Posts Tagged ‘societal change’

Foxes and Owls

September 23, 2018

I spent the past week in training to learn a new data/case management system being implemented by my employer. We were a mixed group of current employees and newly added imports from a former quasi-competitor, all of us working in care coordination as either first level case managers or second level supervisors. To simplify my referents here while maintaining a degree of anonymity for the companies I will refer to my employer group as the Owls and the newly integrating staff as the Foxes. Both groups previously provided services to Medicaid recipients under contracts with our state government. The Foxes contract was not renewed and its clients needed to change providers effective January 1 2019. In a negotiated arrangement, the entire caseload and some 300 employees were transferred into Owl as of September 1. The Fox staff thus has had to learn not only the case management system new to all of us, but also to adapt to the Owl corporate culture which is notably different from their own.

That difference in corporate cultures seems to me to be reflective of somewhat divisive differences in our wider society these days. It also seems linked to my observation of a worldwide and concerning repetition of a trend from the early 1930’s. Following the world wide repercussions of the 1929 stock market crash, economic differences between classes of societies in many countries became exaggerated. The relatively small number of economic “haves” were resented by the large number of economic “have not’s” in a fashion similar to the current anger of a large portion of U.S. society against the “1%” – or the 10% depending on which metric you prefer. Now, as then, reaction is taking the form of both scapegoating on some defined “other”, and a movement toward more authoritarian leaders. Recent election results in several countries suggest the phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. Resentment of immigrants, a rise in nationalism and parochial views, and growing intolerance of difference seems to mirror that experienced in the years before the outbreak of World War II.

The voices advocating “going high” are increasingly drowned out even on the so-called liberal side by strident demands for forceful counter measures. I do not have TV reception in my home by intent. Spending a week in a motel while at the training, I did turn on the set in my room one evening to watch the 6 PM news. I did not see the program through because I was so appalled by the viciousness of all the political ads peppered throughout the show. Not one presented a candidate’s platform, views, aims. Every single ad – all funded by political pacs, rather than individual campaigns – was an ugly, twisted and negative attack exaggeration of some opponent’s purported position. As little as I care to imitate anything in the conduct of our current president, I did find myself scolding the TV for “fake news” as I turned off the set.

Our instructor for my training week is now an upper level Owl manager with whom I have worked for five years. We started together and while I have chosen to remain a front line worker, she has advanced in well merited fashion to my supervisor, then my manager, and now up yet another level to program management. (I have 20 plus years of management in health care behind me and have less than no interest in ever again being responsible for anyone’s work product other than my own.) Holly did an outstanding job of both teaching the Fox staff the procedures we Owls follow to manage our cases, and teaching all of us how to get the work done in the new computer record system. Inevitably, usually in the question sessions, differences came out between how the Foxes had handled some of the work and the way they would now be expected to handle it as Owls. Many of the differences were minor tweaks to procedure (we were after all both subject to the same mandates in our State contracts) but some revealed a deeper difference in corporate culture which may well have contributed to the Owl’s State contract being renewed while the Fox contract was not.

The Owl company originated locally early in the last century. It has grown steadily and is now one of the largest employers in the state. Throughout, it has espoused and manifested a culture of open communication and of caring both for its clients and its staff. It is not perfect – no large business will ever be flawless – but it does consistently get high satisfaction ratings both from its customers and its staff. The Fox company is a regional branch of a major national corporation. It is continuing to do business in our state, just not any longer providing Medicaid managed care here. I have interacted with current and former Fox staff over several years, and learned much more about their operating culture during this past week of training.

What seems most salient to me as a difference between the two companies emerged in a lunchtime conversation I had with a Fox supervisor who was stressed by what seemed to him to be a conflict between what he had been told at the general orientation he had attended just two weeks prior to our training, and what Holly explained as a step in the Owl case assignment process. At issue was whether staff preferences for types of cases could/would be respected. In the general orientation, a presenter had stated that Owl management strive to enable employees to work in the areas for which they feel a passion and commitment. The supervisor heard this statement as supportive of Fox structure which allowed case managers to choose to handle only adult clients, or specialize in children; take on long term care cases or work only with clients needing links to physical health providers. Holly explained that Owl new case assignments are given on a round robin basis, and the case manager is expected to work with a variety of types of clients, with assistance from subject matter experts.

