The Prison Riddle

I have a good friend who is a practitioner of positive leadership. He volunteers a portion of his time to work with prisoners. He recently sent me a puzzle that I pass on to you.

“Two prisoners who have aligned with the goal to make the best of their limited life reported how tough, even dangerous, being positive is in their environment. They went on to explain that being positive or compassionate is seen by other inmates as being soft, kissing up, being suspect, and violating the canon of holding firm to the rules of engagement in prison: dominate or be dominated / fit into the hierarchies in place.”

“They went on to report that evidence of ‘compassion’ and ‘positivity’ were forced to go underground, being reduced to coded signals between the two consenting prisoners. All went well (an overstatement) until they were ‘found out’, were declared ‘homos’ and are now brutalized both physically and emotionally. Peer pressure is fierce and relentless.

The conversation with the two inmates was conducted in the Warden’s office, as having it in their setting would have endangered them and me. Now what?”

Literalists will think this is an unsolvable problem about prison life. I think it generalizes far beyond prisons. I think it captures the dynamics in every organization. In all organization peer pressure tends to be fierce and relentless. It ensures organizational performance regresses to the mean or worse. Conventional organizations never become positive organizations until negative peer pressure is transformed into positive peer pressure. Positive peer pressure is also fierce and relentless and it drives organizations to excellence. So I present the puzzle and ask you to simultaneously solve it for the prisoners and for yourself.

 

Reflection

  • Why do so many managers fear the principles of positive leadership?
  • If you seek to turn your culture more positive what will happen?
  • How does a leader turn negative peer pressure into positive peer pressure?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?
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