U Is for Uplift

[This post is part of a series on 1-on-1 organizing conversations. Check out the intro post here to see an overview of the whole framework.]

Introduction

The uplift part of AIEOU is where we support and follow-through with people as they do or don’t do the tasks that they volunteered to do. When people complete a task for the first time, it’s good to follow-up and debrief with them about how it went. When people don’t complete a task, it’s good to follow-up and see if there’s anything you can do to support them.

In the previous post in this series on the “organize” part of AEIOU, I highlighted how we should avoid as much as possible leaving new people on their own to organize. There’s many steps to take from first getting involved to becoming experienced and knowledgeable about the many aspects of organizing, and taking each step in community with others helps foster relationships and share best practices. But no matter how collective we make organizing, there are still countless moments where people have to do something on their own, where they have to overcome some part of themselves and their environment using their own resources and confidence.

Life is hard, workplaces are complex, coworkers are complicated, capitalism is a big, bad jerk, and sometimes organizing tasks don’t get done. Uplift is about staying in relationship with people through the ups and downs of organizing.

Not Following Up Is a Mistake

If someone volunteers to do something and doesn’t do it, it can feel easiest to just leave it be. When I bring up things like this with others I fear that the other person will get defensive or that they’ll feel bad. As uncomfortable as those possibilities are, not following up with someone is clearly worse.

Not following up with someone can give them the impression you don’t care about them or the organizing you’re doing together or the task they volunteered to do. This can not only stall organizing in the short-term but cause them to question whether you’re trustworthy or whether organizing is worthwhile in the long-term.

When following up, I try to check in, name what I see if they don’t bring it up themselves, and offer support. “How’s it going? … I see you didn’t get a chance to xyz. Do you still think that’s still worth doing? … What do you need to do that?”

Obstacles to People Completing Tasks

To illustrate with an example, let’s say you had a 1-on-1 with your coworker Brenda where they were agitated about there not being enough staff on the lunch shift at a restaurant, so together you came up with a tentative plan to talk with other coworkers about this to see if others were also frustrated about this. Brenda thought this was a good idea and offered to talk with Tom about it sometime over the next week. A couple weeks pass and Brenda doesn’t say anything to you and you bring it up and she says she hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

In workplace organizing trainings I learned that there are 4 main reasons why people don’t follow through on tasks. For each of the main reasons there is a straightforward way for the organizer to respond to help someone over the obstacle. (If you find yourself reading the below discussion as a list of ways to push people instead of ways to support them, try reading it again).

The first reason people don’t follow through on tasks is a lack of resources. Maybe Brenda is too busy with her second job or can’t get childcare to find time away from her kid to go have a 1-on-1 with Tom. When lack of resources is the problem, offering resources is the solution. Ask Brenda if having two weeks instead of one would be more reasonable, or if you could watch her kid sometime while she met up with Tom over coffee.

The second reason is a lack of skills or confidence. Maybe Brenda has never before met up with a coworker outside of work before to talk about grievances. Doing so for the first time can be intimidating. When a lack of skills or confidence is the problem, the solution is to help that person build up their skills and confidence. As an organizer you can ask them what feels most awkward or challenging about talking to Tom, help think through how to make it feel comfortable, and you can share about the approach you take when you talk to coworkers about grievances.

The third reason is a lack of motivation. Perhaps Brenda just doesn’t seem to care as much about the grievance in the days after she agreed to talk to Tom about it. When a lack of motivation is the problem, the solution is to agitate. Agitation in union organizing isn’t primarily about making people mad, but is about wiping away all of the things that disconnect us from our many emotions about work. In this situation agitation is about checking in to see, underneath all of the coping mechanisms, if this is a grievance Brenda feels strongly enough to want to do something about. If so, try to talk through again how it affects them and how that led them to want to address the grievance in the first place.

The last reason is fear. If Brenda is afraid that the boss will find out about what they’re doing or will react harshly to any kind of action, she might give up on her task. When fear is the problem, inoculation is the solution. Looking more closely at the fears, at what people need to feel comfortable taking action, and at how to anticipate and prepare for the boss’s next moves will be helpful here.

