Character, Integrity, and the Authority of Conviction

father-and-childJohn Adams wrote. “Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.”

Strength of character is one of the most important attributes of a leader, but how is character evidenced in day to day business? Certainly, effective leaders must have credibility, the trust and confidence of others, and key to credibility is a strong sense of integrity. Integrity is built on honesty and the consistent, steadfast adherence to established principles and standards. Strong leadership is dependent upon character, and character is certainly measured, if not defined, by integrity.

Perhaps the greatest risk to the integrity of a leader is temptation. In the eyes of employees, team members, students, constituents, and even family members, leaders are held to a higher ethical standard. Leaders are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that is measured and fair and beyond reproach. Of course in reality, leaders are fallible humans, subject to the same temptations, distractions, and vices as everyone else. But the perception and expectation that leaders will put principles before self-interest persists nonetheless. For this reason, a strong sense of personal self-discipline is critical. Self-discipline ensures we act and make decisions based on principle rather than preference.

This is one area where both our political and business leaders tend to fail us. We are bombarded on a daily basis with headlines that expose fraud, corruption, scandal, and abuse of power on some level. The politics of power and influence drive many of the decisions that are made, policies that are introduced, even promotions that take place. It’s quite a chess game, the posturing and positioning, and with the underlying design to sustain or grow someone’s position of power and influence.

Certainly not all leaders are self-serving. But the fact is that any lack of integrity we see in our leaders is extremely destructive to their credibility. We quickly lose faith in both their ability to effectively lead and perhaps the principles for which they stand.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln

Whether a boss, an elected official, or an entire company or industry, the character of our leaders is always under a public microscope. Transgressions may be headlined on the nightly news for all the world to see or quietly whispered between co-workers around the water fountain. At either extreme, the unfortunate consequence is an erosion of trust. Trust is a product of character and integrity, the mortar in the foundation on which effective leadership is built. Without trust, how long will anyone continue to embrace their vision and follow their lead?

If character is built upon a foundation of integrity, discipline, and trust, it’s framed with resilience and covered in unwavering conviction and confidence. Leaders must be strong and undaunted. However, voice of confidence should not be confused with voice of arrogance. Confidence is driven by a firm conviction in a vision, mission, or goal (an external focus). By contrast, ego, pride, and an inflated sense of self-importance all breed arrogance (an internal focus).

How many times have we answered a daughter or son’s “Why?” with, “Because I said so!” As a parent I can personally relate to that, but it is a great example of a authoritative response based on position instead of conviction. If a decision is based on objective criteria, would not a better response be a confident explanation designed to educate and foster trust?

“Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct.”
― Thomas Carlyle

Strong leaders do not communicate from a perspective of position or title. They don’t have to. Quite the contrary, their voice of authority comes from the strength of conviction of right and wrong, not strength of ego. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that is extraordinarily important.

Finally, strength of character cannot be complete without sensitivity to the needs of others. Empathy is essential to compassion, sensitivity, and understanding. Leaders must be willing to give people room to fail as well as succeed. Everyone needs encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle. That’s why we coach and mentor. Those strong of character do not delight in the failure of others, they are burdened by it. The real distinction, however, is that they feel compelled to help.

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The Fallacy of Authority

authoritySimply put, leadership is the ability to influence others.

Ironically, however, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority. In fact, those in positions of “authority” often confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership. This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.

These authoritarian relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect. They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals. In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal. The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success. These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.

I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent. Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent. Personal ownership and accountability is stifled and autonomy is restricted. There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members. This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence. They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I believe that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is. This might sound radical or counter-intuitive, but if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision. They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals. They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other. They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline. They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated. And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement. This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less integral as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility. Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.  It requires confidence and vision with a strong sense of purpose.  It requires courage, discipline, and dedication to the development of others.  It requires authority without authoritarianism.  Superior leaders nurture cooperation instead of mandating compliance.  They build consensus and create a culture of alignment in which every member shares in the ownership and accountability.

Parental Responsibility in Social Training

Have you ever witnessed children running wild in a restaurant or retail store while the parents, apparently oblivious to the chaos, completely disregard the effect this behavior has on everyone else around them?  Of course the child’s behavior is not really the issue is it?  After all, the actions of children are merely a reflection of the parent’s priorities and values.  Unruly, precocious, undisciplined children left to explore the world on their own terms are simply another symptom of a larger socio-cultural trend that inflicts many adults today – a warped sense of entitlement compounded by a general lack of personal responsibility.

