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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 11 January 2014

March For Mental Health

This is all on top of the tragic suicide of Staff Sergeant Ian Matthews of the Hamilton police force who ended his life last month.

It all piles up.  As a colleague of Sergeant Matthews, writing anonymously, explained in a letter to the editor:

When the people who protect us from harm both in our streets and across oceans kill themselves, they are work casualties, the same as if they'd been shot by an opponent.  There is no work/life separation for them.

Just as firefighters can inhale toxins that lead to unexpected and costly illnesses later in life, PTSD and related accumulated injuries can be fatal, can tear families apart and do have broad social consequences.

But justice and mental health is just the tip of the iceberg.  We are increasingly crippled by a crisis that is eating away at our economy, putting massive burdens on our healthcare system and sucking morale from society at large.

We don't teach youth to understand and self-regulate their cognitive states.  Diagnosis is more an art than science, more interview than evidence-based.  Mental illness is like asthma or diabetes - with the right accommodations, treatment and support, most sufferers can leave normal, engaging lives.

The thing that keeps this from happening is stigma, superstitions around mental health as outdated and outmoded as fearing the number 13.  Mental illness isn't moral weakness; stigmatizing it is.

If our officers and soldiers who go through psychological screening to be accepted aren't "tough" enough not to get mentally ill, that says something, doesn't it?

This is too important an issue to let slide to partisan bickering.  I don't care who's to blame for policies made or not made in the past; I'm not interested in blaming police, or EDPs, or service providers.

I want to see this fixed. 

It's an issue that matters; for Rehtaeh Parsons, Ashley SmithSammy YatimChris Peloso, the hundreds of stories we don't hear about every year and all those who suffer, painfully, in silence because of ignorance and fear, this must change.  We must change.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, in conjunction with partners working directly in the mental health field, is holding an all-encompassing conference to discuss what's happening, what can be done better and how to catalyze the culture change we need.

This conference can and should serve as an opportunity for political parties at both the federal and provincial levels to renew their commitment to fostering a mentally healthy society and put forward some new ideas and shared solutions.  It should be a chance to promote new innovations and tools being used to help, like WalkAlong and RealTimeCrisis.

Most importantly, though, it needs to serve as a tipping point, a kick in the butt for all of us to change our view about how the mind works, what impacts it and how we can manage our mental health better. 

We have to do this.  We need to start now.

Lives are depending on it.

Friday 10 January 2014

Rob Ford on the Road to Damascus

It's really easy to tell people to live within their means and blame them for poor planning when they falter.  Rob Ford has done so more than once.  

But life doesn't always respect one's means; an unexpected accident, a sudden illness or accumulated injuries both physical and mental can get in the way.  When the demands of life exceed your means of sustainability, what then?

That's where Toronto is at with the clean-up.  

Toronto has powers of taxation.  It's got a lot of really wealthy people and strong businesses that, being as committed to planning ahead as they are, should be investing in their community to promote the kind of sustainability that will improve their business opportunities in the future.

Yet here we are, two majors storms in and more expected in the near future, looking for assistance from other levels of government.  This is in spite of Ford's so-called gravy-cutting, too.

This doesn't make Toronto weak; it makes us human.  $60 million is too much for the city; scale down, and it can be a few thousand, or even the cost of groceries that's out reach for individuals.  It's the exact same thing - only the scale differs.

There's a lesson in this.

The Divine Right of Politicians

I find this whole exercise fascinating.

Political people, many of whom make a living setting agendas and pushing narratives through advocacy/Government Relations work, are always getting their knickers in a bunch over which candidate to support for leader.

They should know better.  In fact, they do know better.  Look at where Rob Ford is at right now - he's Mayor, but has been sidelined by Council.  He's only got one vote - it's not the fact that he's Mayor, but his ability to build coalitions around issues that could set him above.  

The Prime Minister is just that - first among equals.  If it weren't for the tough, Machiavellian manipulations of the back-office teams PMs or Premiers put in place, that primacy would actually function the way it was intended to, with agendas needing the confidence of individual Members of the House to gain traction.

We have a reality where the inner court of leaders are to an increasing degree reinforcing the notion that The Leader Is Always Right - the buck stops with them, yet when something goes wrong it's always someone else who goes under the bus.

Sadly, we've got some leaders that have actually started taking this sycophanthy to heart; Stephen Harper truly believe he can do no wrong.  Rob Ford actually believes he's the best Mayor since Salvor Hardin.  These sorts of leaders are increasingly demanding unquestioning loyalty and falling in to the Imperial Trap:

When you feel holding office means that you are the only legitimate voice, the only rightful decision maker, we have a problem. 

