Monthly Archives: January 2015

Women’s Wicked Problems


January 23


As we make our way through our lives, we each will have our share of wicked problems.  We struggle with raising a family, with finding a career, with making ends meet, with trying to find a balance between what we have and what we want, with getting through college, with making the business profitable, with creating and sustaining intimate and meaningful relationships, with trying to meet the demands of our communities and churches, with trying to be responsible citizens, with managing our life transitions with grace and equanimity,  and on and on.

But it is clear that in many ways it is worse for women than for men, especially for women who choose to have careers working in organizations.

Double Binds 

Over hundreds of years, culture and society have conspired to make the lives of women more complicated as well as more difficult than men. Their dilemmas often appear in the form of what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called the Double Bind.  In the mid -1950′s, Bateson and his colleagues defined a double bind as a situation in which two contradictory demands are made on a person who cannot – but is expected to – satisfy them both.  Furthermore, the person cannot easily remove himself or herself from the situation and is likely to be punished in some way for not fulfilling both demands.  To be put in a double bind is to be put in an impossible, no-win situation.

An example of a fairly benign double bind is advice given to a teen age son by his father:  ”Be yourself, only better.”  If the son focused upon “Being Himself,” his emphasis would be upon accepting and valuing himself as he was.  He could conclude that he was worthy of respect and admiration.  When he  considered the “Only Better” part of the advice, however, he would be pulled in the opposite direction.   Something must be wrong with him if what he should do is “get better.” Being satisfied with “being himself” would be seen as incomplete or even inappropriate.

There are other many other examples of double binds that are not benign; perhaps the most famous is Catch-22, which serves as the central theme in Joseph Heller’s famous novel.

In our society, many  of the most troublesome double binds seem to have been reserved for women.  For example, in her book Beyond the Double Bind:  Women and Leadership, Kathleen Hall Jamison identifies five predicaments or double binds that women who aspire to leadership positions in organizations must contend with:

  • Womb/Brain:  The dilemma of “produce or reproduce,” do meaningful work or give birth to children and be responsible for raising them.
  • Silence/Shame:  The dilemma of being silent and respected, or speaking up and run the risk of being ignored or shamed.
  • Sameness/Difference:  The debate over when men and women should be treated the same and when they should be treated differently.
  • Femininity/Competence: The predicament for women being seen as feminine and competent at the same time.
  • Aging/Invisibility:  The dilemma for aging women also being seen as vital, alive and sexy.

Most women who find themselves in the rough and tumble of organizational life will recognize the”damned if you do and damned if you don’t” aspect of these dilemmas.   While most men are active participants in the enactment and maintenance of these double binds, they are often  clueless as to their existence and to how pernicious they are.

Four Destructive Patterns of Bias

In their book What Works for Women at Work,  Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey bring a research perspective to learning more about the wicked problems of working women. In their interviews with 67 women “at the top of their fields” in business, medicine, academia, government, and the legal profession, they discovered “four basic patterns of bias” that permeated the working lives of these women:

  • Prove-It-Again:  Women are forced to prove their competence over and over, whereas men are given the benefit of the doubt.
  • The Tightrope:  Women risk being written off as “too feminine” when they’re agreeable and “too masculine” when they’re aggressive.
  • The Maternal Wall:  Women with children are routinely pushed to the margins of  the professional world. 
  • The Tug of War:  All of the above pressures on women often lead them to judge each other on the right way to be a woman.

Two observations seem relevant:  First, these dilemmas are reserved for women; Men are for the most part exempt, though they have their own different issues to deal with.  And second, being in the middle of an organizational life full of such complications and contradictions often seems like being in the middle of The Swamp!

What Can Be Done?

Are things improving?  Yes.  There is impressive evidence from many sources that women (and some men) are increasingly refusing to buy into these destructive patterns and are making energetic efforts to bring about change. But changing deeply embedded cultural patterns is a huge and long-term challenge. These cultural and societal double binds and biases will not disappear quickly.  What is required is what social scientists call Robust Action:  Vigorous, focused and sustained actions directed at specific problems.

