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Posted by on Nov 8, 2011

When it Rains, it Pours

You have probably felt at some points in your life that you were in a pattern, with the same things happening over and over. They may have been good or bad, but you felt the recurring theme.

This has been my life over the last two months. I’d like to identify what I’ve experienced, mainly because I believe it’s a sign of the times. I’ll explain at the end what leaders can do about this phenomenon – if they have the will.

I am accustomed to hearing the following story – we hear it at many client sites – but the consistency of it this autumn really struck me. It runs something like this:

• Our leadership doesn’t communicate with us.

• Our leadership is not interested in our ideas.

• Our leadership sees our role as simply executors of their will.

• Our leadership regards different ideas as hostile and threatening.

• Our leadership knows morale and engagement are low, and either blames us or ignores the data.

• Our leadership manages by threat and fear instead of encouragement and reward.

It has truly been like being in the movie Groundhog Day. As I have listened to participants in leadership development sessions, I have felt as though I could finish their sentences. In every case, where I thought they were headed with their comments was correct.

Before addressing what to do about this, it is fair to raise the question of how in the world things got to this point.

Actually, things have been this way for a very long time, but as people hear new models of leadership – based on shared values, connection, communication, accountability (for everyone) and meaningful results (to name just a few attributes) – the contrast becomes more stark, more painful. One clear marker of this is Generation Y, which generally wants to have nothing to do with the tired, worn-out models of leadership – if you want to call it that – bulleted above.

There is a palpable yearning for a new way to work out there, and leadership in many organizations is tone-deaf to it.

So while it’s actually not that new, I believe it’s intensifying, for several reasons.

First, organizations everywhere are under attack. Government agencies, banks, the cable company, your local retailer . . . they are all operating under conditions that are very different from just 10 years ago. Competition, consumer expectations, technology, social change, and globalization are all shifting the landscape.
Most people, in most organizations, in unguarded moments will admit to feeling overwhelmed, under siege, pulled in a thousand directions, working harder and harder and harder . . . and they’re not sure why.

Certainly, the acceleration simply to increase shareholder return has left many employees feeling empty. Human beings are wired for meaning, and so just chasing more money can feel meaningless. Steve Jobs once famously said that Apple’s massive market capitalization was interesting, but it wasn’t really the point. Great products were the point – and what produced that market capitalization.

But beyond the factors in play mentioned above, here is what is really happening in organizations that is producing such a profound alienation.

In any historical movement, as a new model or theory or way of living/working/being arises, the old guard intensifies its insistence on the status quo as the only legitimate way of living/working/being. Sensing the questioning, criticism and potential for something new and untested and not well understood, the decision-makers redouble their efforts to “stay the course.” Just do more of whatever has been done.

This reaction is easy to understand. A new model of leadership that emphasizes transparency, openness, feedback that runs both ways, willingness to listen, empowerment (I apologize for using this word if you suffered through any of the TQM initiatives in the 1980’s. I know how painful it was to have hopes raised and then dashed as organizations realized the cost of what they thought they were buying), shared values and meaning are so fundamentally at odds with the mind-set of “Because I’m in charge, I set the rules.”

I am sorry to tell you that this mindset is much more common, and entrenched, and intensifying that you may want to believe. The assault is underway, and the rear-guard actions are obvious to see.

This manifested in one example of a besieged executive who had received massive negative feedback on his leadership style. His response? “I don’t care what they think, and I don’t want to hear what they have to say.” I am always in favor of this mindset in battle, or in an emergency, when there is no time to hold a focus group or ask people how they feel about how things are going.

But seriously, folks, if you are trying to run an organization where people give their best, are connected to the mission, to each other and to meaningful results that make a difference in others’ lives, I have to tell you, this refrain just doesn’t work. It gets you begrudging compliance from a demotivated and disengaged workforce that did not believe enough in its own talents to leave and find a better place to work. Talent walks.

(It is also interesting to explore the reactions of leadership to high and unwanted turnover. You can easily see how defensiveness and blind spots collude to explain away the exit interview data.)

The fact is, the values systems in place with old-style leadership and a new form of leadership are so fundamentally at odds that some people believe it will take the dying off of the current generation of leaders in order for a new mental model to take hold. This is explicitly stated as the case in Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There may be many leaders who can’t make the shift. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to try to engage them in a new way of working, but in practical terms some will get it, and others just aren’t ready, and won’t.

So what is to be done?

This is a message for leaders. Apart from the communication role others may play in trying to help leaders see new things in new ways (I call this the Vertical Channel of communication, in which information flows up and down), this is directly targeted at those frustrated with their organizations, wondering where the accountability is (we hear this one a lot), wondering why people seem disconnected from the work, puzzled by the turnover, and so on. Here is what you can do:

• Ask the most important question of all: “What do you think?” Give people a chance to explain their reality, their perceptions, their ideas. This is tremendously motivating, and shows you actually care about what they think.

• Get out of your office. We know that in a largely unconscious process, you fill up the day with meetings and commitments so that you have no free time – a problem in itself in terms of renewal and sustainability – and you then plead that you don’t have time to communicate with employees. Dr. Phil would ask, “So how’s that working for you?”

• Define, really, the mission and values. Don’t write something on posters to go up on the walls that will invite cynicism and eye-rolling. If you can’t cogently and succinctly describe the mission, the so-what? of the organization, you’re in trouble. The mission is what people work for after they can eat, have shelter, transportation and high-definition cable TV. Ditto with values. They have to be real. Pompous, artificial, self-serving values are deal-killers. No one can get behind a value such as “Take the customer for all they’re worth,” yet that is the operating model in many private-sector organizations.

• Let go of the 50-pound weights you take home on your shoulders every night. Again, in a largely unconscious process (by this I simply mean unthinking), many leaders feel it’s all on them. Since they’re the only ones who can do it, or do it the right way, it’s a big weight. What about an organization where the best ideas come forward freely, shared meaning-making occurs – where people address, “What makes the most sense?” — and people are made accountable for execution? The operative model today was described by Jim Collins as “The genius with a thousand helpers.”

There are many more ideas, but the real point is that the will, the desire have to be there. It is a profound shift of values and the most basic, fundamental assumptions and sense-making for many. If your mental model is “I’m in charge so I don’t really care,” then good luck, because you’re going to need it.

If, however, you are open to the possibility that there may be a better way to work, you can get on the road doing the four things above. It’s a noble quest, and a modest start. See where it leads.

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