As a parent myself, I simply don’t accept the notion of the overwrought mom or dad, out in public trying to enjoy a family meal or finishing up errands with kids that are overly tired or bored.  Children and their needs should always be the parents’ first priority, but this is often not the case.  The parent’s agenda far too often comes first – the dinner out, the gift to buy, the dress to try on – all the while with kids in tow.  I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I have left a cart full of groceries in the store because one of our toddlers was having a melt down, or how many meals one of us finished alone in a restaurant while the other waited in the car with one of our unruly monsters.  Our needs, our schedule, our time together – all came second to our kids.

I also don’t accept the parental ‘philosophy’ of untethered social training, in which children are allowed to explore the world around them with minimal restraint or direction, the justification for which is to encourage creativity and individual expression.  Seriously, give me a break!  I see parents every single day who evidently subscribe to this theory, either by design or through the abdication of their parental responsibility to provide guidance and leadership.  Truthfully, I think many parents today are simply too lazy or too consumed with their own personal desires to provide meaningful parental leadership to their own children.  Instead of owning up to the tough role of parent, they instead try to be ‘friends’ with their kids.  Children need their parents to be role models who hold them accountable for their actions, not ‘friends’ who condone destructive behavior and shield them from the consequences of their actions.

Children are naturally inquisitive, energetic, and reckless. They are also inherently kind, honest, sensitive, and generous. However, they are unfortunately also a product of their environment. Values such as respect for others, self-discipline, and good old fashioned manners must be instilled and practiced, starting at home. A child’s behavior is a direct and unequivocal reflection of the parent’s behavior and values. Children are taught, or perhaps more accurately, allowed to learn and practice disruptive, disrespectful, and inappropriate behavior.

The mere fact that some parents feel that ‘everywhere’ is a training ground for social interaction, as if that somehow defers the parent’s role, neglects one of the core responsibilities that parents have for raising their children.  Training for social interaction begins and ends at home and should define the boundaries for what is acceptable when out in public.  The “everywhere” argument implies that the world shares responsibility for training children. I disagree.

Many adults, particularly young adults in their 20s and 30s appear to believe that the world about them exists solely for their comfort, convenience, and satisfaction. Perhaps this is the result of a couple of generations of economic prosperity, but this particular demographic seems to feel that they are owed something – abject servility in restaurants and stores, instant gratification and satisfaction, and freedom from personal responsibility and accountability. For the most part, they’ve not experienced serious difficulty in their lifetime – no cold war nuclear threat, no painful economic hardship, and very little in the way of any significant personal sacrifice. They’ve never spent hours in line for gas on odd days of the month, or worried about a mandatory draft. They’ve been too busy enjoying the American dream, getting what they want when they want, and along the way have become morally complacent, materialistic, and hopelessly entitled.

I don’t know for sure exactly how this mindset became part of our culture. Maybe it was instilled by the parents of my own generation. Maybe it was the environment in which this latest generation grew up. Regardless, it is no wonder that so many of today’s children mirror those attitudes. It’s been bred into them. Children today reflect the same sense of entitlement that they see their parents demanding in their own interactions.  If a child breaks something, it’s the store’s fault for having it accessible. If the parents can’t “control” them, they excuse the behavior by saying the children are “uncontrollable” rather than accept responsibility for the fact that they are failing their children in this aspect of their development. Parents insist their kids have the “right” to run and play in public, to make as much noise as they want, to learn social interaction everywhere they go and regardless of the consequences for others around them.

So don’t blame the kids running between the tables in the restaurant or rolling on the floor in the retail store; they’re just children who learn from and emulate their parents.  It is the parents who are at fault.  It is the parents who should be asked to leave when children are behaving in a way that is disrespectful or inappropriate for their immediate environment.  Better yet, the parents should exercise good judgment and remove their children without having to be asked.

Social training should only take place in public places that are conducive to age (or maturity) specific interaction. This, of course, depends on the behavioral capacity of the child. Children who have been adequately taught appropriate behavior at home and who demonstrate appropriate behavior when out in public may well be able to handle a more sensitive adult environment.  In any case, there should be no carte blanche for public social training.  Unfortunately, the burden of discretion falls upon the parents, who themselves too often need remedial social training.

