Home Commentary Op-ed Some Ground Rules for Hard Times

Some Ground Rules for Hard Times

Some Ground Rules for Hard Times

I recently had a conversation with the leader of a major organization on the mainland. He is widely respected, admired and seen as a highly effective chief executive. I asked him if his job had gotten more difficult and less rewarding in the past year or two. His response: “Everyone is angry, and nobody says ‘Thank you.’”

It is a sad commentary that I would have been surprised if he had given a different answer. We are living in hard times and at the peak of a period of reactionary politics that began in the mid-1960s. The atmosphere is toxic, and the leader’s response reflected that reality.

In periods like this one, a lot of bad habits become entrenched. Everyone gets used to them, and they become part of the “culture.” Once they are embedded in the culture, it becomes very hard to change them because they have simply become “the way we do things here.”

And our advanced mass communications are perfect vehicles for these changes. For young people who have never experienced anything different, it all seems quite normal.

Fairly often, outsiders can see that the way we doing things here – “here” being anywhere on earth – is at least a little strange. For example, visitors to New York City often comment on how unpleasant all of the noise is, especially car horns blowing. Many New Yorkers’ response: “Noise, what noise?”

The starting points for changing any “negative norm” are to name it, to bring it out into the open and to make it explicit. It is then very useful to identify the bad things that happen as a result of this norm or behavior.

One of the real benefits of asking, “What happens because of this problem?” is to create a sense of urgency about finding a solution. As in, “Wow, we didn’t realize that this was that bad.”

Here is a checklist of what seem to be a set of ground rules or principles that would help make day-to-day life easier and more pleasant and also help make almost everything function better. These “rules” are the “flip side” of negative norms.

Rule #1: Anger and outrage are light work. It is not clear exactly when anger and outrage began to be seen as positive values in our society, but it was not a good thing. Being angry is also easy and not all that mentally challenging. But it never solves anything. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Big deal! Now what? Finding solutions requires real thought.

Rule #2: Blaming doesn’t solve problems. Television news – and others – are obsessed with one thing whenever a problem emerges: who is to blame? At some point, who is responsible for some bad occurrence does make a difference. But the blaming response gets in the way of what is really needed: identifying choices that are available and solving the problem. Blaming – and its partners, blame avoidance and blame shifting – are invariably backward looking and keep us from fixing things.

Rule #3: Just because your view of things is different from mine doesn’t automatically make you evil (even though you probably are). The more things are defined politically and the more our politics are polarized, the easier it is to fall into this trap.

On the right, there is a belief that President Obama and “liberals” have bad intentions, that in some way, they want to ruin the country. The same is also true, but less so, about liberal attitudes toward Republicans. Why they would want to ruin the country is anybody’s guess, but the reasons given inevitably lead to some sort of evil intention.

If you start with the belief that the other person has bad intentions, the game is pretty much up. And you get the politics and, increasingly, the society that we have. It is far more productive to assume that the other party is well-intentioned and trustworthy rather than the contrary. If they are not, you will find out soon enough.

Also, sometimes people just screw up. There are, in fact, such things as honest mistakes, but when the “other side” immediately uses a mistake as a club to beat you with, the tendency is to cover up or to pretend that it really wasn’t a mistake.

Rule #4: Put yourself in the decision-maker or leader’s place. It is quite depressing to read blogs and comments that are critical of our leaders, whether it is President Obama, Gov. deJongh or someone else. There is often a competition to find the most striking line of attack and, in that way, to get attention for the attacker. What is almost always missing is consideration of a simple question: What would I do if I were in the decision-maker or leader’s place?

The norm of “let’s shoot down the leader” is becoming embedded in our culture, particularly in areas related to public service. It has all kinds of bad consequences. It is no accident that we do not find this norm in the corporate sector. Can you imagine a successful business in which the shareholders and managers are trying to undermine the leader?

Rule #5: Sometimes the choices aren’t between good and bad. Especially in bad times, our realistic choices are often between bad and less bad. To pretend that there is some magical perfect choice out there is both dishonest and destructive. It feeds the misguided belief that there is a hidden solution that would really solve the problem and produce an excellent outcome, virtually cost-free, of course. Whenever we have listened to the snake oil salesmen with their brilliant and simple solutions to complicated and difficult problems, we have paid a very stiff price.

Rule #6: Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Part of the claim for Ronald Reagan’s greatness was that he successfully tapped into the vein of American optimism. Maybe that was part of the problem that got us into the fix we are in. There is a fairly straight line from “Morning in America” optimism to the pessimism that is now pervasive in our society.

The U.S. Virgin Islands more or less missed the optimistic phase, sticking to the tried and true belief that things don’t change, and that trying to change them will only make them worse. There is a better operating principle than either pessimism or optimism: Let’s set a goal and, without knowing the outcome, pledge to make a good faith best effort to achieve it. “No” as a default position invariably produces the expected result. A corollary to this rule should be: don’t believe anyone who says, “We tried that, it didn’t work.” They didn’t try it.

Rule # 7: Ask what can I do to help? The troubled Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix has a new chief executive, Jeff Nelson. He faces a daunting task. He also arrives with two deficits: he is an “outsider” and he has been presented as a “turnaround expert.”

