapeutic sharing – which is primarily for the patient’s benefit but sometimes also benefits the provider. I shared because there is a powerful cloak of invisibility around abuse, and breaking that cloak down helps the victims of things like bullying. In a recent panel discussion, I also, however, made the argument that some, particularly in psychology, of our ethics models and the way we think about multiple relationships with our patients, actually makes things worse instead of better and is ill thought out. As I say later in this piece, I am unapologetic, often, in positions I take, and in my defense, I’m not just saying this now because I’m a full grown clinician and no one can victimize me – I said the same thing during the ethics segment of my board certification oral examination.

** One example of this, I make fun of calls to have a “Straight Pride,” but just as many white people don’t really understand that they have a race like anybody else, I think maybe a future direction for enhancing our understanding of Pride as a celebration is that, when we celebrate nature’s diversity of sexuality and gender, plain old straight people are part of that diversity as well, and as I said in my Sorry, Not Sorry Conversation, one of the problems with the I’m Sorry movement at Pride is that the straight people who are part of it have failed to understand what Pride is about, and they don’t belong because they don’t understand what they’re celebrating. So, increasingly, I think we need to teach them to have pride, too, much like feminism is not about hating men, and anti-racism is not about hating white people. Not a Straight Pride event, but it’s okay to enjoy your identity as heterosexual.

*** When I applied for engineering and physics graduate programs, one of the physicists who wrote a letter of recommendation for me shared that, when she herself had applied to grad school, she had found out after the fact that one of her professors, who had agreed to write her a letter of recommendation, had put, in it, that she, as a woman, had no place in physics. She found out about the letter, thankfully, because it made someone at the university to which she applied livid, and they leaked it to her. And, obviously, she managed to make it to being a professor of physics at Michigan, so she did not half badly for herself. And in case it seems like this is a problem of yesteryear, we have the current inexcusable behavior of a Nobel laureate.

Reimagining LGBT Community

I feel a little remiss if I don’t share this press release, right here on my blog. Sorry it took me so long. Stepping into this new role at The Network has been yet another example of how I constantly find myself stepping back and being sore amazed at the amazing people I’ve somehow managed to draw into my life (and into whose lives I’ve been drawn). We’ve already had two amazingly talented young professionals agree to join me on the board, since two weeks ago.

The first weekend in my role as CEO, scrambling to fix all the little problems and hinges that come unhinged during this kind of restructuring, I had more than a few moments. Teri was there to hold me for them and let me cry the tears I needed to cry. Thanks, mister. And then she pulled a fast one on me – she had a totally believable (slash I’m really gullible) tale about winning a performance competition at work, and that she was taking me out on a date Friday night. We arrive at the home of her manager, where, supposedly, the tickets are, and… my amazing Network friends threw a surprise party? For me? I should mention fellow Network board members sent me flowers, also, back when I joined. Teri* tells me I need to step back and, in addition to my amazement at the passion and talent of the people in my life, remember also, just how much I am loved. I will do. You are right. I am loved, and I struggle daily to be worthy of the people who love me. It’s not something I say to self-deprecate, or self-loathe, or self-anything. I say it because the people who love me… are that amazing. Seriously.

Although I’m watching you, sir, and you will take me out on a date, yet!

Okay, here it is: the announcement of what we’re doing with the Network, a major milestone in a plan I’ve been quietly putting together for months, now.

The Network Looks to The Future, Embarks on Reimagining LGBT Community

Grand Rapids, MI – October 17, 2014 – Mike Hemmingsen, President of the Network, announced today that the organization is undergoing an ambitious and thorough restructuring. “It’s amazing to see the pace of change in LGBT visibility and freedom, both on a nationwide and a local scale,” said Hemmingsen. “Today, we have more rights than we have ever had, more acceptance, and more allies, although many challenges remain, and it is clear these changes have not benefitted all LGBT people equally. Over the last several months, the Board of Directors of The Network has been taking a long, hard look at our place in the changing landscape of the LGBT community and our relationship with our straight brothers and sisters.”

“The first and most important conclusion we reached is that we must not rest. Our work is not done, nor are we yet doing enough, until a time should come when LGBT lives and loves are fully equal, and our gifts are seen at their full worth in the marketplace of talents. However, we recognize that, as this environment changes, we must change with it, in order to continue to be relevant both to the LGBT community and to our broader community, and to be able to fully carry out our vision of making the Grand Rapids area the best place in the world to live, love, and work as an LGBT person or one of our allies.”

As part of the restructuring of the Network that is beginning, Hemmingsen noted that Dr. Mira Krishnan joined the Board this summer. She is a leader in autism diagnosis and treatment, with a strong track record for operations growth, and she brings to the organization experience in non-profit administration and leadership, grant funding, and strategic planning. Effective immediately, Krishnan will assume the role of Chief Executive Officer of the Network, in a volunteer capacity at this time. With strong support from the Board of Directors, she will be tasked with operations oversight and implementation of the strategic / restructuring plan.

“We have an amazing opportunity, right here, and right now, in this pivotal time and place for LGBT rights, to do something really meaningful,” said Krishnan. “This is our opportunity to redefine what it means to be LGBT community. We will recommit to lifting up those in our community who are more struggling, recognizing that, until all of us are safe, none of us are safe. We will continue to celebrate LGBT lives and loves. And we will take our rightful place as community stakeholders. We will reaffirm and increase our commitment as LGBT Grand Rapidians to making this a great city, to enhancing the stability and prosperity of our industry and our neighborhoods, and to doing this for all people, gay and straight. Although the changes the Network is going through are going to be hard for many of us, this is the right thing to do to make sure the Network can be the center of the Grand Rapids LGBT community today, tomorrow, and 5, 10, or 50 years down the road.”

As part of this restructuring, the existing Executive Director is no longer affiliated with the Network. The organization also asks for temporary understanding, over the next several weeks, as regular office hours will be disrupted. There is no anticipated impact on supportive / social group programming, which will continue as normal. The leadership of the Network has spent the past month briefing key community stakeholders about the status of this plan. We will continue to share our vision and our goals for the Network both inside and outside the organization. In particular, we will be hosting town halls in the coming months to share our restructuring plan and allow for community input. Members of the Network, who wish to investigate further opportunities to aid the organization through this process, are also strongly welcomed to contact Krishnan via the e-mail address below.

The LGBT Network of West Michigan (“The Network”) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization headquartered in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids. It has united, nurtured, and sustained the LGBT community in the Grand Rapids area for more than 25 years.

Mira Krishnan
CEO, The Network
343 Atlas SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
(616) 458-3511


Oh, and while I’m at it, we’re getting started right away with cool, new stuff. Of particular note, check out our new event, Our Narratives. We think it’s so important that we help each other, as LGBTQIA+ people, to tell our stories, own our stories, and use our stories, to help advocate for changes, large and small, that make the world a better place for everybody. I’m hosting the first Our Narratives workshop, to help us do this, and do it better, and do it braver, and do it fiercer, right in my own home. You can register over on EventBrite. Maybe I’ll get to find out your story, there?

* No lie, it’s escalating – she doesn’t just humor me liking Taylor Swift any more, I catch her singing along. She KNOWS THE WORDS. Truth.