If you don’t take the time to really talk to people about why they didn’t do what they said they would, you’ll make assumptions about them that can lead you to misunderstand where they’re coming from and not be very helpful when you try to offer support.

Obstacles Aren’t Always Visible on the Surface

While the four reasons people don’t complete tasks helps you find the best way to support your coworkers, people are often not so transparent about their wants and needs in such a situation that you can easily identify the obstacle and provide support to overcome it.

There’s no easy tricks for talking with people about these things, but the best advice I’ve found is to keep going back to the basics of relationship-based organizing: Ask open-ended questions, listen carefully, keep building trust, validate their concerns, and offer support. 

People will often say one reason as a cover for another. It requires less vulnerability to tell someone you dropped a task because of some external issue like being busy with a second job than it is to admit an internal obstacle such as feeling anxious about not knowing how to do something or being fearful of retaliation. Having a foundation of trust between yourself and your coworkers makes it easier to talk about and potentially address sensitive things that otherwise might get lost in the mix. A caring and thoughtful organizer can find ways to respectfully open doors to conversations about more vulnerable topics without barging through.

If someone doesn’t do a task and seems intent on either avoiding it or can’t overcome one of these obstacles, let it be. Maintaining a positive relationship by respecting boundaries is nearly always more important than completing whatever task is at hand. I feel the urge to write at much more length about how important it is to validate people’s concerns and respect their boundaries, and how that actually makes you a much better organizer and person (contrary to whatever image some stories project of a star organizer who always pushes people to do things). But it’s not that complicated, so I’ll just leave it at that. If someone trusts you and they really care about an issue, they might find a way to bring the issue up later or want to get involved after they’ve seen others make progress on it.

[Sentimental tangent: I lied, I thought of more things to say about not pushing people.

The aggressive organizing style that is sometimes taught seems to give off the impression that organizing is all about doing the thing (like taking collective action), and pushing others to do the thing, and doing the thing is the only thing that matters, and so everything else must be subordinated to doing the thing.

Sure, there’s a lot of problems in the world, and it’s important that we eventually get around to solving them. And of course, disagreement comes with any kind of political terrain, and conflict within groups is as natural as spring rain or summer sun. But the kind of callousness that I’m objecting to here is the very common organizing situation where people agree largely on what to do about an issue but then some people take that agreement as license to start pushing everyone to do things.

My biggest fear is that gentleness gets lost in organizing spaces (or that I lose sight of gentleness in myself). Rather, what if one of the biggest sources of how hard we can be on the bosses is how soft we can be with each other?]

Debriefing when Someone Does Complete a Task

When someone does a new and complex task for the first time, like facilitating a meeting or having a 1-on-1 with a coworker, it’s just as important to talk with them about it as it is when they don’t complete the task.

If in doing the task, they feel like they did a bad job they’ll be reluctant to get involved again. In debriefing a task, ask how it went, what went well or what was challenging, and how they feel about it. Constructive feedback is always helpful and is always easier when someone blasts one out of the park. If they feel they did a bad job of it, validate that doing hard things for the first time is always a learning experience, it’s ok to make mistakes, emphasize that they did better than they think they did, and acknowledge how completing the task advanced the collective organizing.

One common habit is for organizers to thank someone for completing a task. As small as this may seem, it’s best to not use language that makes it seem like they did the task for the organizer. They did the task for themselves and to make things better at work for everyone. Instead of saying “thank you”, say they did a good job and recognize the value of what they did to what everyone is working on together.

Conclusion

Organizing should not be like a quarterback blitz, where the star organizer tries to rush up the middle and come up with the big win. Organizing should be about the gradual and sustained work of building grassroots power, and this is only possible in the context of creating trusting relationships, discussing shared conditions, exploring shared values, and taking collective action.

Nowhere is pausing and tending to these relationships more important than in the aftermath of a task completed or left undone. Moreover, when your coworkers know you as caring and trustworthy, they’ll be there for you when you need it too.

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