12 Rules for Success: A Father’s Advice to his Kids

father-and-child

  1. Don’t despair in failure
    Be strengthened in your resolve to succeed.  Failure is temporary.  Rather than being discouraged, learn to leverage failure as an instrument for learning and an opportunity for strengthened resolve.  Remember, every hurdle cleared is one less obstacle between you and your objective.  Should you stumble and fall, fall forward.
  2. Never give up
    Be a relentless tormentor of your objectives.  Be both patient and persistent, focusing on the objectives, not the obstacles.  If you believe in your course, persevere to the end, even in the face of great adversity or overwhelming odds.  Never give up.
  3. Never compromise your principles
    It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Your principles should be absolute, upheld with unwavering conviction.  Personal preferences, on the other hand, warrant flexibility.  Know the difference between the two – when to be firm, and when to be flexible.
  4. Own your mistakes
    Admit your mistakes, embrace them, and learn from them.  Don’t hide them and never ever deflect responsibility to someone else.  The future has an uncanny way of revenging past deception.  Take ownership and live with the consequences.
  5. Challenge convention; question assumptions
    Question what everyone else takes for granted or assumes to be true.  Ambiguity and change is unsettling.  Consistency is comfortable and people often become unwittingly trapped by complacency or conjecture.  Acceptnothing without confirmation or validation and challenge others who do.  Remember the old saying; sacred cows make the best burgers.
  6. Show integrity in the smallest of things
    Integrity is the resolve to do the right thing even when no one else will know you’ve done it.  It’s returning a shopping cart to the cart return, turning in the sunglasses you found, leaving your name and number on the car you accidentally bumped.  Integrity is rooted in the foundation of character.  It’s not rewarded by recognition, but sustained by a personal conviction of right and wrong.
  7. Lead from the front
    …from over your shoulder and within arms reach.  You have to touch the people you lead; walk among them and share in their burdens and triumphs.  Lead face to face – not from an office, not through memorandums or phone calls or email. Show, don’t tell, and don’t ask anyone to do what you are unwilling to do yourself.
  8. Establish a sphere of influence
    Everyone needs advocates, people resolute in their support while unequivocal in their candor.  Surround yourself with an inner circle of trusted friends and family who will champion your cause while providing honest, constructive feedback and advice.  Learn to leverage their strengths to counterbalance your weaknesses.
  9. Learn to ask questions
    Rather than trying to learn all the answers, it’s far more important to learn what questions to ask.  Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being once observed, “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”  The ability to ask intelligent, relevant, and insightful questions is supremely valuable and uncommonly rare.  One final thought… know the distinction between asking for information and asking for affirmation.
  10. Pick your battles carefully
    Life is not fair; injustice sometimes prevails.  Still, not every conflict warrants a fight.  Like it or not, our world is complicated by political influences, and it’s easy to win a battle and still lose the war.  Consider what is to be gained and lost, and keep your eye on the larger objective.
  11. Master the language
    It might sound old-school in the age of texting, tweeting, and social networking, but a mastery of language communicates as much credibility and commands as much respect as a pedigree diploma, perhaps more.  Language skills in our society have become appallingly poor.  By contrast, a broad vocabulary brandished with flawless spelling, punctuation, and grammar is an incredibly powerful asset.
  12. If you speak, speak thoughtfully with purpose, confidence, and authority; otherwise, be silent
    Don’t speak simply to be heard.  Have something relevant to say.  “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” – Robert Frost

Delusional Effectiveness Disorder: Confusing Activity with Achievement

De-lu-sion-al  Ef-fec-tive-ness  Dis-or-der

Pronunciation: \di-‘lüzh-nəl\ \ĭ-fěk’tĭv-nes\ \dĭs-ôr’dər\

–noun

  1. a functional disorder characterized by systematized delusions of accomplishment and the projection of personal achievement, which are ascribed to the span and intensity of activity demonstrated, and manifested in the notable absence of meaningful results.
  2. delusions of grandeur
  3. slang: rectal-cranial inversion

Mission AccomplishedWe’ve all seen them.  Companies and organizations around the country are full of them.  You know who I’m talking about – you have a few in your organization right now.  I’m referring to those people who make the most noise, ask the most questions, make the most suggestions, send the most email – unrepentant self-promoters who frantically wave their banner to demonstrate to the world how busy and important they are and how tirelessly they work.  They make a big fuss and put on a great show, but actually accomplish very little.  In short, these are folks who confuse activity with achievement.

I refer to this common malady as Delusional Effectiveness Disorder.  While its origins are unknown, the presence of this condition has been noted among several business, military, and political leaders throughout history, including recent presidents.  The manifestation is essentially the same in all those infected.  Somewhere along the way in their careers, folks with DED have fallen under the illusion that recognition and advancement is the reward of working hard.  Indeed, working hard is important, but is only a meaningless shell if the effort fails to yield fruit.  (For the sake of argument I’m using “hard work” and “working hard” interchangeably and in the same context.)  To be sure, hard work is to be admired, but not simply for its own sake.  By contrast, smart work resulting in meaningful accomplishment is far more impressive. Success is the product of accomplishment, not merely the result of working hard.

