The response to the “Personal” section of the last newsletter has been very interesting. Most of it has been along the lines of identifying with many of my feelings connected with growing older. A few reactions, though, both through emails and in person, have had an angry edge to them; almost resentful. The resentment seems to be around a feeling of disappointment in me. With all my insight, training, and experience, how could I get so bummed out about aging? As one person put it – “I expected more from you.” To which I responded – “I have the same feelings you do, and the same struggles. I just may be more aware of them.” (I’m not sure, at times whether that’s a gift or a curse.) We all have the same feelings. That’s what makes relationships possible.
Talking about the same feelings, I recently got an email from a fellow in Romania that really touched and impacted me. We met a few years ago, at a YPO University (a worldwide learning event for company owners and presidents) in Banff, Canada. He had attended a workshop that Arleah and I had put on and he waited afterwards to talk with us. He has been instrumental in bringing capitalism and a free market economy to Romania, after the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime and the fall of communism. When we met him, he had already founded around fifty companies, and was well on his way toward a hundred. We had an immediate connection with him, and he absolutely won us over when he said that he never hires MBA’s because they’re “arrogant, pretentious, and feel the world owes them a living.”
The gist of his email was that the last three years have been catastrophic for him, and that things aren’t looking much better, even now. He has had to lay off 40% of his workforce, and has struggled to keep himself and his companies afloat. He has felt like a failure, and has questioned his decision to try and bring a market economy to his country. I could feel the gut-wrenching soul searching in his words (he has an enviable command of English). He has concluded, after wrestling with himself, that he made the right decision, and will press on.
What was uncanny and riveting about his email, was his choice of words to express his feelings. Across cultural, language and socioeconomic barriers, they were, verbatim, identical to those that have infused many conversations that Arleah and I have had, and interactions we have had with many friends and clients. Despair, discouragement, and renewal are universal. I have always known that, but it was somehow reassuring to see it in his words.
“Anti-Customer Service: Plumbing the Depths”
Until a few days ago, I thought that we had reached the absolute nadir of customer service in our culture. But I was wrong. There were two encounters that changed my mind – both occurred at the Minneapolis airport.
The first took place at one of the Delta Crown Rooms. I walked up to the reception desk to present my credentials and encountered a staff member who was sullen-faced and on the phone. Notice that I didn’t say “I was greeted by a staff member.” She said absolutely nothing; looked at me with total disdain; and kept talking on the phone. There was no “hello,” no “I’ll be with you in a minute,” nor “can my associate help you.” Nothing.
I waited a few moments, while we stared at each other, and then asked her if she was going to say anything. She snapped at me- “I thought I said hello;” to which I replied- “I don’t think so.” (If she did, she must have said it in a frequency that only dogs could hear.) All this time she remained on the phone. It goes without saying that things went downhill from there. I should point out that this person was not a post-pubescent twenty-something that I regularly deal with in the “hospitality” industry. I’m not great at ages, but she was definitely pushing fifty.
After this encounter, we went over to a line of about five people, at the service desk. There was one person behind the counter actually helping a customer, and two other staff members doing whatever they could, not to help anyone. For a minute there, I had a flashback to my days in Chicago, watching fourteen guys on a fifteen man road construction crew, watching the one guy who was working.
What I was struck by, in this experience, was the powerful and unequivocal non-verbal communication of the personnel in the club. The message was intense and unmistakable- “I’m very unhappy working here; I don’t like my employer; you’re interrupting my sulking; and you ought to be paying attention to my feelings, not vice versa.” I got the message.
The second instance occurred when we boarded our flight. As we got on the plane, our heads were snapped back by the stench in the air. It smelled like a barnyard. Much worse than typical airplane B.O. People were getting on the plane with handkerchiefs plastered to their noses. I talked to a flight attendant, who agreed that the smell was awful, but said that there was nothing she could do about it. She suggested that I go on the internet and send an email to customer relations. I told her that I’ve been there, done that, and that I always get the same response. “Thank you for your concern; you’re a very valued customer; we have no intention of doing anything about your complaint; and please don’t bother us in the future.” (The latter two sentiments expressed in the most saccharin and convoluted spin, worthy of a politician caught groping one of his staff members.) The response of the flight attendant was illuminating- “You’re lucky, we don’t get that much.”
I’m very much aware that the lives of airline personnel (as well as millions of other workers) have been turned upside down, as a result of the economic meltdown. Work ain’t what it used to be, and it’s never going back to what it was. But given the sullen, passive-aggressive behavior of many employees, it’s obvious that company leadership has done little or nothing to deal with the feelings generated by the losses created by mergers, right-sizing, and the meltdown, in general. These people are in deep grief, and they are stuck. And the customers (and the companies) are paying the price.
Good customer service has very little to do with smile training, script memorization, or “mirroring” customers’ communication styles. Personally, I find those things insulting and patronizing. Anyone with a room temperature I.Q. knows that a smile is better than a frown; that spontaneity beats a stilted “shtick;” and that people don’t like being manipulated.
