What is the Protocol Here?

Posted on February 9, 2022

Sunset Mountain Terrain

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kelly Moore. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

My sister is a world traveler.

She also tells great stories. She recently told me about a hike that she went on in Spain. I should mention here that she goes into everything with no preconceived ideas— just some light internet research and a sense of adventure.

On the hike, she encounters a group of mountain goats. She says to me, “I froze. I thought to myself, what is the protocol here? Should I bow to them?”

I can picture this so vividly. My adventurous sister, surrounded by rocky terrain, without the support of The Google, genuinely stunned into bowing to a group of goats. Just in case.

And it made me start thinking about protocols and the systems we build and what happens when someone shows up and does not understand our protocols— implicit and implied though they may be. Do we make space for them? Do we welcome them? Do we explain what we expect in the situation?

Or, instead, do we assume that they should know? That they should show up with our values, our social norms, and meet our unspoken expectations and demands. We had to assimilate, after all.

Amy Vanderbilt is on my bookshelf with a handwritten note from my Meemaw inscribed in the front, reminding me to show up with grace no matter the circumstance.

So, etiquette and protocol are important to me. You will not catch me wearing white to a wedding, showing up to dinner without a bottle of wine, or, heaven forbid, using the dessert fork to eat a salad.

I think though, as government leaders, we are called upon to unpack the protocols — not only for our employees, but for our communities. It is not adequate to require a certain set of skills, abilities, belief systems and perspectives in order to navigate interactions with our organizations. It is also not sustainable for our workers and work culture — it is far easier to find forward momentum when everyone is working from the same shared understanding.

Let me go back to my sister for just a second — in that moment where she is paralyzed with goat uncertainty. What is our default in uncertainty? We return to protocols. To a set of rules and procedures and expectations and learnings that we have collected through life. For better or worse.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to add Sonya Renee Taylor to your reading list. Part of her work centers around dismantling systems of oppression by dismantling those systems within ourselves. Her words called on me to show up differently and I’ve been thinking about that too as I write — what if we put the “manners” that uphold oppressive systems aside, and instead led from protocols that were based in loving the people we serve and the people we serve alongside?

Let’s move away from showing up to work in a way that is predicated in avoiding imposition or discomfort, but instead insist on showing up in a way that makes room for our full selves, and the full selves of every other body.

Here are a few things I’m thinking about as we work to move the needle on this —

  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Rewriting the rules is not going to be straightforward or simple. And it will require us to spend time reflecting on how even our passive participation might be upholding archaic systems.
  • Do not assume our common, shared language does not need to be translated or updated. Let’s clearly outline our expectations, and maybe more importantly, why we have those expectations. When new people join your organization or your team, help them understand your shared values, and make room for them to contribute their voices.
  • Build environments that encourage conversation and exploration. We cannot go at this one alone — we need the sum of all of our experiences in order to even begin to build protocols that respect and allow space for everyone.

The next time we find ourselves on rocky terrain, in an encounter with uncertainty, let’s dig in. Let’s take the time to explore our own default. Let’s ask our colleagues and our community how they are navigating and what they need to find the way.

And, let’s show up with grace, for ourselves and for each other, while we figure it out, together.

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