Hard vs. Smart – Consider the response of the bar soap manufacturer when it discovered approximately one in every thousand of its boxes left the plant empty, resulting in numerous customer complaints.  Their team sprang to action, their best engineers were assembled, the equipment manufacturer was consulted, an extensive quality control study compiled, and a detailed plan to re-design their assembly line proposed – all at a substantial cost in time, labor, and materials.  Thankfully, a low level staffer quietly suggested that they simply set up a large fan at the end of the production line.  The empty boxes, he reasoned, were substantially lighter than those containing the bars of soap, and would therefore easily blow off the conveyor.

Or… When NASA began to launch astronauts into space, they discovered that their pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. To solve this problem, they spent one decade and $12 million.  They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on practically any surface including crystal and in temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.

And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

PelosiNow to be fair, many who are burdened with Delusional Effectiveness Disorder are fevered with the most benevolent of intentions.  In such benign cases, this unfortunate affliction is indicated by a distinct absence of malice often complicated by limited mental acuity, where genuine enthusiasm, however misguided, reflects a sincere attempt to boldly demonstrate that something (i.e., anything) is being done. The problem is that typically the “something” involves a flurry of activity that, while perhaps appearing impressive on the surface, contributes little in the way of substantive results.  It’s activity for the sake of activity with a focus on action rather than the accomplishment.  This reminds me of the adage we jokingly followed in business school when preparing case presentations: “If you can’t make it good, at least make it pretty.”  Form over substance.

Sadly, however, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is more often manifested in those primarily interested in self promotion rather than misguided enthusiasm.  These individuals are convinced that advancement will be rewarded to those demonstrating a maelstrom of activity (they’ll call it initiative).  They are masters of deception, flawlessly executing their political song and dance.  Their objective is the glorification of process – their process – rather than a measure of true accomplishment.  But what is value of initiative in the absence of achievement?  Ironically, if these people worked half as hard at actually accomplishing something as they do demonstrating how busy they are, how hard they work, and how important they are to the organization, they might truly achieve great success.  And in what is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, managers in many organizations fall under the spell of this thinly veiled farce, enabling and encouraging DED induced behavior by celebrating “initiative” rather than meaningful achievement or contribution.  While the desire to recognize such initiative is presumably well intended, the effect of poisoning the morale of those with greater substance is nevertheless profound.

What are we to do?  Entire books have been dedicated to managing strategically in a highly politicized environment.  Capable, effective leaders with a well defined vision of success find no distraction by subordinates infected with DED.  They recognize that substance presents itself in many forms, sometimes very subtle, and they reward achievement.  They coach through behaviors that are unproductive to the individual, team, and organization, and re-focus efforts to the attainment of broader objectives.

Fortunately, Delusional Effectiveness Disorder is not usually contagious.  In fact, those infected are typically held in leprotic contempt and shunned by peers.  While superiors often swoon with a temporary sense of euphoria, the effect wears off as time and transparency take their toll.

Championing Change After Restructuring & Layoffs

I. Employee Reaction and Response

The Emotional Response to Restructuring
Let’s face it, corporate downsizing and restructuring is stressful on everyone involved, and the effects are registered on both those who remain employed as well as those who leave the company.  It’s ironic that companies frequently refer to staff members who retain their jobs as “unaffected” or “untouched” by the layoffs.  The fact is employees who remain employed after restructuring are far from unaffected.  They experience numerous and wide-ranging feelings of distress during and following periods of significant change.  Typical reactions include fear, grief, depression, resentment, diminished energy and motivation, difficulty concentrating, and even symptoms of physical illness.  These reactions are normal, but if left unaddressed can easily degrade short-term productivity and leave long-term scars that affect both individual and team performance.

People are not so much resistant to change per se, but rather have difficulty coping with change, particularly when it is totally out of their control.  This response is probably felt even more acutely in teams that normally enjoy a strong sense of alignment – where the culture is normally one of active involvement and participation in the change process.  Employees and teams with a strong sense of personal ownership and attachment to the company often feel a stronger sense of betrayal.  In these teams, re-establishing a sense of security and purpose after restructuring can be a challenging prospect requiring a thoughtful plan of action.