The supervisor could not reconcile what he heard as directly contradictory statements. Either case managers could specialize according to their preferences or they could not. Which was it to be?

I am aware of Owl company efforts to encourage staff to find their niche even as I work a caseload that includes members whose needs are quite far afield from my areas of expertise. I have not felt this to be a conflict because I know if I feel strongly enough that I am unsuited to managing a particular case I can discuss the issues with my supervisor, and either receive the necessary outside support or have the case transferred because it is in the best interests of the client to have a more knowledgeable coordinator to work with. I am also aware that an underlying expectation of Owl employees is that we will stretch and grow rather than stay locked in predetermined boxes doing only the same things over and over. And I have experienced the spirit of cooperation, interaction and helpfulness to one another that is a basic performance expectation in the Owl world.

Trying to explain to the Fox supervisor why I do not hear the two statements he cited as being in conflict, I suggested that he has been functioning in a “black and white” culture, with defined guidelines coming down from the national level and little if any room for discussion or interpretation. “Do it this way” because that is how it has been decided at corporate headquarters, where the responsibility for maintaining standards is held.  He agreed that was the essence of Fox corporate culture. I described Owl culture, by contrast, as a “rosy” culture where guidelines are more fluid. Our standards are clear and expectations communicated, but individuals are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own performance as they contribute to the group’s overall achievements. Flexibility, adaptation, change and growth are the norm for Owls. If those changes start to feel like they are coming too fast, we can speak up, be heard, and know that we will be offered support to adjust.

I suggested to the Fox supervisor that the challenge facing him was not to resolve a seeming contradiction in case assignment guidelines, but rather to shift from hearing things from a black and white mindset to hearing them in a rosy mentality. He thought for a few minutes and agreed that making that shift, and helping his supervisees to do so, would be a big part of his new responsibilities.

What does this employment environment discussion have to do with the near century old cycle of political movements with which I began? For me, Fox culture mirrors the have/have not, missing middle ground rigidity and authoritarian patterns that relieve individuals of personal responsibility but which almost inevitably lead to conflict and war. Owl culture seems to embody a more interactive and democratic model that demands flexibility and willingness to change, as well as taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, but offers a road to negotiated settlement of disputes.

Not everyone is comfortable within Owl culture. Employees resign because they need a more clearly structured environment, with very specific duties that they know they can complete. Or because they are unwilling to put in the overtime sometimes required, or to keep adapting to procedure changes implemented in an effort to further enhance customer experience. I can relate to their frustrations with Owl culture. I understand their need for more control as an extension of my own unwillingness to be promoted to a supervisor or manager role because I want to “only be responsible for my own work product.”

Despite that preference of mine, I know I would not last in a Fox corporate culture. I don’t take well to a highly structured, “my way or the highway” environment. I value the give and take, openness-to-suggestions approach that I have experienced as an Owl. Which is why I labeled the environment a rosy one, rather than the traditional gray  contrast with Fox black and white.

What I don’t know is how to bridge the divide between the two cultures.

The Fox supervisor was oriented to changing his own view. “I’m grateful to have a job instead of being out of one at my age.” He said he has been encouraging that attitude of gratitude in his peers, many of whom were finding it hard to accept their sudden transfer of employer coming after 9 months of uncertainty about Fox renewing its State contract. Over the next months, we will see who can adapt and who decides to leave and seek different employment. Those who remain will obviously be those who can accept, perhaps even welcome, the change of culture. Those who leave will seek the culture they prefer, and for their sake I hope they find it.

Can a third generation coal miner adapt to building solar panels? How do we help a worker on an auto assembly line feel comfortable living in a different state and manufacturing wind turbines? What steps have not been taken as/when they should have, to facilitate maintaining a middle between the 10% and the rest of us? As some of us continue to push for environmental protections, more equitable sharing of resources and social supports, and genuine equality of opportunity, how do we facilitate transitions for those who see themselves losing out in the change?

We are not all Owls. Our societies need Foxes, and need to include them in determining how there can be a place for them to feel productive and important., working alongside Owls. Otherwise, I see more and more countries torn by internal strife, and society as a whole repeating the century cycle ending, God forbid, in a World War III.


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