The backroom operators who look to play King maker don't really believe that any one leader is the infallible, though that's the image they will try to present when they pick their horse.  Often for them, it's the ability to pull the strings of an unquestioned leader that motivates them.  

These sorts of mandarins are insisting that the leader is right in all things, that loyalty is owed by the Party faithful to the leader without question and that, as the leader is of such importance, it would be selfish of volunteers to expect any of their time.  One does not expect God to appear before them, nor question the divine plan; one's role is to pay, pray and spread the word without question.

In the mix may be a desire to have a leader who shares their vision, but frankly, if more attention was spent educating voters on the issues and working to engage people to a higher degree, it would matter less who was in charge; the people would know what they want and be able to contextualize it.  They'd also be capable of justifying their demands through evidence-based arguments and feel confident in bringing their voice forward.

Which, after all, is how our democracy is supposed to work.

Instead we have increasingly powerful leaders supported by increasingly manipulative power-brokers creating niche-solutions for core constituencies while the majority of Canadians increasingly wash their hands of the whole affair.  Loyalty has ceased to be for the cause, has migrated through The Party and is now being walled up inside the PMO or the Party Office.

Politics isn't supposed to be about beating the opposition; it's supposed to be about winning the support of the people.

It's time our leaders - all of them - start being a bit more cautious about the tailors they surround themselves with and a bit more critical of their own opinions and the choices they make.  Through social media and citizen journalism, the veil of secrecy they used to wrap themselves in is becoming transparent and the people don't like what they see.

Open Government couldn't be coming at a better time.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Colonial Education and the Mean Dean at York U

Me thinks this Dean needs to get his ass back to class for a bit.  Maybe spend some time out in the real world, too.

The point of education is to prepare individuals for success in society.  That means knowledge, skills and sociability, through accommodations where necessary.

The opposite of education is imposition - telling people what to think, how to act, so on and so forth.

This Dean thinks he's being an advocate for the former, but he's actually embodying the former.

What career opportunities is the young man in question preparing himself for?  He says he's taking online classes so as to avoid contact with women.  He's also saying this is due to religious beliefs, though which religion isn't clear; religious scholars were asked about the position and remained puzzled.

The real question here is why this gent feels so against being in public space with women.  There may be very legitimate reasons that are being masked by religion, consciously or unconsciously.  

The fact remains, regardless of what training this fella gets, the moment he steps out his door he'll be in a world filled with women.  Some of them may even wear skirts and short-sleeves; shockingly, some might even be gregarious and opinionated.

There's a whole movement in education towards self-regulation, empowering individuals to have better self-control, understand and manage stressors better and to by and large being more consciously able to  function within a social setting.  It's the tonic to stigma, discrimination and communication fails.

This Dean doesn't seem to know or care about this.  A young man has expressed religious concerns about socializing with women, dammit, and deserves to be accommodated.  The opinions of the girls in these classes are "not relevant or an appropriate consideration."  They may have won the vote, but they're not going to impose their politics at York U!

Accommodation isn't about creating silos between individuals - it's about empowering people to succeed in a social context.  Hearing aids are accommodations.  Translation services are accommodations.  ECEs are accommodations.  Segregation is not an accommodation, nor is telling people their opinions don't count.

Mean Dean is a boss, not a leader.  It's people like him that are stalling society and putting up walls that disengage youth, the people we need to be actively encouraging to be engaged.

Instead of perpetuating a top-down colonial mentality based on ignorance and gut-feelings instead of evidence-based best practices, maybe it's time this Dean commit a bit of sociology and look into this whole social-emotional self-regulation business.

Who knows, he might learn something.

Hey Bosses, Employees Aren't Your Problem

There are presently massive changes happening in leadership practices.  It's early days yet, but the long-term prognosis is good.  As was the case with the Labour Revolution, smart employees are realizing they need to rethink their approach to Human Resources, just as HR folk are revisiting the whole purpose of their industry.

Where We've Been:

By and large, the prevalent stigma around employees is that they aren't focused on company success and are either not clever enough to see the big picture, too selfish to care or too lazy to add value without their own.  The assumption of bosses the world over is that employees are a problem that needs constant management, like weeds in a garden, if the work is to get done.

Salary and punishments are sticks and carrots to keep workers in line; all the frills they ask for are simply excuses to detract from productivity.

So, if an employee calls in sick, it's likely that they're looking for an excuse not to come in.  If they say directions weren't clear, they're stalling for time.  If they produce work that doesn't meet the expectations a boss had in mind, it's obvious the employee wasn't paying attention.

Enter micromanagement - the boss will either watch their employees like a hawk or push harder on middle managers to fill that role for them.  Sure enough, micromanagers will find employees less engaged, less productive and more likely to take every sick day available to them.  It reinforces the belief that the employees themselves are the problem.

Management, in this perspective, is about stopping truancy.