A 2006 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that layoffs have the most negative effects on subsequent performance in what they identified to be “high involvement” workplaces. These are workplaces where employees have more decision-making authority and responsibility and greater emphasis is placed on the importance of human beings compared to traditional workplaces. As the study concludes, when members of an organization have been treated especially humanely, given substantial authority, and persistently told how much they are valued, layoffs violate the “psychological contract” between the organization and its people.

By contrast, organizations that have a history of treating employees in less humane ways and giving them less power, and then do involuntary layoffs, aren’t breaking any implicit or explicit psychological contract – employees don’t have as much reason to believe that such treatment is breaking any promises.

This may all sound like evidence that “no good deed goes unpunished.”  But the study did find that high involvement companies that stuck to their practices during downsizing rebounded more quickly than those companies that abandoned high involvement practices after implementing layoffs.[1]

On some level, everyone’s personal identity is tied to the company they work for, the position they hold, and the job they do.  Well aligned team members enjoy exceptionally deep attachments to their peers, their company, even their team culture.  When something disturbs the cultural foundation of the team (such as restructuring or layoffs), those who remain naturally go through an adjustment period.

Leaders have both a responsibility and opportunity here – the responsibility to make the transition as painless as possible, and the opportunity to strengthen the team and take it to new levels of effectiveness and success.

Effects of Transitioning Roles and Responsibilities
Following an organizational restructuring, daily routines are disrupted.  Some responsibilities are redefined, others are left untouched, and still others are completely orphaned and must be absorbed into existing roles.  Even well planned reorganizations can leave employees feeling a bit disoriented and overwhelmed during and following the transition.

We all have different internal mechanisms for coping with change, yet some are more productive than others.  I think it’s instinctual for people to want to get through the process and re-establish a new sense of personal order and routine – to “get back to normal” as quickly as possible.  However, the path through the transition can be bumpy with obstructions that will derail the effort if not monitored and managed effectively.

While some employees need to openly share their feelings about the changes confronting them, others completely withdraw into silence.  Some employees spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the changes to anyone who will listen.  Again, it’s important to remember that this is part of their healing process and necessary for them to move on.  At the same time, their energy should be directed appropriately (and constructively) so as not to unduly distract or undermine the healing of others.  Similarly, the needs of those who withdraw should also be respected, but they should never be abandoned.

Some people have difficulty accepting and adapting to new roles and responsibilities while others see the changes as a new career opportunity.  The simple fact is that some people, even high performers, are averse to change.  Change shakes them out of their groove and serves as a distraction.  Certain changes, in fact, may legitimately inhibit their ability to successfully perform at the level to which they are accustomed, at least temporarily.

It’s also worth considering that some employees have extended personal support groups outside of work while others have little or none.  Someone well established with a spouse, children, parents and other family members as well as a large group of friends may cope differently than a single person alone in the area.  Additionally, the jobs of some employees are simply more affected than others.

There are numerous factors that impact the degree to which change is felt and the ability of each individual and teams collectively to cope.  People respond differently to stressful situations and organizational upheaval.  To bring a team through the changes and re-establish a sense of common vision and purpose, it’s essential for leaders to plan strategically and implement situationally.

II. Recognizing & Responding to Organizational Change – A Leader’s Guide

Understanding the emotional effects of organizational restructuring on employees and the various ways people cope with change is obviously important.  Using this knowledge to help a team transition is crucial, certainly for its immediate short-term benefits, but more importantly, for the long-term efficacy of the team as a high performing entity.

Faced with circumstances which are at least for the moment out of their control, employees look to their leaders for guidance and reassurance (even when none exists).  These are times when the mettle of leadership is put to the test, when credibility and trust is either reaffirmed or destroyed.  Leaders have a tremendous opportunity to re-define the vision and sense of purpose of the team, introduce new objectives, strengthen alliances, and re-establish a culture of organizational alignment committed to the future, all in a relatively short period of time.

Make no mistake, during times of crisis, leaders are closely watched and their character and efficacy assessed. Everyone from subordinates to co-workers and even superiors look for and depend upon effective leadership.  Decisive, courageous, visionary leadership laced with empathy and sensitivity goes a long way toward re-establishing trust and re-building confidence, and helps assure that desired employee engagement and productivity levels are maintained through the change process.

