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Competition is over-rated. Collaboration please.

I’m afraid that our United States Congress has reached a point where they are unable to solve the problems of the nation. I’m afraid that the United Nations and other coalitions of nations lack political will to actually save our species from climate change. And I’m afraid when I see unnecessary conflict in our communities.

The root of the problem is over-trust in an outdated paradigm: competition. Our political parties are competing with each other at the expense of the nation. World nations are competing with each other at the expense of the Earth. It’s not new. Civilizations have competed with each other since the dawn of history; conquering, oppressing, building wealth at the expense of others. I myself was raised with an ethic of competition, that the default objective in almost any activity was to be better than others.

Competition is not de facto bad, mind you. A competitive mindset can serve society extremely well, especially when there’s an abundance of resources. Competition has spurred magnificent human creations and inventions over the ages. Competition is a great way to generate ever higher achievements, no doubt. Yet the pendulum has swung too far. Competition has been TOO successful in generating know-how and technology to the point where now there is a frightening scarcity of resources.

Today, competition is very much over-rated. There’s a hypothesis woven into the very fabric of every aspect of American culture. It goes like this: Let two or more products/people/ideas compete and this will result in what’s best for the group. This hypothesis is the engine of innovation in business, in sports, in law, in health care, in schools, in families, everywhere.

Yet the hypothesis is not always right. We kid ourselves into thinking that when two competing interests “duke it out” it somehow betters the gene pool or otherwise makes us all better as a human race. In reality, the rule goes like this: Let two or more products/people/ideas compete and this will result in what’s best for the winner. I don’t believe in trickle-down economics and I don’t believe in trickle down benefits from winners to losers. The first way, the popular version of the hypothesis, is a myth in my opinion.

So how about a different paradigm? How about the pendulum swing the other way for a change? Towards collaboration. Imagine a groundswell of popularity for collaboration. Imagine companies rewarding teams rather than individuals. Imagine collaborative sports and recreational activities rise in popularity on a par with competitive sports. Imagine school children taught and modeled collaboration and communications skills, and rewarded for team/group success rather than individual success. Imagine people who feel marginalized by competitive environments feeling valued as collaborators. So many people in America have shut down and withdrawn from civic affairs because it’s viewed as competitive, even hostile. I have seen people withdraw from all sorts of groups and activities for fear of too much hostility. Why do we have to be so mean and so competitive with each other?

Collaborative cultures hold a place for every person to participate. No one is a loser, or viewed as “less than.” All have gifts to give. In collaborative cultures people work with each other for the good of the group, not against each other for entertainment or for individual gain. Let’s you and I collaborate with each other against a common enemy – such as climate change – instead of against each other hoping that we will make things better.

And I know that collaboration has a bad rap because it seems clumsy and slow. But collaboration is not about getting things done quick, it’s about choosing well what to get done. Working alone, I’m apt to make great progress on a useless task. Working with others I’m apt to get useful new info, learn shortcuts, and better understand how to plug in and help.

How to Change the Culture of Congress

A couple weeks ago there was a hearing on Capitol Hill on How to Build a Move Civil and Collaborative Culture in Congress. I listened to it live and wrote to the staff afterwards, hoping to get involved. It was pretty inspiring.

Chaired by Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Vice Chair Representative William Timmons (R-SC), the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been working since 2019; six Democrats and six Republicans appointed by party leaders.

Sometimes when people read my stuff or are in a meeting that I run, I hear “They really need you down in Washington!” Indeed, many Americans have come to believe that our national Congress is incapable of solving problems on behalf of the nation. This Committee is working on that.

Watch the June 24 Hearing here, like I did.

They are currently focusing on three fronts: time, incentives, and relationships.

Time. Members of Congress are way over-scheduled. Simply finding time to talk through issues and really understand each other’s perspectives seems impossible. The sessions in Washington often start on Tuesday morning and adjourn Thursday afternoon and they all go to their home districts each week from Friday through Monday. To be more civil and collaborative, like all things worth investing in, requires quality time.

Incentives. There are currently strong incentives in Congress for gaining wins for your party or your district at any expense, but few incentives for being civil or collaborative. Some interesting ideas were provided at the hearing about a group or respected congressional leaders, from both parties, actually scoring all Members of Congress on civility and collaboration. At least make it a thing to look at and report on.

Relationships. Related to time and incentives – both stacked in the wrong direction – members of Congress don’t have the types of close relationships with each other that are conducive to civility and collaboration. “This place is messed up,” one of the Committee members explained. “We don’t have lunch here.” Lunch Is not built into the schedule and there’s no common place (think school or company cafeteria) where everyone gets together to simply talk, hang out, and get to know each other. Someone suggested that there need to be more informal and confidential meetings (like across a lunch table). “There have to be places where no one is performing,” they explained.

Other ideas at the hearing included better onboarding and orientation for new members of Congress, and professional development training among Congressional staff on topics such as conflict resolution, communications, and collaborative techniques. Congress is an  organization with 10,000 employees, one of the Committee Members pointed out, and apparently NO institutionalized professional development training for its staff.

I have this old school belief that Congress works for us, the people. If we want members of Congress to be more civil and collaborative WE have to demand that of them. This means not electing members who put party over country or who put meanness over respect. It means praising our members of Congress for actually talking with their adversaries and making compromises.

One of the Committee Members explained how he is from Minnesota where ice hockey sets the culture. Hockey teams compete hard against each other and at the end of each game they line up and every player shakes hands with every player. Their respect for the game and for each other is more important than winning or losing. “Congress should do that,” the Representative from Minnesota explained. “We should line up and shake hands with each other every session.”

The Committee releases recommendations on a rolling basis throughout the year. Click here to see what they’ve come up with so far.

These are all just ideas of course. What do YOU think?

How Our Communities Responded to COVID

Great job Greater Portland, Maine!

You might call it community fabric or community infrastructure. There’s a lot of talk about community resilience. I’m trying to talk about a community’s ability to weather a storm or adapt to new imperatives. I think that’s how communities last; by weathering and adapting.

Humans are especially good at responding to storms and game changes when we are well-connected to each other. In my opinion, it’s the stuff in between the individual humans that make the community stronger as a group. The connections. The knitting. The networks.

This new video celebrates the volunteers and municipal workers of communities near Portland, Maine. It’s really great!

The 8-minute video takes us back to the start of COVID and tells heart warming tales of leaders emerging and networks igniting. You might see people you know from Chebeague Island, Naples, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Westbrook, Cumberland, or Yarmouth.

If you want to feel good about America’s community-level response to COVID, this video is pretty fun.

A big thanks to Tom Bell and Kat Violette and Greater Portland Council of Governments for producing it. It’s so good to be reminded of stories like this that hold us together.

A few quotes from the video for fun:

We got about 50 people in the Town Hall and started making plans.
– Sharon McDonnell, Yarmouth

We didn’t do it for the kudos, we did it for the kiddos.
– Deb Dean, Naples

I have been overwhelmed at the ways that people have rallied to support and educate and protect their communities.
– Carla Hunt, Yarmouth

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