Over the years, I have witnessed many intelligent leaders stumble while leading change. A few because of external challenges or outright hostility; most because they did not recognize what being a leader means nowadays in the fast-moving economy of the 21st century. Without trying to be exhaustive, I want to address how organizational change often becomes a personal dilemma for leaders.
You don’t choose change, it chooses you
Truth is that by the time leaders consider the need for drastic change, they have already experienced loss of control and stress:
- something is not going as they had hoped,
- worse, it has gone completely awry,
- often, they are in conflict with others about what to do next.
The specters of poor performance and failure haunt the leader’s thoughts. Self-protection rather than change is more the mood of the moment.
The old way got you in hot water
Why do organizations tolerate dysfunctional interactions that destroy trust? And what prevents leaders from confronting toxic behaviors effectively? In this short clip, Elizabeth Holloway, PhD in Psychology, provides a useful introduction to understanding how toxic behaviors persist.
To access the complete presentation, click here
Our Viewpoint on Toxic Behaviors in Organizations
As Dr. Holloway argues toxic behavior relies on a system with different players. Identifying the participants in a toxic situation can help everyone gain clarity about the dynamics at play and decide for themselves what is the right course of action, whether as a leader or as a participant.
In her presentation, Holloway identifies three players in a toxic behavior system as:
- The perpetrator,
- The protector and
- The buffer,
For good measure, I will add the notion of:
In fact, once a pattern of toxic behavior is entrenched, everybody in the organization becomes an avoider to some degree. (As we will see later this often also applies to the leader.)
What holds the situation in place is fear. Most of us have no expertise in confronting toxic behavior. Besides, in many instances the person calling out the toxic behavior gets labelled the trouble maker. So no one thinks they have anything to gain through confrontation.
The Making of a Toxic Culture
When pressure mounts at work is usually when leaders speak most of empowerment. In truth they are looking for greater initiative. With high expectations to see an impact on performance, few things rile leaders more than advocating for employee empowerment and seeing little employee initiative in return.
Left frustrated, leaders often rationalize this “apathy” as the sign that something is wrong with employee motivation: disinterest, laziness, stupidity, stubbornness, or the like. In isolated instances character “flaws” could be valid explanations, but if this perceived “apathy” is pervasive, something else is necessarily at work.
Trust — the Missing Link
When I look at situations where employees lack initiative, a strong correlation usually reveals itself with what leaders themselves are doing . Fundamentally a lack of engagement stems from the absence of trust in the leader. Trust builds from many different aspects, but two are critical for leaders: they must be trusted as leader and as a person.
Individuals, teams and entire organizations can easily slip from working hard in a productive manner to a state of overwhelm that generates diminishing results. Some even confuse overwhelm with results. The flawed thinking goes something like this: “we are so miserable; it’s got to mean we are productive”. In reality overwhelm is a state of ineffectiveness. The challenge for leaders is to understand the signals of overwhelm correctly and then refuse to accept it as a normal state of operation.
Alan Mullaly explains how the executive team at Ford Motor Company changed to a culture of accountability.
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Viewpoint on Creating a Culture of Accountability
True accountability needs a culture of trust and openness and it is up to the leader to put in place the following necessary conditions: safety, clarity of purpose, trust, and an environment where responsibility is valued. Talking about accountability without such conditions in place will cause people to go into a mode of self-protection rather than initiative.
Candor in the workplace as Jack Welch describes is the necessary lubricant for organizations to run well. What prevents candor is fear.
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Viewpoint on Candor in the Workplace
In our experience, candor grows when leaders have established the following prerequisite conditions: safety, trust, clarity and transparent accountability.