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Sticking to what really matters

One of the narratives that have emerged strongly this year for me has been commitment to processes and values no matter what, even when it seems that they aren’t working.

This morning when I woke up I received a message from my friend Carlos, a doctor and psychologist who has devoted his life to working in the midst of the most dangerous and brutal conflicts in the world. From Guatemala to Congo, from the Sahara to Colombia, Carlos has a grasp on confronting the dark side of humanity while retaining a great sense of humour.

He sent me a message saying that Roberto Garretón, a Chilean human rights lawyer and activist, has died, just one day after Desmond Tutu.

I never met Roberto personally, but I knew his work. It is very likely that we crossed paths on numerous occasions, as at the time he was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, I was actively working in this area for different organisations.

Carlos told me the following story about Roberto.

During Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, Roberto was working as a lawyer at the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, a body created to provide legal aid for family members of those missing and detained by the Pinochet regime.

Lawyers at Vicaría de la Solidaridad routinely filed an habeas corpus on behalf of the detained and disappeared.

In these petitions to the court Roberto and his colleagues demanded that the state provide the exact location of missing workers, students and activists, allow them access to a lawyer and bring them before a judge.

None of these petitions were never granted.

People would ask Roberto “Why do you keep using the judicial system in Chile to denounce human rights violations? Don’t you realise it’s useless?”

And he would say “I know, but it’s the only thing the families of missing people can do, so we keep on doing it.”

When the international community eventually opened its eyes to the human rights violations in Chile, Roberto and his colleagues had gathered well-documented evidence of all of them. That evidence provided the basis for Pinochet’s later arrest for crimes against humanity.

As Carlos told me today, “Think about it, Natalia, if you were a human rights lawyer during the Pinochet dictatorship there was no work you could have done with more dignity than what he did for the missing and the detained.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And still, it was not effective. None of their habeas corpus petitions were ever granted.

I was thinking about Roberto all morning.

Looking back on 2021 I can tell you that I’m very proud of the key moments when I stuck to my values and the processes that protect them.

From the point of view of my business goals, some of my decisions were probably not effective:

  • being brutally honest in conversations with potential clients about what they will achieve if they work with me, knowing that I am very likely losing the chance to work with them.

  • doing some pro-bono work for an organisation that needed my input in one of the busiest months of my year;

  • telling a client who wanted to work with me that he should wait a couple of months if he wanted to get the best results;

  • deciding to pursue my mediation accreditation when I was really busy;

  • and continuing to mentor a youngster every week even when it’s possibly not an effective use of my time at the moment.

What were the moments when you stuck to your values despite the fact that it was not going to help you achieve a business goal?

Review this and consider creating a process around them to protect your integrity.

Like Roberto, whose process was filing petitions of habeas corpus day after day.

What is your process? How can you signal that you’re committed to doing important work?

In my work helping individuals and teams to manage difficult conversations and create collaborative narratives, we always work with a process which can anchor values that will make a difference in their conversations.

I have some clients who have committed never to pick a fight at a board meeting again, and others who have decided never to have conversations on positions at certain meetings.

We all need processes to protect our values, our dignity, and the important work that can’t be measured against effectivity (always win, get the client, time is money, keep your eye on the goal).

What will yours be?

Make it count: integrate it into your work in 2022, and when in doubt, think about Roberto and the people who, day after day, stick to work that provides dignity for themselves and others, guaranteeing that values are protected and integrity is considered.

Some of the most important conversations we will have in 2022 will not be about whether we are effective communicators but rather whether we are able to connect with others, create narratives for change and collaboration and find the common ground to do the work that matters.


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