Good customer service presupposes the ability to have the full range of your feelings, in an appropriate context and venue, which prevents you from dumping them on people who have nothing to do with their genesis. This is not the same as telling employees to “suck it up” and leave their baggage at home. All that does is create more hostility that leaks indirectly into every customer interaction and provokes people even more.
If you want employees to deal well with the public, then provide a vehicle, at work, for the full expression of their feelings – especially the ugly unpleasant ones. The research is clear. If you deal with employee unhappiness by really listening to how they feel, and by not trying to shut them down, nor defend your decisions, you’ll get a workforce that will deal with each other and the public, more effectively and more positively. If, on the other hand, you ignore their feelings and give them no venue for expressing them, and instead, just work on fixing their practical complaints, you’ll facilitate a workforce that is just as nasty as before, and becomes better at finding new things to complain about. (BP and the Obama administration may want to think about getting Gulf Coast residents together, in their communities, and actually listen to their feelings, instead of trying to avoid them, or give them one lame promise after another, that they’ll fix the leak.)
Arleah has a saying in her work – “You don’t always get your way; but you always get your say.” If business leaders followed this more often, we might see a dramatic improvement in customer service.
Domestic Protectionism: Unions, Licensing, and Mediocrity”
The Obama administration’s pandering to unions represents much more than the payback of a political debt. It has an insidious and subterranean intent that goes way beyond the elections of this year and 2012. Its ultimate purpose is to further infantilize the workforce; create a broader and deeper dependency on government intervention in personal and private interactions; and guarantee the continued growth of the Federal bureaucracy.
Unions undoubtedly served a purpose in my grandmother’s generation; and possibly in my parents’ time. My grandmother came to this country as a frightened teenager; severely traumatized by the terror and persecution she was fleeing. She had no marketable skills, extremely limited information and expectations, and no ability to leverage her labor with an employer. She worked long hours in a sweatshop – six, sometimes seven days a week – and she clearly needed an advocate.
The position of the contemporary worker is hardly comparable. He is armed with much information and high expectations; he has marketable skills; and he has no trouble advocating for what he feels he deserves. The only similarity between the early union movement and the present one is the latter’s commitment to promulgating the mythology of the abused and helpless worker.
In many ways, the contemporary union movement has taken on the characteristics of a governmental body – in particular, those of the Federal government. Its overriding goal is to stay in power, increase its reach, and convince as many people as possible that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. At its heart of hearts, the union movement caters to a mindset of victimization, low self-esteem, and an unbridled envy of individual and corporate success. In our time, it has become the primary cultivator and insurer of mediocrity throughout the culture; it fiercely resists competition amongst workers; and it is clearly committed to a battle to the death over performance-based promotion and compensation for professionals, paraprofessionals, and skilled workers. The unions have taken the lead in battling school choice and voucher programs in innumerable states, and their entrenched commitment to intimidation, coercion, and outright thuggery is unabated. (Talk to anyone who markets their goods or services at trade shows about setting up their booths. They are charged obscene fees to have union members do what they are perfectly capable of doing themselves. If you as much as try to screw in a light bulb, you expose yourself to physical intimidation.)
In an irony of ironies, the union movement has become as exploitive, insensitive, and vicious as the industrial giants it took on, at its inception. But worst of all, it has become the prime mover in undercutting and sabotaging the principle and core value of individual responsibility in our society.
The licensing of professionals and skilled workers is nothing more than unionization in better clothes. If the public has ever been sold a bill of goods, this is it. There is not one shred of evidence that licensing protects consumers from incompetence, fraud, manipulation, or outright evil. Does anyone seriously believe that licensing has kept drug addicted surgeons from leaving instruments in patients’ bodies? Or psychotherapists from sleeping with their clients and calling it “treatment”? Or credentialed financial advisors from swindling every last penny from the rich and poor alike? (Does the name Bernie Madoff ring a bell?)
All licensing does is protect mediocre practitioners from competition, and produce and reward lazy consumers, who are under the delusion that their best interests are protected by a test and a certificate. I have never seen a licensing exam, in any field, that can tell me if a practitioner is a decent human being; cares about people; is not arrogant and condescending; and empowers clients to take charge of their own lives.
Early in my psychotherapy career, I was on the staff of a private psychiatric hospital. My mentor there was a psychiatrist who had studied under Dr. Thomas Szasz, the founder of “radical psychiatry”. When a patient we were working with wanted to be treated with medication, my mentor would hand them the PDR (the “Physicians Desk Reference” that describes almost all drugs, their action, and their side effects); recommend the class of drugs that might be of help; and tell them to pick the one that they thought would work for them, and had the least onerous side effects. If they questioned this advice, he would say to them – “You may have some psychological problems, but you aren’t stupid.” He was not a popular member of the medical staff.
Both unionization and licensing are undermining of the basic tenets that created and sustained our society, often through excruciatingly difficult times. They have given, and continue to give, people permission to abdicate responsibility for their lives. The most amazing thing to me, about the economic debacles involving the Enrons and the Bernie Madoffs of the world, was that no one asked any questions or challenged anyone in charge. No one demanded to know what was going on, and why it was happening that way. No one, in essence, took care of themselves, because they believed that someone else would take care of them.