A portion of the community will reject him because he is not a Virgin Islander, and another portion – including some of the same people – will want to demonstrate that they can defeat the expert. To paraphrase the line from the classic movie, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”: “Experts, we don’t need no stinkin’ experts.”

Nelson has begun listening to the community and its concerns, a good thing. And, as The Source has pointed out, the issue of trust has emerged. It would be useful to view trust as a two-way street.

Whatever his skills, Nelson is a single person whose success will depend on his ability to solve a number of pressing and difficult problems. His success will also be the community’s success, and he needs to be able to trust the community as much as they need to trust him.

Beyond demands, it would be helpful if everyone would unite around the answers to another simple question: What can I do to help him succeed?

I am quite certain that there are other good and useful principles for operating in our current situation. But these are a starting point, and I am convinced that anyone or any group using them will be better off – and also feel – better than if they had not used them.


  1. Here are some of my own ground rules for hard times:
    Rule#1: Always be true to yourself and you have an unalienable right to state your own opinions and suggestions. Whether or not, it is a fair assessment of a particular elected official or a boss at your job, etc.
    Rule#2: I make comments that include reasonable solutions to difficult problems without naming this person or that person as the cause.
    Rule#3:Indeed, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but to call someone evil because you have a difference of opinion. You are so use to sugar coating the situation that you have to come up with this statement shows immaturity on your part. How dare you, Sir!
    Rule#4:Real leaders are subjected to constructive and negative criticisms. The ability to handle the criticisms evoke true leadership. Indeed,it is also a reflection of their humbleness of character.
    Rule#5:I don’t pretend, period. I am very forward. So, if being forward is my flaw, then so be it.
    Rule#6:Staying positive through negative situations is the key.
    Rule#7: I don’t have a problem giving advice. It’s free of charge and it is utilized daily.

  2. I think Frank nailed it with this piece. These are, indeed, tough times and we all need to do what we can to make things a bit better. Can we fix everything? No, almost certainly not everything. Can we make things at least a bit better for ourselves? Absolutely.

    I do think that “ghostrider” missed some of the points that Mr. Schneiger was trying to make. In his Rule #3, Schneiger was not condemning anyone’s opinion; he was only pointing out the fallacy of denigrating someone because you don’t agree with them. It is okay to disagree – in fact, many times it is through the open discussion of disagreements that we arrive at great solutions. Feel free to argue that my opinion is misguided, but stooping to calling me evil is not only wrong, it passes up the chance to work for a common ground or understanding and thus make real progress.

    In Rule #7, no where did I read anything about giving advice. What Schneiger is challenging everyone to do is to step up to the plate and offer to help. Not stand on the sidelines and offer “advice”, but actually roll up your sleeves, plant your feet and do something to make things work. There are plenty of advisers already; what is needed is not more advice, but more effort. Change doesn’t happen by people talking about it. It happens because people work for it. Pitch in!

    I often hear or read about people complaining about the trash along our otherwise beautiful roadways. Yet I never see any of these complainers out there with a trash bag collecting any of that garbage. If, instead of writing to complain about the trash, they spent the same time along the road picking up the garbage, pretty soon we’d have the problem solved. It really is that simple – just *do* something.

    Rich Waugh
    St. Croix

  3. I read the entire article and Mr. Frank Schneiger wrote Rule#3 which states: Just because your view of things is different from mine doesn’t automatically make you evil (even though you probably are). That statement was written in Frank’s words not mine. It sounds very insulting and denigrating. My opinions are my own and not Frank’s. He needs to rewrite Rule#3 because he missed a valuable point in civility. Rodehard said that stooping to calling me evil is not only wrong, it passes up the chance to work for a common ground or understanding and thus make real progress. Well, all I can say is I’ll pass that information over to your friend, Mr. Frank Schneiger because he wrote that in his article, Rich. Are you sure you read the entire article because you seemed to have missed Frank’s point in Rule#3?
    In Rule #7, I have rolled up my sleeves and got down to business and certainly I’ve made concerted efforts and as you say “Pitch in”. I will continue to speak frankly, but I’ll guaranteee this…..I am not going to sugar coat or placate what I say. Furthermore, I am not denigrating no one. In fact, I’m just voicing my opinion to Mr. Frank Schneiger and Mr. Rich Waugh……

  4. I read what Frank wrote and I had the distinct impression that he had his tongue firmly in cheek when he added that parenthetical quip in Rule #3. I don’t know Mr. Schneiger personally but, having read his editorials for some time now, I sincerely doubt that he would ever deliberately denigrate anyone. The point he was making in Rule 3 was that regardless of what you may think of a person or his/her ideas, your own views should be expressed in as neutral as possible of terms. He is counseling to avoid the ad hominem attack and speak to the ideas expressed instead of the integrity/values/habits/appearance of the person who expressed them. I think we can all agree that that makes good sense, right?

    Rich Waugh

  5. Sir, it is no laughing matter at his parenthetical quip. As for his avoidance of the ad hominem attack, well Mr. Schneiger started the backlash. To be or not to be neutral in expressing my ideas/views is something worth considering, though. I love a good debate, however, this article pertaining to rule #3 still needs revising. It’s subjected to interpretation. So, I still find it as insulting and denigrating from my expressed viewpoint……


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