Where We're Heading

The age of the all-knowing boss is coming to an end.  Smart leaders are recognizing that being top dog doesn't make them omniscient, nor does it mean that their say-so is all that matters.  Instead, they're turning to science, behavioural economics and are willing to pilot innovative strategies to find, retain and motivate the best employees to the best results.

Google is a great example of this.  Instead of penalizing employees for being human beings that need recuperative breaks, socialization and food, they're optimizing engagement to ensure their team has their base needs met and that the process of meeting those needs feeds into the companies mandate of catalyzing innovations that will change the world (while making a profit).

There are other employers out there taking step in the same direction; great Canadian firms like Optimus SBR and Environics have started seeing their employees as the solution, not the problem, and are developing and implementing strategies that puts their team in the co-pilot's seat.

Surprisingly, there's even a movement growing within bureaucracies like the Ontario Public Service to change their working culture, though such initiatives are getting stuck in the clay layer of entrenched, comfortable middle-management.  Political Parties still lag far behind, but then, they're an industry focused on competition and wins, not achievement.  

Leadership, in this perspective, is about empowering individuals to be active participants in company success.

Nothing in this cognitive labour support movement is airy-fairy or pandering; it's evidence-based and it's effective.  The bosses that think otherwise can continue to lean hard on their employees and look to cut when they see their revenue drop, but this is the path to extinction.

The Conscious Revolution is here to stay - and the leaders that will build success in the knowledge economy are recognizing that their human resources are human first, and need to be treated as such.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Could This Have Saved Ashley Smith?

Two six year-olds were playing at recess when one fell.  The girl reacted to her friend's fall and subsequent distress by laughing and hitting him on the back.  This, of course, upset her friend even further, leading the girl, in turn, to laugh even more and hit the boy again as she became more hyperaroused.  The teacher on duty, knowing that the girl had great difficulty with social conventions and controlling her motor actions when hyperaroused, intervened as follows: She showed the girl how to console her friend by softly telling him that everything would be all right.  She then demonstrated for the child to pat her friend gently on the back.  Almost instantly, both children down-regulated.

If we look at this situation and apply how we might instinctively act, we see that there is potential for the teacher to admonish the girl for being too rough.  In this instance, chances are that the girl (and her friend) would have become even more upset and dysregulated.  As it was, the girl genuinely wanted to be kind, but her poor social skills and problems with motor control made this difficult.  With the wrong kind of adult response, the girl might continue to have ongoing problems in the prosocial domain.  With her teacher's keen understanding and gentle encouragement, however, the girl was able to learn an appropriate response to the situation and model it.

According to her adoptive parents, Ashley Smith apparently had a normal early childhood.  When she started to hit puberty (the time when the neural systems of the human brain responsible for executive function start to mature), she started to display anti-social behavioural changes.  From there, Ashley Smith's life spiralled downward into juvenile court and prison, with some diagnoses of mental health issues along the way.  

Her sad life ended, as we know, in suicide.

What if Ashley's parents had been able to learn about strategies like the one outlined above and the cognitive science behind them?  What if her teachers or prison guards had knowledge of the neurochemistry behind behaviour and been able to approach Ashley differently?  What if those same prison guards knew to look for behaviour and causes in each other and felt comfortable in providing peer support?

Could such strategies and culture shift have also saved the life of Staff Sergeant Ian Matthews?  What about Canada's veterans?

Of course, this scenario is geared just towards teachers.  It was, after all, included in a teacher-resource manual. 

There is no reason why any teacher should proactively be looking to apply such behavioural comprehension and management strategies to a justice system tragedy.  There's no reason a correctional service policy-planner should be reading a teacher resource, either.  

We have silo-based systems that encourage people to stay on target, lest they get lost on tangents.  

The sorts of cross-pollination ideas which can and should happen don't, and for a well-identified reason that also goes back to cognitive function.  We like to tell ourselves we're rational creatures, but we really aren't.  We're reactive, using fight or flight (or punishment and isolation) when there's a better way.

This is the culture change Don Tapscott refers to when he talks about networked intelligence.  It's the power of behavioural insight the Mowat Centre wrote about.  It's the sort of innovation we keep talking about, but are challenged to actually realize.  

It's within our power right now to collectively do something to prevent the next Ashley Smith or Ian Matthews from killing themselves.  We can reduce bullying, reduce crime, increase workplace productivity and positively impact quality-of-life if we can just change the view from looking through a mirror darkly.

Or, we can focus on individual toughness and invest more in crime and punishment.  

That's what's worked so far, right?

UPDATE:  But a more precise application of the criminal law, based on a better appreciation of its limits, is not evidence that we no longer know where or how to draw the line.  Quite the contrary: We are drawing it with a sharper pencil.