Both Jamison and Willams and Dempsey include in their books  a series of specific recommendations for Robust Action.

Here are Jamison’s suggestions:  Reframing, Recovering, Reclaiming Language, Recasting, Equal Opportunity Alternatives, Rewriting,  and Confounding the Stereotypes. Each of these recommendations includes a series of approaches and actions that can be taken in order to reduce the power of the double bind.   At the same time, several of her recommendations are themselves wicked problems, ill-defined, complicated and difficult in their own right requiring specific knowledge and skills to put into practice.  In this world of complexity and controversy, there is no quick fix or easy out.

The last chapter in Williams and Dempsy’s book is titled The Science of Savvy in 20 Lessons, and includes twenty suggestions for addressing these problems.  These  are a mixture of specific suggestions  - #6 Just say no to office housework like taking notes –  and generalized admonitions – #8 Don’t serve your anger hot. 

Some make imminent good sense:  #5  Form a posse that includes both men and women and celebrates each other’s accomplishments in a good citizen way.

Others are less helpful because they are phrased in terms that offer no clue how one should go about carrying then out.  For example,#14 is Bias against women fuels conflict among women.  Stop judging other women on the right way to be a woman, and keep in mind that we’re all fighting our own battles.  How one is to determine whether she holds biases against women, and how is one to learn whether or not she is “judging other women”unfairly?  And with #8, Don’t serve your anger hot,  how is a woman to know if her anger is too hot, too cold, or just right?

The last recommendation in Williams and Dempsey’s book is:

#20  Don’t waste your energy trying to work through an unworkable situation, or your time in a job where your talents are not valued.  If you’re facing a poisonous working environment or a dead-end job, and there’s nothing new to learn, vote with your feet and find a job where you can shine.

The author’s advice seems clear:  If it’s not working, move on.  But taking such advice undiluted could be a serious mistake.  Things are always more complicated that they suggest:

  • Most situations are “unworkable” at one time or another.
  • People often find themselves in a job where their talents are not always valued.
  • There is always something new to learn, not the least of which is how to turn “unworkable” into “workable.”
  • Voting with one’s feet is one way out.  Yet if it is a frequent occurrence, it will be seen as evidence that the person lacks commitment and “grit.”
  • Given the economic circumstances it’s not always easy to find another position, much less a more satisfying one.
  • Even after moving on, many women (and men as well) discover that things are no better and are, at times, even worse.  

There are no ideal places to work!  Every workplace has its own set of problems that must be addressed.

What women are facing at work – and will always face – are a series of wicked problems. If she decides to “vote with her feet” and move on, what she will discover are new problems,  some of which will be even more “wicked”  than the ones she left behind.  ”Poisonous working environments” do not improve by themselves! They are only made better by consistent, thoughtful, patient, and skillful attention and work.

Another option is to “Stay At the Table” and deal directly with the problems themselves.  People who add the most value to their jobs, their families, their relationships and their societies are those who meet difficult problems head on, and develop the knowledge and the skills to make things better, not only for themselves but for others as well.  In the long run, these people are seen by organizations and society as exceedingly valuable and even, at times, irreplaceable.  In order to be included in this group, one must stay and see it through.

Do you find yourself in a difficult, unpleasant, and “unworkable” situation, and where your talents are not valued?  Welcome to the most inclusive club in the world.  We’ve all been there at one time or another.  Rather than “voting with your feet,” how about forming a posse and going after the most serious of the many problems that are on the agenda, especially one that no one else seems interested in confronting?  Do it well, stay with it, and you may be amazed at how things can improve.







Voices from the Swamp



January 6




John Maynard Keynes,  Economist: On the Great Depression of 1929-1939

We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand.

