“We have an obligation to be stewards of our coworkers”

Ian Bassin is the executive director of Protect Democracy. In our Q&A, he explains how his team stays united and strong while working on some of the toughest problems facing government today.

Could tell our readers a little bit more about your work at Protect Democracy? How did you come to step into this leadership role?

I was a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office. In my White House office, I had three binders of memos going back to the Eisenhower administration, that White House chiefs of staff and White House counsels had sent to political appointees and White House officials that laid out what you could do and what you couldn’t do. 

The early seed of the idea for Protect Democracy was to make sure that we continued as a government to adhere to those norms and rules. Other government lawyers I was talking to made the point that the deterioration of those sorts of rules and norms is something that we’ve seen happen around the world in the 21st century. You see that in places like Hungary and Poland and Turkey and Venezuela. And that perhaps we should talk to the experts who have studied those countries to understand how what’s happening there might be instructive to what we might be facing here.

That led to a series of conversations that opened our eyes to the fact that we were dealing with a threat to the very notion of liberal democracy itself that was manifesting around the world at the expense of more autocratic forms of government.

Having worked [as a lawyer] under really good nonprofit executives I’d learned a lot about how to run an organization and felt like that ––combined with my substantive background in the norms that govern American democracy––put me in a place where it would be important and potentially impactful to build an organization dedicated to protecting American democracy and preventing it from going down the road of these other countries and declining into a more authoritarian form of government. And so that’s what we built. We built an organization dedicated to that mission.

It’s interesting that you say that you had these role models who were these nonprofit leaders. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

 I worked for an organization run by a management savant who understood that the most critical ingredient of success in successful organizations is organizational culture. That if you establish an intentional organizational culture from the start and you don’t just put your values or your culture principles on the wall or on a website, but you weave them into each facet of the organization, you hire people who can embrace and replicate them. 

So the first thing we did at Protect Democracy was we drafted a set of culture principles and they became the foundation on which we built the organization. They have made us a place that is able to do more quickly, more effectively, and with a really wonderful sense of esprit de corps than we would have been able to do without them. 

Was there a time early in the founding of the organization when you said to everyone who was involved, here’s what we think are our values and path are? Or were you starting from scratch, asking what everyone wanted to do, going forward? 

We have a weekly call every Wednesday where we talk through issues of organizational health. They are not calls where we talk about what lawsuits we’re going to file or what legislation we’re going to push or what white papers we’re going to write or what software we’re going to build. They are calls where we talk about, is the management system working? Do we need to change it? Are the decision making structures working? Do we need to change them all? That call is an opportunity for everyone to participate in shaping the functionality and management of the organization.

Being a leader of an organization can take on a different sort of tone or cast to it when you’re dealing with people who are under a lot of stress. Could you talk about that?

People that do the kind of work that we do probably benefit from the fact that if they weren’t doing this work, they would need another outlet for how to feel like they were trying to have an impact with other things that we are all anxious about. So in some ways it’s important that the people who do this work, do this work. But at the same time, the group of people that do this kind of work are probably also the most concerned about some of the stressors out there in the world. That’s why they do it. So we’ve definitely had moments in the org where you can feel that burden weighing on people and you can see how it affects people emotionally, how it affects people sometimes physically.

And we have another cultural principal at the organization that we actually, this is interesting because while it was not one we started with, it’s one that the team proposed through lived experience and it’s team care and kindness. The principle is that this is a difficult time to be doing the kind of work that we do. And it is incumbent on all of us to really support one another through the stressors that doing this kind of work imposes on us. Therefore we have an obligation to be stewards of our coworkers and help them and watch for people who are feeling on any given day more acutely those stressors and burdens and reach out and offer support. And the team proposed that after going through periods in which they saw colleagues go through a week or a month where they were just feeling really beat down and emotionally drained by the work that we do in the world around us, and said we really should take this into the principles that this is something we need to do for each other. We’ve got to help each other.

And so that’s an example one of how we deal with some of these stressors, but also an example of how by creating an environment in which the team feels a sense of joint ownership over the culture and the direction, the team will come up with innovations and changes and additions to the way that we set things out early on that will be improvements in kind of how the organization functions and approaches the work.

What’s an example of a way that a team member might do that? 

One of our culture principles is work-life balance is a professional responsibility. And that’s rooted not in airy ideals, but in social science. If you look at the social science, what it shows is that people who are rested, who eat well, exercise well, spend time recharging with friends and family, they perform better. 

If you really want people to be creative and innovative, they have to be well rested. That’s the way the brain works. And so we do that. We don’t say work life balance is a nice to have. We say it is a professional responsibility. And that does two things. It keeps people able to sustain this level of work over time and it means we’re getting the best of people because they are rested and their brain is functioning well when they are working. And I think it allows people to not burn out. It allows people to enjoy this work more. It allows people to feel taken care of and in turn then to be in a better position to take care of their teammates. 

If your talent is constantly turning over, that’s a huge drain on resources. Our retention has been off the charts. You’re starting up an organization, you think I got to squeeze every hour out of them and have to work them to the bone just to sort of produce as much juice from this orange as I can. But the truth is if you do that, you actually long run produce far less juice.