I’ve often written about the slow death of the authoritarian leader – envisioning the demise of command and control thinking as the prevailing force in organizational life. It is slow going – isn’t it? At least it feels that way to me – even as an “observer” in my role as a consultant.
The power issue hangs over us. Although there is a more enlightened language of leadership evolving – we have few examples of leaders and organizations that are truly charting a new course in the ways they manage their power. While it is necessary to distinguish power derived from formal authority from the many informal means of power within a system, most organizations are still structured to empower few people at the top.
But there is another more subtle and insidious form of power that keeps people in line and emotions frozen in time – and that is the nature of relationships between formal “power holders” and their “direct reports.” I’m referring here to not only the power to act and achieve goals, but the power to express and feel what naturally arises for employees in the course of their work.
In a world characterized by extremes and polarities in language and feeling, it’s always important to clarify that I’m not advocating an emotional free for all at work – rather the honest expression of emotion. This is a form of power that is rarely spoken about inside or outside of the workplace.
As my “manager” you may empower me to make certain decisions and execute them within established parameters – but that usually does not mean that I can openly disagree with your choice or that of the organization for fear that my frankness will be interpreted as a sign of not being a “team player,” or worse. From my organizational view, fear still dominates the emotional undercurrent in most workplace interactions. This is most evident when we confront traditional power. Sometimes the fear is subtle but it stills shapes the nature of the communication and contribution.
In an article in Fast Company, 10 Ways to Lose Your Best Employees, author Andrew Bennett wrote, “I spoke with a prominent business school professor who told me that no corporate function lags behind today so dramatically as talent. He sees improvement and innovations in every area except in the vital matter of managing people. That’s astonishing – and its lunacy at a time when people costs tend to be upwards of 50 percent of a company’s expenses”
While I am sure Mr. Bennett is right about the corporate bottom-line, I’m more concerned about the frustrations and anxieties of so many employees as they try to do their best work under the ever-increasing stressful circumstances common in today’s workplaces.
In his prescription for on-going employee disempowerment, Bennett advises organizations to place jerks in management and “reward the old-fashioned, autocratic style that stifles unorthodox creative thinking and feels threatened by youth and dynamism.” I’d add continue to hire managers that have little or no ability or interest in people skills. In fact, many managers are still debating whether it makes a difference. Or they don’t have time for it. Or they don’t believe in it. This, by the way, is not confined to any one generational mindset. While Millennials are more predisposed to social contact and its value, their ability to communicate effectively is not guaranteed by their social interests.
Most leaders are doers. They are about getting things done. Concrete, tangible actions that move the ball forward – to use a hackneyed, but common U.S. football — business metaphor. The 3 R’s of leadership I recommend don’t typically come to mind in the world of doing. They are about being – a way of being as a leader that requires great thoughtfulness, discipline and grace.
Living and acting from the 3 R’s requires a leader’s ability to shift attention from the ubiquitous bottom-line and redirect towards these three priorities:
Who has time for this – our average leader asks – I don’t have time to reflect – I can barely get things done as it is! What most leaders don’t realize is that time for reflection can be the elixir that transforms the way they see and do their work. For many leaders, the acknowledgement that slowing down for some part of the day is necessary, desirable and valuable is in itself transformative. Even the very practical leader will discover that regular time spent in reflection will bring greater perspective and new levels of emotional clarity. This is the time to step back and take an unhurried look at daily challenges, past “mis-takes” and future visions.
The heart of a commitment to reflection is recognition of the importance of self-awareness. This leader benefits from the ability to be self-observant in the moment of what they are thinking and feeling and how that translates into behavior. The reflective leader understands the importance of their behavior in setting an emotional tone with their employees and strives to be conscious of public actions. The reflective leader is always tuned into their own contradictions. This requires a deep understanding of how personal motivations are linked to decisions, especially those that have external impact. Regular reflection also provides the time to look at how personal beliefs, assumptions and expectations are manifesting into behaviors and decisions that resonate throughout their sphere of influence Reflection also supports leaders in cultivating three critical emotions and skills all leaders need today: humility, empathy and curiosity.
Today, many leaders have learned to speak the language of team work, innovation and social purpose yet their subjective lens on the world still requires the subjugation of the will and needs of others. While it may sound harsh to characterize the average leader this way, most organizational systems don’t allow for parity between employers and employees. In a world view that perceives employer-employee relations primarily as economic transactions, it’s questionable how much authenticity can thrive. Recently a senior level manager asked me, “Why should I have to spend time praising my employees –they’re adults and have been hired to do a job and should do it without my having to reinforce them!”
Besides a crash course on how neuroscience should be changing how we manage people to achieve real relationships, leaders need to do an inventory of the personal beliefs that influence their work. We need leaders to understand that hiring is not simply a mechanical procedure of identifying the correct qualifications to match tasks but a commitment to a bond between human beings.
Employer-employee arrangements built on these old transactional and hierarchical models must continuously rely on social dominance rather than collaboration to be sustained. The leader who commits to being a student of human relations recognizes the unique needs and talents of each employee. This leader is not just committed to the end product but a whole and healthy process that advances the relationship and the group to the next level of cooperation and commitment.
Bill George, professor of management at the Harvard Business School shared his experience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “The tipping point was very evident with many oversold sessions on the topic of meditation. I witnessed this personally by leading a sold-out dinner on the topic and participating in two other sessions on “Mindful Leadership.”
Well if they’re doing it at Davos…..maybe the average worker can expect reasonable hours, less pressure and a lighter work load? George says that the dramatic shift in consciousness he sees among leaders starts with changes taking place in the world. “We live in an era of globalization and rapid technological change that is creating volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity. (VUCA is the acronym created by the U.S. Military Academy to describe the world of the 21st century). Its impact is compounded by the rapidly changing job marker and the new 24/7 communications world.”
Well those changes that Bill George is citing aren’t going to disappear – in fact, they’re likely to accelerate so the question of sustaining resiliency is a major one for every leader. So far, most aren’t doing a very good job. They model the opposite of mindfulness. Long hours, unreasonable expectations, partial information and poor listening. Much of the problem is baked in the cake, so to speak. The systems that are driven by insatiable growth targets and quarterly measurements are only part of the problem. Many companies have shifted their priorities since the Great Recession and are not as willing to invest in hiring more employees, providing better resources and offering training and support to workers.
Too often resiliency is treated as an individual endeavor. While it is up to us personally to determine our physical and psychological needs, it is incumbent upon leadership to provide a sane, healthy and rewarding environment for employees to thrive – not struggle.
Unfortunately, much of the interest in developing greater resiliency in workers means – organizations want people to do more with less and rebound with less wear and tear in the process. Without question we’re living in an era where leadership – and even the nature of work is being redefined. While many critics would question the very survivability of “managers” in tomorrow’s workplace, they are here to stay for now. The reality is they play a vital role in the experience and success of work. Survey data supports the theory that a leading factor influencing employee engagement are relationships.
Gallup CEO Jim Clifton sums it up perfectly, “Here’s something they’ll probably never teach you in business school: The single biggest decision you make in your job-bigger than all of the rest – is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager – nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits – nothing.”
Thanks for reading,
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
photo source: wikipedia commons