Weakened teams cannot effectively heal under a “business as usual” approach.  There are numerous efforts that leaders should undertake to mitigate both the emotional and practical impact of restructuring on morale and productivity while championing the change initiative:

Treat Everyone With Dignity and Respect
This may sound like an obvious no-brainer, but at a minimum, everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  Those being laid off, or for that matter those who are terminated for performance issues throughout the year should always be treated with dignity and empathy.  Again, the rest of the team is always watching.  The co-workers of an ousted employee may very well have a very different relationship (and perception) of the individual than does management.  The manner in which terminated employees are treated can have a considerable impact on the morale of the team, and influence their view of the company and their personal sense of value.

Rebuild Trust
The fact is, in the wake of early retirements, layoffs, and restructuring, trust is weakened.  Despite the sensitivity with which changes are implemented, it is weakened due to the emotional response to circumstances beyond the employees’ control, and a perceived violation of the psychological contract and sense of security that management typically works so hard to establish.  Think about it… companies go out of their way to foster a sense of family and teamwork.  Senior management refers to it in global communications; we build it locally through departmental celebrations, holiday dinners, and team picnics; we even celebrate important milestones in employees’ personal lives.  We do all of these things and more to impart a sense of cultural connection, and to nurture relationships with our employees and their families.  Restructuring undermines this sense of security, belonging, and personal value.

Of course intellectually, everyone understands that sustaining the viability of the business entity is the highest priority, but it doesn’t diminish the feelings of betrayal when changes in the form of layoffs and reductions in force become necessary.  The loss of a co-worker and team-mate is painful, regardless of how fiscally prudent it might be.  Those who survive the reduction still suffer a range of emotions despite the legitimacy of the business need.  Their sense of confidence and security is understandably compromised.

The key to rebuilding trust is demonstrating a strong sense of integrity and equitability.  Integrity is built on honesty and the consistent, steadfast adherence to established principles and standards.  Trust itself is a product of character and integrity, and part of the foundation on which effective leadership is built.  Further, trust cannot be reestablished without demonstrating sensitivity to the needs of others.  Everyone needs encouragement and reinforcement when they struggle.  Leaders who are strong of character neither delight in, nor are they complacent with, the struggle of others; they are personally burdened by it.

Be Visible and Be Involved
Employees are not the only ones who are affected by restructuring.  Leaders are personally affected as well.  In the immediate aftermath when responsibilities need to be delegated, job descriptions re-written, and plans for the future redesigned, it’s easy to get caught up in the tasks that must be accomplished at a time when employees need their leaders for stability and guidance.  It’s tempting to put managerial tasks first, but doing so invariably sequesters leaders away in meetings and on conference calls behind closed doors, physically and psychologically separating them from the staff just when they are most needed.

Although they might not ever admit it, employees like having their leaders visible and accessible.  Particularly during times of high stress, it’s reassuring for them to be able to interact with their managers.  It’s really not unlike the relationship that parents have with children.  There is comfort in knowing our leaders are close by and available.  All the closed door meetings and phone calls send the message that there are more unknowns, more changes to yet to come.  It’s bound to be unsettling, even to the most secure staff member.

There is also tremendous practical value to being visible and involved.  It affords the opportunity for a leader to listen, respond, empathize constructively, address concerns, and dispel rumors.  This time can and should be used to re-emphasize goals and vision for the team and company, laying the cultural groundwork for future alignment.  It also provides an opportunity for leaders to publicly show appreciation for dedication, resilience, initiative, and achievements during the transition period.

Communicate Constantly and Honestly
Lack of timely and open communication is perhaps the single most significant contributing factor to the erosion of employee trust and confidence.  Fear of the unknown is a powerful and destructive force.  Left unchecked, it fosters speculation, becomes a breeding ground for gossip and rumors, and grows into a distraction that overwhelms productivity, bringing the business at hand to a crawl.

I don’t know of anyone who would rather not know what’s happening behind closed doors.  And while answers are often slow coming to light, people appreciate consistent communication even if it’s for no other purpose than to offer reassurance or empathy.  Even when there is no new news, a staff meeting can serve as an opportunity to honestly explain the current state of affairs, describe the planning process taking place, focus on new objectives being designed, or simply discuss and respond to concerns.

Key to maintaining credibility and trust is to be as honest as possible.  As is appropriate, state what you know, concede what you don’t, and be truthful in all things.  Keep staff members engaged in the process and focused on the future of the team and company.  This is not the time to B.S. – be honest and genuine and give it to them straight.  Don’t sugar-coat the facts.  They may not like the message, but they’ll respect (and trust) the messenger.

In the aftermath of restructuring, keep talking.  Make sure everyone knows what prompted the changes, what alternatives were considered, and how conclusions were ultimately reached.  This message needs to reflect a rational decision process with consideration for all subsequent effects (on both the people and the business), and focus on the positive outlook for the future of the company.  Again, the message needs to be repeated over and over to rebuild the confidence and sense of personal security of the employees.

