I have been thinking a great deal about organizational leadership and culture lately, especially as I consider and explore launching a business aimed at helping organizations excel in the area. We spend so much of our time at work, why wouldn't we want these spaces to be happy and healthy? The leaders of our organizations are integral at determining the health and happiness of a workplace but many still either refuse to address concerns or are the concern themselves.
There are two areas I want to address in this blog: toxicity and stagnancy. Many of my friends are struggling with toxic bosses, stagnant or unhealthy work places. I have heard some horrendous stories that leave me wondering how these experiences are even allowed to occur. This is a persistent and enduring issue that arises constantly and I am sure you each have your own stories to share.
Toxic or Unhealthy Workplaces and Bosses
Many individuals have experienced wounding in their workplace, in some cases to the extreme where the psychological impact is long lasting, influencing their professional interactions in their future jobs. It is hard to unlearn the survival behaviors developed in an unhealthy workplace or to manage a toxic boss. This difficulty can sometimes prevent us from flourishing in a new environment. Unhealthy work environments and toxic bosses are debilitating and harmful, this we can all agree, and yet employees often feel powerlessness to change their situation.
Stagnant Employees or Workplaces
Employees who have been at organizations for years without support, professional development, or effective leadership just spin in the hamster wheel. Stagnancy, while not per se abusive, is also harmful to the personal motivation of an employee and to the growth of the organization. Stagnancy, like toxicity, permeates the organizational culture and becomes an accepted norm. This norm can be so pervasive that employees don't even realize things could be different. Leaders perpetuate stagnancy when they neglect their employees or the organizational culture. A lack of attention to community needs and organizational change can lead employees to wonder if change is even possible, leading many great employees to move on. Turnover is as much of a problem as a staff that never leaves. Both are symptomatic of something gone awry and require leaders to notice and commit to engaging in a change process to fix it.
It's Not that Difficult
What I come back to time and time again, is that being a thoughtful and compassionate leader, someone who values and collaborates with their employees, is not that difficult. While many leaders articulate agreement to inclusive leadership, they do not translate that to practice. The incongruence between what is spoken and what is done is sometimes deafening. Some leaders make the choice to manage people using a "power over" approach to leadership, based in distrust or a "leader knows best" philosophy. Others still, are just absent, or so conflict avoidant that they choose to let the chips fall where they may and take no responsibility for the inevitable dysfunction that arises.
In all these cases, someone is making a choice. It is a choice to be absent. It is a choice to treat your colleagues and supervisees with disrespect or aggression. It is a choice to avoid conflict. It is a choice to exclude your employees from decisions that affect them or the organization. How you choose to lead your organization matters.
How We Lead Matters
Leaders fall on multiple points of the management continuum, but there is no denying that how we choose to lead others has dramatic impact. In many of the examples I see or hear about, the hostility or stagnancy exists in spaces that espouse a position of social justice. The organization itself is oriented around addressing issues of marginalization and oppression externally and yet internally perpetuates some of the same attitudes, behaviors and hierarchies it tries to dismantle. Leaders infrequently want to acknowledge this contradiction. Pride, narcissism, obliviousness all get in the way. Leaders must be self-reflective and willing to acknowledge the problems to move forward and shift their organization's culture. Is this easy? No. Is it essential? Yes.
What Can be Done?
Simple behaviors like learning about your staff, their interests, hobbies, families can go a long way. Allowing flexibility or work from home can demonstrate trust. Offering professional development can ensure your staff have access to opportunities that help them grow so they don't stay in the same job for 20 years without any advancement or innovation. Reflecting on how you communicate with your staff when you are upset about something and choosing to be constructive vs. destructive. Including staff in decisions that affect them, employing transparent processes for change, communicating what and why you are deciding something in a timely manner. These are all easy to implement and yet, so often forgotten. In the latter examples, research shows that when team members are included in a process and feel informed about the how and why, they are more likely to accept an outcome even if the outcome is not agreeable to them (Hicks et al., 2008; Wolff, 2002). When folks are shut out of the decision making process or information is hoarded and slow to disseminate, the end result is often a feeling of disempowerment.
But it's Lonely at the Top...
While the adage goes something like "life at the top is lonely" because leaders have to make the "hard" decisions nobody likes, I don't necessarily agree that it has to be this way. I also don't think many leaders make the "hard" decisions. How you choose to engage in the workplace and demonstrate the value your staff brings to the organization in many ways determines how lonely you feel. There will always be conflict, and certainly it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to please everyone all of the time. Yet, through transparent leadership and thoughtful management, leaders do have the capacity to minimize the negative impact on their staff and the sense of loneliness they might feel "at the top." Again, I think it is a choice. If you lead from a place of isolation (e.g.: making decisions on your own), then the likely result is your own sense of exclusion. If you lead from a place of inclusion, you will develop a culture that includes you rather than eschews you.
Communication is at the heart of all of this. Leaders are busy, and yet they must make time for communication. Transparent, engaged, and regular communication is critical for healthy organizations. If leaders communicate with their teams, team members will engage in the process, whatever it may be. If they feel excluded, they will likely disengage because "what's the point? My opinion doesn't matter." It is a cycle that only intentional, inclusive leadership can break:
1. Staff disengage because they feel their voice doesn't matter;
2. Leadership disengages from their staff, because they see and feel the disengagement;
Recently, a colleague sent me an article in the New York Times about building a perfect team. Essentially, it arrives at the need for psychological safety and communication within teams. When these are present, teams are highly functional no matter the personalities or experience level. The article states:
"In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs."
I still don't think any of this is rocket science and so many leaders and organizations struggle. I also know there are other factors that interface with what I have stated here such as structural impediments, inequity, and burn out. Still though, I believe that if leaders strive to be inclusive, communicate openly and often, the psychological safety the New York Times article talks about (derived from research at Google) can exist. Organizations and their leaders have to lay the ground work. Managing without intentionality and compassion breeds dysfunction, isolation, damage and stagnancy. No one really wins in those cases.