Winter Reading: Switch VI - Mindsets, Free Space, Humor, and Failure
Tue, 2013-02-19 06:53
In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Crown, 2010), Chip and Dan Heath say that there are two kinds of mindset: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that things and people are the way they are. There are people of integrity and there are people who are corrupt. Those with a growth mindset believe that people can change, that "the brain is like a muscle that can be developed with exercise."
When government ethics reform becomes an issue, many politicians respond that you can't teach people to be ethical. They either are or they aren't. These politicians have a fixed mindset with respect to ethics.
Government ethics practitioners have a growth mindset with respect to ethics. They believe that government ethics can be taught and that ethics advice can make a huge difference in preventing ethical misconduct.
One reason for the huge difference in mindsets is politicians' misunderstanding of what government ethics is. Another reason is that when these politicians consider ethics training and advice, they are thinking primarily of themselves and their lack of need for it. This comes from their inability to evaluate themselves. But a lot of the difference is a different view of people and their potential.
It's not easy to overcome this obstacle when creating an ethics program. But if you can get ethics training to be made mandatory, it is important to show elected officials especially how poor everyone is at evaluating their own conflict situations. The way they can grow is not in becoming more ethical, but in understanding this aspect of human weakness and overcoming it by seeking ethics advice.
Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset (Random House, 2006), has shown that a growth mindset itself can be taught. Perhaps ethics training classes (and testimony on ethics reform) should begin with a short talk on mindsets and the obstacle a fixed mindset can create to embracing a government ethics program.
Toward the end of their book, the Heaths discuss an interesting concept that can be very important to ethics reform from within. The concept is "free space." Free space consists of "small-scale meetings where reformers can gather and ready themselves for collective action without being observed by members of the dominant group." Free space allows reformers to develop a language for talking about the advantages of reform, as well as an "oppositional identity." That is, it allows individuals to start developing an alternative culture. A new school to replace the old school.
In a local government, free space could involve party or other political meetings of the opposition party. But this involves only elected officials. It is more difficult for administrators and employees interested in ethics reform to secretly meet to discuss the means of reform. If an agency head feels that her employees are sympathetic, reform may be discussed at regular meetings. Otherwise, special meetings, outside of working hours, will most likely be required.
This asks a lot of people interested in reform. It is, therefore, unlikely to happen. As it turns out, reform from within is rare, unless there has been a scandal, and then the reform usually comes from the mayor, the local legislative body, or the city or county attorney's office. Occasionally, a city or county manager is a leader on ethics reform, but rarely does reform originate from within a department, agency, or board.
When people find it uncomfortable to discuss a topic (such as government ethics), it helps to reframe the topic: it's about being professional, not good. But reframing doesn't necessarily mean that people will listen.
In such circumstances, humor can be a good approach. If people start laughing at an oaf who hands out a contract to a brother-in-law lawyer, a job to his slob of a brother, and a grant to an aunt, and starts defending each of his decisions, digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole, like a dumb puppy, people are more likely to think and talk about nepotism.
Humor makes it more likely that colleagues and subordinates will not be afraid to talk openly about conflict situations and report those who deal with them irresponsibly. Some government ethics training programs do have some humor in them. It is a good approach in an environment that is not responding well to other methods.
But what about ethics reform? Can humor help in selling it? I haven't seen it happen. When there is humor, it's usually the nasty attacks of bloggers, which isn't funny to the officials in charge. Fun could be poked at old fuddy-duddies who aren't keeping up with the times, at ostriches with their heads in the sand. One could wonder out loud whether those who can't put together something as straightforward as a government ethics program can possibly craft a budget.
The one thing to keep away from is joking about corruption. Effective ethics reform should not be presented as a way to deal with corrupt officials, because it is officials who need to be convinced. If they're called corrupt, they will only do what they feel is necessary to stop that talk. They won't create an effective government ethics program, because they will fear that it will be used against them. They have to be convinced that it will be good for them as well as for the community.
The Expectation of Failure
Although ethics reformers have to stress the success of a government ethics program, this success is long-term. In the short term, an ethics program will have failures. Until training gets going, until people start seeking advice, until it becomes a habit to file disclosure statements on time and withdraw from participation due to a conflict, until the ethics commission learns the ropes and gets the kinks out of the system, and until political parties and gadflies, reporters and bloggers, get over the excitement of filing ethics complaints, there will be more rather than fewer scandals.
The Heaths stress how important it is to create an expectation of short-term failure, "not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en route." Failure needs to be reframed as a natural part of the change process, so that failure does not undermine the acceptance of a government ethics program.
Click here to read the other six blog posts on Switch.
Director of Research, City Ethics