Who am I to argue with Andrew Coyne?

Here's the new mentality - it's behavioural economics, stupid!

But a more precise application of the criminal law, based on a better appreciation of its limits, is not evidence that we no longer know where or how to draw the line. Quite the contrary: We are drawing it with a sharper pencil.

The Truth About Power Via Margot Robbie

Everyone wants to live life like the movies.  They want the perfect everything - perfect body, perfect partner, coolest friends and greatest experiences, all as easily as they seem to come on the silver screen.

Of course, nothing on the silver screen is as simple as it looks.  Film making takes a great deal of preparation, logistics, communication, editing, financing and above all, discipline.

The best film makers don't do what they do for the money and glamour it brings any more than the best politicians are about power and fame.  They have a story to tell or a vision to implement.  They may have fun at what they do, they may indulge in some of the benefits that come from their position, but for the true leaders, what they get never replaces what they leave behind.

Because no one gets everything they want; such is not sustainable and never will be.

Power has to be about balance, as does resource access; when it's not, you're just precipitating a fall

The Winter of Canadian Leadership

Do you trust politicians?  Do you trust police?  Do you think reporters have agendas or serve as shills?

It's all the rage these days to be disillusioned at the people in charge, but think about what that means for a second.

We want our politicians to be saints, wise and just, action-oriented yet deliberative, simultaneously delivering the specifics we want and when we want them.  They need to be fully-briefed, informed of every issue and its broad implications, but do so with the bare minimum of resources and funds.  But they also need to be constantly selling, which is a wholly different enterprise from governing.

Police need to be professional, available, well-versed in the nuances of human behaviour, capable of diffusing any situation, respectful of people's time and busy lives, but also getting the bad guys off of our streets.  They need to make us safe, without getting in the way of our living our lives however we please. 

Journalists, in their turn, need to be well-versed, unbiased, able to write simply yet eloquently, not jump on opportunistic stories that sell papers but ready to expose the discomfiting realities within our society that need attention.

In short, we want our policy-makers, law-enforcers and press to be superhuman.  It's no wonder they disappoint us so regularly and spectacularly, because they aren't super human.  Not a one of them can live up to the expectations we place on them (and often as not, they themselves claim in an attempt to set themselves above competitors).  

We keep judging the people we charge with making society work on these failings, casting them aside when they fall or ignoring their failings to make our own role easier.  We can keep looking for that perfect Someone to emerge who will be perfect and immune to human failings, but what if they aren't coming

The leaders we have are stuck trying to individually be more than they are or at least to appear as such through message control and diminishing opponents to make oneself look better by comparison.  In both scenarios, they invariably fall - sometimes quite publicly, but most often in quiet, unseen ways that weigh heavily upon them and impact the choices they make in subtle but clear ways.  

In Human Resources jargon, this is called presenteeism - the act of being at work, but not 100% performing.  It's true that government is remarkably inefficient; it isn't true that the private sector is universally doing a better job service delivery, particularly when it comes to the sort of work that places a high social-emotional impact on its front-line staff.

What happens when the people with the greatest responsibility aren't allowed to be human beings on the job?  They are less effective at what they do, but it's their personal lives that bear the greatest brunt. This means failed relationships and broken homes, substance abuse and road rage. 

Occasionally, it results in suicide.

Suicide, addictions, mental health, justice, leadership, information sharing - all are hot-button issues right now, as are economic stability and structural challenges.  These aren't separate issues, residing in parallel but disjointed silos - they all connect.  You can't solve one without addressing them all.

We appear to have two policy strands emerging at present:

One seeks to double-down and instead of addressing structural problems, it's demanding every person become superhuman.  Students need to predict future market trends, master the art of sales, work part-time jobs and yet be active consumers and socially-engaged individuals. 

Employees need to be institutions unto themselves.  Civil servants have to do more with less, earn less money and have less stability but remain constantly creative and 100% engaged.  Everyone must be an island unto themselves, yet continuously add value to the economy.

The other, which does not have one active champion, recognizes the reality of behavioural economics; you can't separate work life from private life any more than you can expect a police officer to be a master diplomat yet a tough enforcer or a politician to be a policy whiz and a master salesperson.  We are not islands, nor are we capable of being superhuman.

This applies to the people at the top as equally as it does the people at the bottom.  As such, we can't expect either end to bear the brunt of responsibility for making things work on their own.

Which is why the leaders of tomorrow won't be found at the top rungs of power, nor serving as revolutionaries at the bottom.  Instead they are bureaucrats, community activists, even police officers like the anonymous author from Hamilton.

They're out there, right now, quietly making change happen from the middle out.

Canada's winter of discontent is proving to be a destructive one, with unexpected casualties.  Have hope, though - spring is on its way.