Critics To The Gulag

Photo by Mouse via Flickr

Underneath my door was a piece of white paper, folded in three as if an old-fashioned letter. 

I told the staff to write me with feedback, questions and complaints and drop them in two plastic buckets on my desk. It never occurred to me they would not know when or how to step in to my office.

On leave for a couple of days, the note came in. I unfolded it and read.

My stomach gnawed a little in the negative parts. Need more clarity (ouch). Too much change (ouch again). But honestly I was happy too. Someone actually cared, and more than that felt empowered enough to speak up.

The branch chiefs and I talked about the letter. The staff got a point-by-point response by the end of the day.

Countless studies show that the more helpless you feel, the more anxious and depressed you get. Dr. Martin Seligmann's is head of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and their work is completely centered on counteracting the depression that results when you believe you've lost control over your life.

Employees must have control over their work in order to be productive.

Disempowerment leads directly to depression and disengagement. In a collaboration-based knowledge economy, your depression leads to my depression and that is why negativity is the worst cancer a group of people in any organization can get. 

This is why great leaders will do anything to get their employees feeling engaged again. Even if it means they have to take some hits. Because empowered, strong, engaged employees actually want to come to work in the morning and do come up with impossibly great results.

The important thing a leader can do is get out of employees' way.

Yet too many leaders fail at this fundamental task. 

Poor leaders thrive on the people's helplessness. 

They know that they are ineffective, so they employ a multitude of tactics aimed at avoiding accountability. These fall into four basic categories (the same four categories as positive leadership would):

1. Strategy
  • Engendering Crisis: They don't have a plan for readily anticipated crises in advance, and they don't seem to care. There always seems to be an out-of-control situation causing panic, fear, and insecurity. 
  • Hired Guns: They recruit credible third parties to represent their positions as brand ambassadors. Even though their positions may defy reality.
  • Trivial Pursuits: Using popular culture to sway public opinion, e.g. focusing excessively on interviews in the press or overemphasizing employee softball games or volunteer events
2. People
  • The Blame Game: It's always somebody else's fault. The leader is helpless in the clutches of whoever is the bad guy (or girl) of the day, or conversely when they exercise their power poorly and engender criticism, it's the other side's fault for opposing them.
  • Sniper Tactics: They carry out negative actions against other people, but avoiding being personally linked to them. 
  • Class Warfare: Defining some groups or people as "good" and others as "bad," "wrong," or "evil."
3. Process
  • Rules Don't Matter, But I Make the Rules: The leader insists that the situation is so dire, or that the rules are so inflexible, that they must simply act without waiting and yet they tend to make new rules that others must follow which support their priorities.
  • My Way Or The Highway: The leader impatiently insists on doing things their way, and threatens implicitly or explicitly that those who disagree or disobey will be sanctioned. 
4. Communication
  • Burying The Facts: Delay, obfuscation, complexity, confusion, jargon, lengthy reports, complication, distorted visual images, avoidance of documentation, and so on.
  • Propaganda: Rhetoric, manipulation, distortion, table-turning, outright lies; anyone who disagrees is crazy, ignorant, or evil. 
  • Silencing The Critics: Silencing, marginalizing, targeting, and retaliating against critics spontaneously and systemically. Establishing a system of institutional groupthink such that no opposition is legitimate.
All of us in leadership roles make a ton of mistakes. A ton of them. But that doesn't mean we are failures.

Rather the failure is in mowing over our employees' feedback. Refusing to give them a direction. Insisting that at every moment we know best. And acting like the skills they bring to the table are irrelevant.

We can move from negative to positive pretty quick. But first we have to read the letter.

* All opinions my own.