Reaffirm Personal Value and Contribution
In a recent team meeting following our own organizational realignment, I asked everyone present to take a moment and look around the room at their co-workers assembled.  I acknowledged that while some of our friends were no longer with us, this was the team that represented the future of our business.  I confirmed that the changes before us would necessitate flexibility and adaptability, and I asked for their patience as roles evolved and responsibilities shifted.  I reminded them of our strength as a team and the exciting opportunities afforded us to reshape our business and relationships, both with each other and our customers.

Ironically, the period just following a restructuring is when the absolute best is needed from remaining employees, yet this is the very time when they are most distracted and least inclined to give 100 percent.  Just about everyone’s sense of safety is compromised to some extent.  Employees are emotionally detached and motivation to put forth discretionary effort diminished.  The sense of job security is low, uncertainty over roles and responsibilities pervades, and even future reporting structure is often up in the air.

It’s important to provide a renewed sense of purpose – to specifically remind everyone just how valuable they are to the company and team, to detail what their role will be moving forward, and to engage them in the process of establishing new goals.  Focus on the new opportunities that the change presents rather than simply assigning the additional responsibilities that will be required.  The objective should be to involve them in the process and make everyone feel valuable and appreciated rather than victims of circumstance.

Create New Opportunities
Most people prefer to live and work within their zone of comfort.  Even the most ambitious people would, given the choice, prefer to adapt to change on their own terms.  Organizational change forces people to step outside of their box.  Some respond with enthusiasm over the chance to learn new skills or take on more responsibility, while others fret over the additional burden or worry that they may not be able to meet the new demands.

Smart leaders use this time of transition to meet with employees to discuss career development, identify individual goals, and develop a plan of action to take them to the next level.  It’s an excellent opportunity to reaffirm the value of the employee’s contribution, outline opportunities for growth, and personally engage them in the change process.

Champion the Vision, Values and Goals
Fundamentally, any organizational restructuring reflects the necessity for immediate and drastic change.  Despite attempts to the moderate the impact, company culture takes a hit on some level.  Priorities shift, even if only temporarily, and everyone’s sense of the future is suddenly diminished.  Individual separation, changes to team dynamics, shifting responsibilities, even changes to schedules disrupt the status quo.

As discussed earlier, teams with even the strongest culture of alignment are shocked by the reality of present and pressing business needs.  The team’s sense of purpose and direction must be reset, trust re-established, and sense of security reaffirmed.  People in these situations will generally rally around a common sense of purpose, and it’s up to the leader to define that purpose.

Again, this affords the leader an opportunity to spend time meeting with both individuals and teams to re-establish the vision of the company, values of the team, and goals for achieving success.  People are naturally inclined to seek comfort in the familiar.  An emphasis on building upon existing cultural strengths provides reassurance while establishing a foundation on which to build new goals for the future.  By providing a context for the team and its members to successfully implement the company’s plan for the future, and detailing each individual’s role in the process, cultural alignment and personal engagement can begin to restore.

Leverage Competitive Advantage
Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”  Opportunities always exist.  The challenge is often in knowing where to look, and more importantly, how to take advantage of them once identified.  Leveraging existing competitive advantages provides an opportunity to reaffirm a common vision and focus team efforts on the positive strengths of the organization.

Building upon and focusing on existing strengths should not be anything new to the team.  If anything, these are likely to be concepts with which employees are both familiar and comfortable.  These typically represent a source of pride for the team and can be used as unifiers in rebuilding confidence and a positive outlook.  Examples include:

  • Talent and Ability of Team Members
  • Industry Experience
  • Brand Strength
  • Client Relationships
  • Quality of Products and Services
  • Design Quality and Exclusivity
  • Breadth and/or depth of Products and Services

Additional Steps
The following are just a few additional steps that leaders can undertake to rebuild team unity and restore a culture of alignment.

  • Enthusiastically reinforce the vision every single day.
  • Focus on achieving daily and weekly goals together, keeping everyone involved and engaged.
  • Provide rewards and recognition whenever appropriate.
  • Continue existing traditions and activities that the staff is used to enjoying.
  • Initiate team activities and new traditions such as periodic pot-luck lunches, team movie nights, afternoon ice cream “socials,” awards for attendance, service and contribution, or get the team involved in a philanthropic activity
  • Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with mister in-between!