If you have wondered about what phenomena like the Tea Party movement are about, this is it. It is an often poorly articulated protest against, and revulsion with, the political and ideological assault against personal responsibility and individual accountability. I am convinced that the battle has not been lost. In fact, I think it’s just begun.
“The Immigration Mess: Caught in the Middle”
I have fairly closely followed the immigration debate, including the uproar about the legislation passed by the State of Arizona. But I was certainly not anticipating an involvement in it, or the necessity of having to take a practical position on one of its ramifications.
About three or four months ago, I accepted an invitation to do a keynote presentation at the annual meeting of the directors and CEO’s of the country’s YWCA’s (in October of this year). The conference was to be held in Scottsdale, Arizona. A few weeks ago, I received an email informing me that the conference site had been moved to Washington, D.C. At first, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the information; and then it struck me. They’re boycotting Arizona because of the new law. I was furious. And I have rescinded my acceptance to speak at the conference. It is not because I have some principled objection to boycotts. What I do have is a revulsion against hypocrites and ignoramuses.
Whenever I ask opponents of the Arizona law what they object to (if they’ve read it, which most have not), they pinpoint their objection to racial profiling and their adamant belief that the law was passed, primarily, to single out and hassle Hispanics. When I point out that the statute expressly prohibits profiling and mandates that no one can capriciously be stopped, harassed, or compelled to produce the appropriate papers, simply because they may look Hispanic, they almost always respond that that may, in fact, be the case, but that you cannot trust law enforcement personnel to obey the law and not single out Hispanics. (I also point out that if you put the Federal statute side by side with the Arizona law, you might be surprised to find that the Federal law is wide open to abuse, and allows for little or no cause for stopping people and demanding they validate their presence in the country.) What I find truly unbelievable is the rank hypocrisy involved in profiling cops. It is, in the eyes of opponents to the Arizona law, completely reprehensible to assume that anyone looking Hispanic is probably here illegally, and warrants detention and interrogation. But it is fully permissible to assume that law enforcement officers will abuse and break the law, simply because of who they are and what they do. How racist and bigoted can you get?
Closely connected to this gross hypocrisy is the uninformed and criminally stupid condemnation of the United States immigration laws and policies; amongst the mildest and most lax of any on earth. This is most outrageous when compared with the Mexican government’s immigration laws. (It takes enormous chutzpah for the Mexican president to come to the U.S. and lecture us on immigration, when his policies are amongst the most brutal and repressive.) Take a look at these:
1. There will be no special bilingual programs in the schools.
2. All ballots will be in this nation’s language
3. All government business will be conducted in our language.
4. Non-residents will not have the right to vote no matter how long they are here.
5. Foreigners will not be a burden to the taxpayers. No welfare, no food stamps, no health care, or government assistance programs. Any burden will be deported.
6. Foreigners can invest in this country, but it must be an amount at least equal to 40,000 times the minimal wage.
7. If foreigners come here and buy land, their options will be restricted. Certain parcels including waterfront property are reserved for citizens naturally born into this country.
8. Foreigners may have no protests; no demonstrations; no waving of a foreign flag; no political organizing; no bad-mouthing of our president or his policies. These will lead to deportation.
9. If you do come to this country illegally, you will be actively hunted and when caught, sent to jail until your deportation can be arranged. All assets will be taken from you.
If we applied Mexican immigration policies to our own country, we’d totally clean out Hollywood, most of southern California, and a significant portion of the American southwest.
I am not opposed to immigration at all. Exactly a hundred years ago my grandparents immigrated to the United States. Without that courageous decision, I would not have had the extraordinary opportunities and blessings I have experienced as an American. People are surprised when I tell them that a day doesn’t go by without my feeling grateful to this country and to the people who made it possible for me to have been born here. I often think of what life would have been like to have been born a Russian, Jewish peasant, unable to find work; uneducated; and scorned by the society I was born into.
I am very ambivalent about what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants living here now. I was raised by immigrants, and I know deeply what that drive is like to have a better life, especially for your children. I don’t think it’s possible or morally defensible to deport eleven or twelve million people, the majority of which have no ill will toward this country. But neither do I believe in open borders and the chaos and danger tyrannizing our southern border. I think the only viable solution to our immigration problem is a dichotomous mix of extreme toughness vis–à-vis closing our borders, a sane and logical guest worker program, and an acceptance of those already here who contribute to the society with their productive labor.
The key for me, in terms of a sane immigration policy, is assimilation. An unassimilated population is doomed to economic and cultural marginality. And the absolute prerequisite for this assimilation is the learning of English. The language of a culture carries its core values, and we are no different. If we want to survive and flourish in the future, and do right by our newer immigrants, we will insist that they speak our language and make it a requirement for becoming an American. To do any less is a disservice to this country and a cruelty to our immigrants.
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