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Relationships as a Source of Strength in Societal Upheaval

Thursday, March 30, 2017

By Kate Seely, Director, Leadership, Culture and Community, Northern California Grantmakers

I recently spent a few days in the mountains of Oaxaca (Mexico), witnessing the good work of a nonprofit that I co-founded some years ago. We spent an afternoon cooking together under the roof over of the town’s basketball court, a place of open-air community gatherings, the cool mountain air breezing through our makeshift kitchen.

Breaking bread has always been a way of connection across the globe. I sat with people who have chosen to stay in their communities and continue farming, when so many have migrated in search of something better, something different. They are also self-organizing to build and maintain their food system, in a time when both obesity and malnutrition plague their children. We spoke of farming (something I am intimately involved with in my life outside of work), of politics and of choice. I felt almost no separation, even across the perceived borders between us. In community, I find solace, connection, meaning and strength.

In a time when so much that is dear to me feels besieged, I am working to find my footing, lead with my values and use my privilege wisely and courageously. In my conversations with NCG members, I know I am not alone.

All over, people are standing up. While some have been resisting for years, others are just now finding their voice. As Bob Ross of the California Endowment wrote recently, "The narrative of inclusion says: 'When we’re all in, we strengthen one another, and we all win.' This has been California’s story in recent years, and this represents the story of America at its best." 

Edgar Schein, social psychologist and organizational culture godfather, is thinking and writing about the type of relationships that will get us through these times. As evidenced by the famous Grant and Glueck Studies, good relationships are the most important determinant of fulfillment and happiness. Given the current state of affairs, this seems even more the case. In community, there is strength, there is resilience. 

The scale of the challenges we face is complex and interconnected, no longer linear and mechanistic. Schein defines humble leadership as "a personalized relationship that enables something different to be done in an increasing complex, systemic, multicultural world." Schein denotes four types of relationships:

Level Minus One Relationships are coercive, characterized by exploitation, depersonalization and dehumanization, where there is active mistrust and conflict.

Level One Relationships are transactional, those involved acknowledge the other(s) as fellow humans, individuals are civil with each other in professional settings, but communication is cautious, trust is low, and professional distance is intentional.

Level Two Relationships, Schein argues, are personal. Individuals recognize each others’ uniqueness. They are characterized by open communication and high trust in relation to work. Schein writes, "The level to which we can trust each other depends on the degree to which we are open with each other." We reduce ambiguity by working to know each other, to communicate. These relationships support everyone involved and do not harm. We can still contain these relationships within the workplace, while we cultivate trust and support within a work setting. This readies us to stand up for what we believe in and to collaborate effectively with teammates. Furthermore, these relationships do not just happen, they are cultivated systematically through personalized interaction. 

Level Three Relationships, are intimate relationships, in which there is high emotional content and an even higher level of trust and openness. Support is active, even when it's not requested.

We have a precious opportunity in philanthropy to demonstrate how relationships can be a part of the solution. Given our commitment to the positive impact of our grantmaking in communities, we have an opportunity to tend to nuanced relationships in philanthropy, and hold with tenderness the power and authority that can destroy rather than build connection.

Let us ask ourselves the question, what more can we do in relationship than we cannot do alone? This question applies not only to our individual institutions, but to the field as a whole. Imagine a community bound together by the conviction that in this moment, philanthropy could make a real difference in the narratives that divide us, rather than bind us.

Let us tend our relationships as we rally to preserve the values we have advanced over the years. In a moment when many are seeking to resist a fear-soaked political climate, let us not forget to invest in these relationships, for they will bolster us when we are down and encourage us to keep going. They will also be our base when we need to act in coordinated fashion, speaking truth even when it’s uncomfortable, and standing up for the rights of all people and the magnificence of our planet.

Further Resources:

Humble Inquiry, by Edgar Schein
Leadership Essentials: Lead by Building Positive Relationships, a blog post by René Durazzo of All In Strategies