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Posted by on Dec 20, 2013

An Amazing and Dangerous Year

What an amazing year 2013 was. I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with Federal leaders, working directly with them on real organizational problems. Along the way, I heard hundreds of stories, from many perspectives, all around what I call “what happens when work needs to be done and human beings show up to do it.”

But there was a serious downside, and it created a personal threat.

You may have heard of or known people in law enforcement who, because of some of the things they witnessed, got cynical, suspicious or fatalistic. It’s like the water they swam in ultimately shaped their negative views of the world and people.

After a couple of very difficult client interactions engagements in which I saw some of the worst things imaginable in organizational life, I started to feel like the cop about to retire. I had always been hopeful about the promise of people and organizations. But I started to wonder, had I just been naïve? Pollyannish? Unrealistic about organizational possibilities?

The federal scene certainly didn’t help, with pay freezes, budget cuts and the sequestration.

I guess it culminated in one case where a Director of an agency said he had been told by his predecessor, on walking out the door for the last time, “Just remember. People are no damned good.” This had been preceded by work with an agency where the staff was practically in rebellion against the leadership.  I had never heard such stinging feedback – ever – and I’ve been working full-time since 1979.

There were moments this year when I thought about getting out, feeling that seeing professional lives ruined, seeing despair and hopelessness was just too much. I have loved my career, but something happened that made me question a lot.

There is a tool we use in some leadership courses called the Johari Window. (It’s called that because two people named Joe and Harry thought it up.) It relates what each of us knows to what others know about us, and the real juice in the Johari Window is in the pane called the blind spot.

The blind spot is just what it sounds like. It represents things that we are unconscious of. Since no one is omniscient or completely self-aware, we’ve all got a blind spot, little or large.

Few micromanagers think of themselves that way. People who lose their temper at work and then attribute that to their “passion” usually have a blind spot, particularly around their impact on others.  Someone who sees leadership as mainly telling people what to do usually has a blind spot around what it takes for people to really perform at their best.

The blind spot is the reason for feedback, honest communication, perception checking and other techniques so that we don’t blunder along in ignorance any more than is necessary. The problem is that the higher up one goes in an organization, the less feedback he or she gets. It’s a bit like the old customer service saying: For every person who complains there are 10 who didn’t bother.

To come to the point, I believe that a huge proportion of the organizational pain, dysfunction, toxicity and drama we witness comes straight out of the blind spot. (It is certain that some leaders are actually very aware of the negative impacts of their actions, but they just don’t care. That’s a larger and, frankly, hideous, problem, and beyond the scope of this blog.) Blind spots, by definition, are usually painful to acknowledge. They are like being told you have bad breath, or an annoying habit. In fact, the more significant the blind spot, the harder it is to really hear what it is, and there are many elaborate and artful defenses, usually unconscious. Shooting the messenger is one. (See above on how feedback trails off as one acquires power.)

I was in the library and my eye fell across a book with the interesting title 30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers. It was on the coffee table in my living room when a friend came by last week to deliver a Christmas wreath. He saw it and commented that all the employees working for his wife “hated” her.  He added that this was because she had raised their goals.

You have probably seen various competency models for leadership. They include things like “Results-Focus,” or “Strategic Thinking.” Those are good and important. But in order to energize a system, or at least drain a swamp, there are “competencies” that I would nominate to include:

“Treats all people decently”

“Realizes human beings are human beings”

“Does not dehumanize work”

“Always demonstrates respect, even when he or she disagrees”

The fact is, the bitterest complaints about leadership – which lead to disengagement, low morale and dysfunction – are usually about human processes. When people feel demeaned, disrespected, dehumanized or scorned, bad things happen. I hear about these all the time.

Employees may think leaders need to be clearer in the strategic plan, run better meetings or align resources better, but these failings don’t produce nearly the damage that the more interpersonal processes do.

I have coached leaders for about 600 hours now, and spent multiples of that in classroom settings. I have never heard a leader say, “I acted disrespectfully,” or “I didn’t treat this person with decency,” or “I didn’t even think about how the other person might feel.”

There is almost always a blind spot in play in organizational disconnect and discontent. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck or bad timing. A series of accidents. But more often, as I the story unwinds from the leader’s perspective. I sense the anger, stress or discomfort, but never nothing about how he thought the other person perceived his emotions.

“Getting” this is a major step in healing, uniting and energizing organizations.

It is early days.

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