When You are the Gorilla
Do you know the joke "where does an 800 pound gorilla sit?"
"Anywhere it wants."
Agencies, businesses and especially governments are almost always the 800 pound gorilla. They hold both the power and the authority in any interaction with the public. Nobody wants to hear about how the gorilla has a really bad itch when the gorilla is coming to sit on them.
I have been seeing an alarming trend in agency responses to protests or even questioning of government lately and it is something I have not addressed before - defensiveness. There is no worse strategy for engaging or making lasting change than this one.
It may be hard to hear, but there is no benefit to an organization putting out statements that include grievances. There is no benefit to engaging in mud throwing with the media or, heaven forbid, the public.
It's hard. I know that. It's hard to engage a community when there is conflict. When people are crying or yelling at you, the correct reaction isn't to cry or yell back.
I will put my cards on the table and tell you that I believe that much of the anger in communities across the US is justified. But this isn't another post about the state of the world or policing or community. There are so many well done pieces about that and I encourage you to read them.
What I do is communicate, and I have done so through some very hard and very visible crises. I have had successes and struggles, but I have always had a few cardinal rules that have guided me and served me well. I would encourage you to check my earlier posts about The Four Es for more on my communications compass.
Many people have heard me say some variation of "cities don't have feelings." That is particularly important to keep in mind when situations arise in which feelings are heightened. YOU have feelings. YOU have grievances. Your organization does not. Your organization is the gorilla, it sits where it wants. The role of our agencies and leaders in tense situations is not to center ourselves but to center others. This is the time to genuinely listen, to respond thoughtfully, to defer to new voices, to consider new ways of doing things.
The problem, of course, is that organizations are made of people. When a group of people share the same stressors, they can begin to form a foxhole mentality. When they only are talking with each other the idea of "letting people know our side" becomes incredibly tempting. You need to shake out of that mindset and try to see everything your organization says or does from an outside perspective. How does that read or sound to someone who isn't part of your circle?
I get it. Everyone wants to say the exact right thing to make their point and get the rest of the world to see the truth. Who hasn't had that moment in the shower when the exact right comeback finally comes to mind? That's what these defensive statements try to be, the imagined perfect comeback.
If your organization, agency or department puts out statements or responds to inquiries with defensiveness or silence, your community will not trust that you will listen to them. They will be right. Not only that, but you are providing those who doubt you with more reason to do so. Now is the time to double down on engagement, to improve listening and to be careful to be truthful and speak without hyperbole. Provide more information, not less. Provide a platform for those who distrust you, don't shout over them. Air your frustrations to your trusted circle, not the world.
This work is hard, but it is noble. If you are committed to serving your community you must be committed to listening to them without immediately rushing to your own defense. You are failing to serve the public if first you serve yourself.
Your agency is the 800 pound gorilla, instead of sitting wherever you want, let others take their seats first.
Not sure how to move forward? I'm here to help. Send me a message