Steve Rothmeier, Former CEO of Northwest Airlines

I thought it would beat any Indiana Jones movie.  The change effort starts off with a real nice beginning, and then suddenly you get one disaster after another:  The boulder just misses you, and you get a snake in the cockpit of the plane.  That’s what it’s all about.  You’ve got to get down in the blood and the mud and the beer.

Executive in a Fortune 500 Company

Remember I told you that nothing shocks me anymore? Well, this shocked me…You have to be on guard all of the time here.  You can’t trust anyone in this place.

Poet John Keats

There is nothing stable…Uproar’s your only music.

Husband and Wife Waiting in the Train Station

Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  I didn’t say pound cake.  I said crumb cake.
Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  Don’t tell me what I said.
Man:  You said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.
Man:  I actually saw the crumb cake but I did’t get it because you said pound cake.
Woman:  I said pound cake.
Man:  Well, I heard crumb cake.
Woman:  Then you obviously weren’t listening.  Crumb cake doesn’t even sound like pound cake.
Man:  Well, maybe you accidentally said pound cake.
Woman:  I said crumb cake.

Andy Grove, Intel Corporation

Given the gradual nature of these changes…the old rules of business no longer worked.  New rules prevailed now – and they were powerful enough to force us into actions that cost us nearly half a billion dollars.

The trouble was, not only didn’t we realize that the rules had changed – what was worse, we didn’t know what rules we now had to abide by.

Robert Gates, Senior Government Official in Four Administrations:   On Life in the White House

The pace is frenetic and the hours impossible.  Intrigue.  Backstabbing.  Ruthless ambition.  Constant conflict.  Informers.  Leaders.  Spies.  Egos as big as the surrounding monuments.  Battles between Titans.  Cabinet officers behaving like children.  High-level temper tantrums.  I would ultimately work for four presidents and I saw it all.  The struggles for pride and place, the preoccupying quest for “FaceTime”…with the President or even his most senior advisors, the cheap thrill of flashing a badge and walking through those massive gates as tourists look on and wonder who you are…

The constant pushing and shoving to get on lists.  Lists for NSC meetings, Oval Office meetings, to go on Air Force One or the presidential helicopter (Marine One), State Dinner guest lists, participation in presidential foreign trips, access to the White House tennis court…and countless more lists.  Given the effort at every level on a daily basis to get on lists, it is amazing that as much work got done as it did.

 Albert Einstein, Physicist

How do I work?  I grope.

Jack Gilbert, Poet

Marrying is like somebody
throwing the baby up.  
It happy and them throwing it
higher.  To the ceiling.
Which jars the loose bulb
and it goes out
as the baby starts down.

Michael Hammer, Author,  The Agenda (2001)

Feeling overwhelmed?  You should be, but you have no choice but to proceed. 

Michael Grunenhagen, Engineer

Before you can even get close to the High Ground, you have to wade through swamps, one after another.  And it’s getting worse.  Technology is getting more complicated and you need more instruments to describe the messes you are faced with…Before you can [make sense of it all]…you have to rely on incomplete data, [then] struggle to get a good data set to determine Order.

Richard Abdoo, Former CEO of Wisconsin Energy Corp.

There is only one way to describe the transition - hell.  From doing things very, very successfully, being a leader, on top, we had to go down into the pit, if you will, in order to come out the other side; moving faster, better, with higher targets, is a hell to go through…There are times…when I wonder, “What am I doing here?  Do I really need to go through this hell?

Jack Welch, Former CEO of GE

“You have to wallow in it.”

Jewish Rabbi

Then my wife of fourteen years left me, condemning everything I had done, complaining that I never really cared about her, and that she had lost herself in the marriage, and her life in the bargain.  She fought fiercely for custody of our three children, to gain most of our money and the house we had lived in.  She got angrier and more destructive.  She publicly denounced me to friends and community as her demands increased.  As I spiritual teacher, I found it the most agonizing period…in my whole spiritual life.  It felt like I was dying over and over, being ripped apart, forced to go through the fire of letting go of my children, my reputation, and still keeping my heart open.

