Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Introduction

When was the last time you read that an entire Senior Leadership Team (SLT) of a major NGO offered to resign? This happened recently in Amnesty International (shy of Kumi Naidoo, the relatively new Secretary General). It occurred after Amnesty made public (to its credit!) an independent report on the state of its staff well- being. The report put allegations of unfair treatment of staff, negatively impacted by a recent big organizational change process, and of racism, gender discrimination and bullying front and center as part of a longer standing cultural issue.

Why I write about this

I have followed these developments in Amnesty closely because I was part of a team that between 2014-2017 undertook a two part External Assessment of Amnesty’s Global Transition Program (GTP) . This big organizational change effort, as embodied in its informal name ‘Moving Closer to the Ground’, in effect decentralized Amnesty’s International Secretariat away from London to 11 Regional Offices, led (among others) to the appointment of many more global South staff and leaders, instilled a greater focus on gaining more global South members and supporters and led to the departure of a relative large number of staff who often had been with Amnesty for a long time.  In effect, GTP also led to some redistribution of power within Amnesty.  The Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA, which I directed at the time, undertook the External Assessment. Co-authors in this effort included Ramesh Singh, Steve Lux and Shreeya Neupane. In addition, I also was the co-trainer in an annual Senior Leadership Development Program for major INGOs including Amnesty since 2013, and in that process have heard many observations about Amnesty culture, including when it comes to interpersonal communication styles.

Our Assessment had a much broader scope than effects on staff of the Global Transition Program (GTP) alone, but it certainly included those effects. We included data on persistent and legitimate staff grievances as a result of especially weak change management capacity and practice, particularly during the first (crucial) stages of GTP implementation. We indicated that Amnesty’s Management seemed to consider these grievances in ways that we found to be unhelpful. Our report came out in May 2017, and from the Staff Well-being report produced by the consulting group Konterra which just came out it appears that our work did not make much of a difference – a not uncommon limitation of externally commissioned work!

It should be said that the internal communication culture of Amnesty was known to be ‘confrontational’ well before the Global Transition Program. By this we mean a style of communicating that is dominated by attempts to persuade others through internal advocacy style communication, the use of argumentation and attacks – instead of on skillful interpersonal communication that leads to greater mutual understanding, conflict management and collaboration. This communication culture, anecdotally, is not just reported in Amnesty, but also in some other campaigning NGOs. The phenomenon is described by David La Piana, for instance, in “The Nonprofit Paradox (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010).

This made me reflect on some things[1]:

  1. Symbolically, the offer of collective resignation by Amnesty’s Senior Leadership Team was a necessary and useful action – this is irrespective of whether it accomplishes anything ‘structural’. It met the emotional needs of some staff (though not all) and the political needs of Amnesty’s  Board. 
  2. It gives the current Secretary General a free hand to start afresh with new leadership – even if Kumi decides to hold on to some SLT members while accepting the resignation of others. This can help with top leadership getting ‘unstuck’ with regard to certain ‘mental models’ of how staff grievances should be understood.
  3. Based on work I have done with other mid to large size NGOs who have gone through big change processes, I wonder if two realities co-exist in terms of whose voices counted or were privileged in the Staff Well-being report: on the one hand, there is a widespread, deeply shared and easily understood set of grievances. At the same time, it is my sense that there is also a set of voices that is critical of all the attention that has gone into ‘looking to the past’, who think that the power imbalances within the movement as well as the very identity of Amnesty needed to change, and who think the Staff Wellbeing report is (somewhat) overblown. The latter people just want to move on with the direction of travel that Amnesty is on, because they deeply believe in this direction and feel that the significant amount of change the organization went through was badly needed. I would have been interested to see in the Staff Well-being report, for instance, whether the latter voices had certain characteristics in common or not?
  4. And I also struggle with this question: on the one hand, a human rights organization cannot be seen to violate staff rights within the organization. And people certainly cannot work productively and contribute to worthwhile outcomes if they feel strongly aggrieved. On the other hand, all this attention is inward looking instead of outward looking, to rights holders who Amnesty aims to support and promote. And this is after the GTP change process itself already instilled a strongly inward looking climate for staff in the International Secretariat for several years.
  5. We all know there is a perennial debate within civil society as to what is the importance of having ‘passion for the cause’ and having ‘the right values’ (reflected in what some call the ‘soul’ of civil society), relative to the aim to professionalize. And it is obvious that mission and values-focused NGO staff are driven more by intrinsic motivations than by extrinsic rewards such as salary.  However, we as staff still need to be competent (professional) in how we communicate and treat each other; and we also may need to be more concerned with external effectiveness, and less with ‘good intentions and passion’.
  6. This in turn reminds me of the time I facilitated a senior leadership training, and we discussed the concept of a ‘psychological contract’. This concept (developed by Denise Rousseau) points to the set of – often unspoken – mutual beliefs and perceptions with regard to the informal obligations that may exist between employers and employees. As trainers, we asked each participant to indicate what their psychological contract was with their NGO employer. I recall how one set of participants indicated that theirs consisted of two things: having passion for ‘the cause’ and a willingness to work long hours for not that high a salary. I remember thinking to myself: but what about actual outcomes for the people or causes you work on? Outcomes did not seem to be part of the equation.
  7. This also brought back memories of the time when I set out to work in the international development field – a long time ago. I never saw myself as a ‘do gooder’ even though that was the assumption that many people had about young people like me. I did want to work on public causes, but I was weary of any notion of ‘saving the world’: the arrogance and ego that was personified in that idea was not something I was comfortable with. II just wanted to do meaningful work well. Please note that I am not saying I always succeeded! But doing work well was my main mission.
  8. Coming back to Amnesty’s current situation, this sentence in an editorial of The Times (after the publication of the Staff Well-being report therefore stuck with me: “Staff and managers employed … may pride themselves more on their commitment than on their professionalism. Being morally right all the time can induce an attitude towards fellow employees which is characterised by impatience and intolerance. Due process can come to be seen as an impediment to doing what seems to be the right thing, rather than as an assistance. Nothing is as “toxic” in the workplace as the resulting arbitrariness.” (The Times, February 6, 2019)

In conclusion, perhaps we as a sector should get better at balancing being ‘morally right’ (which is in any event depending on one’s viewpoint of the world), with being focused on skillfully interacting with our colleagues, so that we may support the creation of better outcomes. Why does our ‘moral outrage’ entitle us to treat others badly? Does this showcase a certain amount of ego and self-gratification, while masking as ‘doing good’? Should we apply a bit more humility, honesty and self-awareness?

This is a highly complex situation. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments and to learning from your perspective.


[1] I am grateful to Catherine Gerard, my colleague at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), who has been my mentor as well as co-trainer in the Senior Leadership Development Program since 2011, for inputs received.

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