This week I attended a virtual conference with thousands of other fraud-fighting professionals from over 60 countries who come together annually to share information and experience. One of my favorite things about this event is that it's international. I get to hear about the ordinary and extraordinary working lives of humans I would not otherwise be exposed to. Like Thulisile "Thuli" Madonsela, the advocate of the High Court of South Africa, who opened the conference as the first keynote speaker.
Thuli has had an important and impressive career fighting against corruption and for social justice. She spoke about the connection between organizational culture and the prevalence of corruption and fraud. She made several important points, and one of them struck me as especially poignant. She said if organizations don't create an environment where mistakes are tolerated, then people will try to cover them up.
It made me think of our societal obsession with perfection. As a fem presenting human, I receive a lot of messaging reminding me to have perfect behavior, perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect makeup, and a perfect body inside a perfect outfit. Perfect being defined by the dominant voice of authority at any moment in time. And if I did not arrive in this world fitting those particular parameters, then I should try to cover up all my deviations. I should try to cover up all my flaws.
I don't wear makeup because I don't like the feeling of stuff on my face. But I used to wear it anyway, along with high heels. I stopped once I reached the point in my career where I felt like my expertise finally stood on its own and I no longer needed to convey my competence so intently through my appearance. That's also when I stopped wearing high heels every day. I still don't have a perfect body, although I workout often and eat mostly things that feel good. I have a strong body, but I also have plenty of soft spots and oddities. I am full of flaws.
And those are just the surface-level physical things. As humans, we try to hide all kinds of things from each other. When meeting someone for the first time or to avoid the judgement of people we've known for many years. We're generally afraid of revealing the parts of our selves that may not fit the expectations we assume other people have.
There are many reasons for this cover-up practice. One of the most powerful is fear of dire consequences. It is a scary thing to bring bad news to someone in a position of power over some part of your life. Telling a toxic boss you made an error might be the end of your employment or tarnish your professional reputation. Telling a romantic partner you do or do not want children might be the end of that relationship. Asking an organization you join to stand up publicly for racial justice might rescind your welcome in that space.
But not exposing those things doesn't make them go away. The work error still needs to be corrected or mitigated. You either do or do not want children, regardless of what your partner wants. Anti-racist work is critical for every organization to engage in, and it may never happen if no one in the organization asks for it. And yet it is still so challenging sometimes to just tell it like it is. So challenging to speak your truth.
That reluctance has broad-reaching consequences for every part of life, from personal relationships to the structure of greater society. Instead of practicing openness or transparency and celebrating the constant state of being in-process, we have nurtured a culture of deceit where the outward appearance is much more important to get right than the substance within.
This phenomenon was evident in how public officials handled the Covid pandemic. Reluctant to displease their constituents (and party rulers), some governors publicly railed against covid lock-downs, giving speeches stating unequivocally: there. will. be. no. lock-down. Only to institute various restrictions days or weeks later without bothering to clarify that their previous position was incorrect or ill-informed. Saving face in front of their base and helping absolutely no one.
The CDC guidance about mask-wearing started out confusing and just kept on confounding ordinary people and public officials alike. It seemed to me as though they didn't want to upset anyone by taking a strong and clear stance in the beginning. So they just didn't. And the result was factions of pro and anti mask folks latching on to whichever part of the guidance seemed to justify their opinions. An unfortunate divide that was further exacerbated by incendiary national leadership.
Fear of "rocking the boat" only serves to maintain the status quo. Since the current status quo is largely problematic, that makes it profoundly difficult to grow a culture of standing up and speaking out against injustice or abuse. Any up-stander fights a very strong current of long-held beliefs or practices. It takes some very brave early adopters of a new way to engage the world before that behavior becomes normalized enough for the masses to join in.
Along the way, some proponents of the status quo will probably throw tantrums. Like when all the members of the Portland Police Bureau's Rapid Response Team resigned this week in response to increased oversight and accountability. The team previously operated with apparent impunity, its members abusing their positions, so dissolving it actually seems like a step in the right direction. Let abusers resign from an avenue through which they channeled their abusive behavior. Good riddance.
I am heartened that the tide seems to be turning for at least some things in some places. I attended a conference session analyzing the effectiveness of various fraud controls through a case study. The case began with a pharmacist changing a patient's test result so their medication would be covered by insurance. A discussion erupted in the participant chat about how the real problem in this case was the health care system. That was not the reaction I was expecting and it filled me with hope to see more people talking about needing to fix the system than I expected in this professional context.
I don't always stand up and I don't always speak out. But I am doing it more and more. The more I practice interrupting the perpetuation of unjust systems, the more I see opportunities to question what we're doing and why we're doing it. And the more I feel compelled and confident to raise those issues in the face of potential opposition. And that sentiment seems to be growing among individuals and organizations who are speaking out with words and dollars.
I want more folks in leadership positions to model that behavior. I would like them all to address issues head-on like Rep Ilhan Omar, who I appreciate for her steadfast manner of calling things out for what they are, regardless of how they are being painted by other politicians. We don't have time to soft-shoe around the biggest issues facing our species. So go ahead and rock the boat. If it sinks under scrutiny, we already needed to build a better boat.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.