Rosabeth Kanter, Author and Consultant

…organizations are riddled with problems, dysfunctional practices, and counterproductive arrangements.  Though externally they may appear to be sophisticated and deliberate instruments  of collective purpose, operationally they are…bulls in societies’ china shop, with people lurching from one point to another, often seemingly out of control, and steered more by their sheer momentum and by chance encounters than by design.

Senior Executive in a Major Company

We are dying.  In the meantime, my boss goes around reducing everything to numbers and charts.  He leaves the real task of leadership to others.  Because we no longer believe in the organization’s future, we’re all tending to our own personal futures.  I would love to be thinking about constructive alternatives, but it’s simply too late.

David Lawrence, Former CEO of Kaiser Permanente

If leading…were nothing more than an intellectual exercise in rearranging structures and redesigning processes, our lives would be a lot simpler.  But the CEO’s job is to lead change, not just manage it.  Leading people in a new direction means reshaping their view of the world.  It means shattering their sense of stability, tossing out their old standards of success, and prying them loose from the status quo.  And then it means replacing what you’ve wiped out with a new, coherent and energizing vision of what you believe the future can and should be.

Ben Horowitz, Entrepreneur and Business Leader

Every time I read a management or self-help book, I find myself saying, ‘That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation. The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal.  The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.  The hard thing isn’t hiring great people.  The hard thing is when those ‘great people’  develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things.  The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart.  The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization you just designed.  The hard thing isn’t dreaming big.  The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Don DeLillo, Novelist (White Noise, 1985)

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged.  It happened one day without warning.  There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of the older shoppers.  They walk in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat.  They see no reason for it, find no sense in it.  The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered…They turn into the wrong aisle, peer along the shelves, sometimes stop abruptly, causing other carts to run into them…there is a sense of wandering now, an aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge.  They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of second level betrayal.  The men scan for stamped dates, they women for ingredients.  Many have trouble making out the words…In the altered shelves…they try to work their way through the confusion.

Henry David Thoreau

The world is a cow that is hard to milk – and oh, how thinly it is watered ere we get it.

Edward O. Wilson, Biologist and Author

Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world.  The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour.  We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.  We thrash about.  We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and the rest of life.



Nobel Prize winner P. B. Medawar once observed that successful scientists work on the most important problems “they think they can solve.”  After all, he suggests, “…it is their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.”

The rest of us do not have the luxury of choosing only the high ground where the solvable problems can be found.  We must also go down into the swamp where we  have no choice but to grapple with the wicked problems we find there.   Philosopher E. F. Schumacher writes,  Man’s [sic] life can thus be seen and understood as a succession of [wicked] problems which must inevitably be encountered and coped with in some way.”

Paradoxically , however, it is because of our efforts at grappling and coping with these unsolvable problems in the swamp that we make our most important personal gains: We learn lessons we could not learn anywhere else; we gain perspective and understanding for the struggles of others; we become very clear on what is important; we acquire skills and abilities that are transferable to other difficult situations; we make progress in narrowing the gaps between where we are and where we want to be;  we gain invaluable knowledge about ourselves, especially about our strengths and weaknesses,  our willingness and capability to “hang in” and not give up,  and our capacity for resilience;  and we gain understanding that it is through struggle that we find purpose and meaning.

“...when things are most contradictory, absurd, difficult, and frustrating,  continues Schumacher,  then,  just then, life really makes sense. ”

Here is another voice from the swamp – one’s own:  

Even though things are  difficult, frustrating, and really complicated right now,  if I pay close attention, stay involved, learn from others and from what is happening around me, then  I have a real chance of making sense of things, taking steps that matter, and may make a real difference.  

The work  to be done in the swamp is among the most important of all.  Here is how poet T. S. Eliot summarized it:

Success is relative.  It is what we can make of the messes we have made of things.