Daily Archives: October 4, 2009

NASA: Cultural Trap Doors

This week, NASA’s Deputy Lori Garver hosted a Town Hall meeting at NASA Headquarters. She set aside time to answer questions from employees. NASA TV aired the Town Hall live so that NASA employees could benefit from the conversation remotely.

I asked a question about managing the complex issue of astronaut appearances, and offered a potential solution — astronaut career assignments in NASA Headquarters Office of Public Affairs and Office of Legislative Affairs. If you’re interested, you can read a previous post.

Lori’s response: NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, former astronaut, would call the shots on how the Astronaut Corps operates. She mentioned that Charlie met with the new 2009 Astronaut Class, and encouraged them  to act as Space Ambassadors (my paraphrase of her answer) during the many years before they fly a space mission. Appropriate response to the question.

Now let’s focus on the reaction among my NASA colleagues following the Town Hall meeting. Here’s a sample of what I heard the rest of the week:

I can’t believe you asked a question. (Shock)

I can’t believe you got away with asking a question. (More shock.)

I can’t believe you got away with asking THAT question. (Even greater shock.)

Did you get in trouble for asking a question? (Worried.)

Did you get in trouble for asking THAT question? (Expectation of trouble ahead.)

What happened after you asked that question? (Assumed reprimand.)

Do you know what’s going to happen to you? (Expectation of reprimand.)

Did anyone say anything to you after you asked that question? (Missing word: yet.)

I heard YOU asked a question. (Wink Wink, as in “same ole’ Beth.”)

I HEARD you asked a question. (Raised eyebrow-disapproval.)

I heard from SEVERAL people you asked a question. (Expectation of disciplinary action.)

I’d have been in SO much trouble if I’d asked a question. (I can’t believe you AREN’T.)

I’m glad you asked that question. (Support.)

That was a really good suggestion. (Validation.)

Do any of these comments surprise you? Do you find yourself most surprised that I would a question at all — much less in front of TV cameras. If so, let’s talk about our culture.

Whether we like it or not, we’ve all been socialized by the organizational culture we exist in.

I can’t begin to touch socialization resulting from childhood or society-at-large. I only want to explore organizational culture — where your paycheck comes from. We learn how to survive by watching those around us reap reward or punishment. We emulate the habits and patterns of those who look successful in our eyes.

Let’s be honest, how many UNsuccessful people do you look up to?

Look at the comments above. Most comments expose underlying assumptions of our organizational culture. Can you see them? Here’s what I see:

  • keep quiet,
  • fly below the radar,
  • hunker down,
  • do as you’re told,
  • don’t make waves.

Depending on your perspective within your own cultural environment, you could easily make assumptions about me based on the fact that I…

  • asked a question
  • in a Town Hall meeting
  • with a new Deputy
  • in front of TV cameras.

I’ll just get creative and list a possible range of value statements you might tell yourself about me. I’m sure I haven’t captured everything, but for the sake of discussion I’ll start with these:

  1. Arrogant.
  2. Attention-seeker.
  3. Careless.
  4. Clueless.
  5. Naive.
  6. Undisciplined.
  7. Trouble-maker.
  8. Time-waster.
  9. Change agent.
  10. Problem-solver.

I prefer #9-10. You don’t have to agree. And…many don’t. Side note: I hear “trouble-maker” used to describe me quite often. But, then again, I tend to unsettle those who find change uncomfortable. 😉

What do YOU think about someone who asks a question in a public forum — even though questions are actively solicited? Doesn’t the answer depend on how you’ve learned to survive or thrive within your organization?

But your real question may be, “Who cares?”

This is not just my story. This story is a symptom of a problem. I use it only for illustration purposes. It’s a story about assumptions we make about appropriate/acceptable behavior  — whether we know it or not. Don’t we assess motive and value about our colleagues’ contributions based on our personal perceptions?

I like to call our everyday assumptions: Cultural Trap Doors.

Let’s face it, aren’t our assumptions molded by years upon years of organizational pressure? If you think about it, we’re like cultural fossils with stripes and layers shaped under the weight of our experiences. Let’s at least examine what formed the patterns we fall into. I wish I could tell you the story of how everyone buzzed about the great ideas generated during the Town Hall discussion, or how eager we were for more conversations like this.

I’m not saying we don’t share ideas at NASA. We do. I’m only noticing, from this experience, that many of my colleagues feared for my “career” based on one simple question in a Town Hall meeting. Fear shouldn’t exist within a healthy organization — in my humble opinion. I see it differently:

In an open culture, individuals feel safe speaking out, sharing their ideas, and offering solutions.

Bravo NASA for having an open Town Hall meeting! What we need, though, is a safety net for those participating in the discussion. Cultural trap doors open up when we least expect them.

We can only get rid of the trap doors if we know where they are. If we want a truly open culture, let’s start the hunt!

"Cultural Trap Doors" by NASA's Resident Cartoonist Jim Hull

"Cultural Trap Doors" by NASA's Resident Cartoonist Jim Hull

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