Finally, it’s important for leaders to accept and share in the grieving process after layoffs.  Employees need to see for themselves that their leaders share their pain and care about the effects of change.  However, while they appreciate empathy, they also look to their leaders for strength and direction.   Superior leaders always focus on objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic, enthusiastic, and inspire people to become better than they might on their own.  On the heels of a corporate restructuring, these leaders provide a clear vision of the successful future, leveraging both the strengths of the business and unique talents of the individuals who provide a face to the public.

III. Preparing for Future Changes

Mitigating Risk of Additional Turmoil
High involvement teams that normally enjoy a strong sense of cultural alignment, where employees enjoy more decision-making authority and responsibility and are involved and participate in the change process, are generally able to rebound quickly when continually engaged throughout the restructuring process.  While not immune to the emotional turmoil that accompanies significant change, they are better equipped to weather the storm long term than teams with lower cultural alignment.

Most of the same techniques leaders use to lead teams through the wake of restructuring should also dampen the impact of any subsequent layoffs or downsizings that become necessary.  The benefits are essentially the same.  Leaders should continually:

  • Build Trust
  • Be Visible and Be Involved
  • Communicate Constantly and Honestly
  • Value the Team and Members
  • Create New Opportunities
  • Champion the Vision, Values and Goals
  • Leverage Competitive Advantages
  • Continue to Promote a Sense of Team

[1] Sutton, Robert. The Last Word on Layoffs: Evidence on Costs and Implementation Practices. Harvard Business Publishing, 2007

Fear and Accountability

Fear & AccountabilityI was speaking with several members of our management team the other day about the staff and a particular area in which they need to improve.   In the course of the conversation one of my management trainees jokingly made the comment, “They’re afraid of you, Bryant.”  I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but in the days since I keep coming back to what she said.  I have a pretty healthy relationship with every individual on my team – they are all responsive to direction and also readily come to me with concerns and problems.  I know with a reasonably high degree of certainty that I am viewed as fair and equitable.  Further, I think most of them feel comfortable enough to challenge me on issues when there is strong disagreement or if I happen to personally offend them in some way.

Be that as it may, I’ve considered that there is undoubtedly some truth to her comment, even if it was stated in jest.  So, I’ve spent the last several days wondering just what it might be that anyone on the team is truly afraid of.  Mulling over numerous performance conversations, coaching examples, even past disciplinary actions, it finally dawned on me that it’s not actually me that they fear.  They fear the accountability I demand from them, or at least some of them do.

Some, if not most, people thrive on being challenged.  This is certainly true of all successful high performers.  These are the individuals who are highly autonomous, require minimal supervision, and are driven by their own personal measure of achievement.  People like this don’t fear accountability, they embrace it.  They aren’t discouraged by obstacles, they focus on objectives.  They demonstrate high levels of personal ownership and responsibility, visualize their success, and pursue their goals with enthusiasm and optimism.

People are fearful of many things in today’s workplace – job security, increased personal and professional demands, and uncertainty in general.  But those who specifically fear their leaders do so for two primary reasons – either they don’t trust the leader or they fear being held personally accountable for their job performance.  People cannot trust a leader who doesn’t consistently make fair and sound decisions.  This is why it is so important for leaders to be strong of character and unwavering in self discipline.  Lacking confidence in a leader’s ability and character, the subsequent uncertainty and inconsistency people feel breeds fear.

On the other hand, those who consistently under-perform against expectations while knowing with certainty that their leaders will hold them to a high level of accountability constantly live in fear.  They fear being held personally responsible for their actions, behavior, and performance, which they believe is to some degree beyond their control.  In fact, most chronic under-performers resist taking personal responsibility for their failures and their successes.  It’s easier for them to credit or blame others rather than shoulder the responsibility themselves.  They view themselves as victims of circumstance or plain old bad luck.  They justify their deficiencies by blaming those around them – customers, co-workers, managers, even the economy, etc.  They find all sorts of reasons and excuses in a lifelong attempt to prove that success or failure is something that simply happens.  From their perspective, this absolves them of personal responsibility, and they subsequently try to deflect attempts to hold them accountable.  To my point, they resist personal accountability and are fearful of those who impose it upon them.

People fear what is beyond their control.  Those who are highly autonomous with a strong sense of personal ownership, accountability, and control over their own success or failure are more confident and more effective.  These individuals among my staff are not fearful of me.  There is no reason to be, for they understand that they alone hold the power to make or break their personal success.  Those who are indeed fearful project that power onto me, for they would rather live in fear than take responsibility for their own success or failure.