Sunday, October 17, 2010

In defense of good leaders

I have been interested in the topic of good leadership for some time, and will be writing more about it in the months to come. I want to write about it because I think it is something that is sorely lacking in most workplaces these days. And the few good leaders who are left are having a tough time of it. It is interesting that there appears to be no correlation between good leadership and the number of management courses one can take to help one become a good leader, but nevertheless, these types of courses are increasing in frequency and workplaces are becoming more insistent that their leaders take these courses. I am open to the idea that people can become good leaders, but I think it has more to do with the type of workplace environment one finds oneself in as a leader plus the type of values a potential leader has. Is the potential leader an ethical person who believes in fairness and in rewarding hard work? Or is the potential leader only interested in promoting himself or herself at the expense of his or her employees, and what type of behavior does the workplace support and reward? These are all relevant questions for discussion. The conclusion may be that good leaders are born that way, not made, but I don’t necessarily believe this either. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but that fact does not diminish my interest in the subject.

I bring up the subject of good leadership because I have been witness to, and experienced myself, poor leadership or lack of leadership in the workplace. I have also experienced good leadership and the differences are viscerally clear to me. I have written a book about passive-aggressive leadership in the workplace and how demoralizing that can be for employees http://www.amazon.com/Blindsided-Recognizing-Dealing-Passive-Aggressive-Leadership-Workplace/dp/1442159200. My feeling is that many workplaces these days promote and support passive-aggressive leadership--that it is a management strategy for systemic procrastination and effective employee control because most of this kind of behavior is always right on the edge of what can be considered ethical, correct or true. In other words, management cannot be taken for this type of behavior toward employees and they get away with quite a lot in this way. Employees suffer, but leaders who are trying to be good effective and empathic leaders also suffer because the system does not support their efficiency, honesty or empathy. Leaders who do not side with the passive-aggressive approach will find themselves at the mercy of bureaucrats and administrators higher up in the system that will make their work lives miserable for not conforming to the current system.

There are many ways to bring down (or at least attempt do so) good leaders in a passive-aggressive work environment. In my book about passive-aggressive workplace leaders, I did not discuss this particular aspect in any detail, but rather focused on the effects this type of environment has on its employees. But much of what I brought up in that book in terms of how to keep ordinary employees (not in management positions) down can also be applied to keeping good leaders down. If passive-aggressive management identifies one or two good leaders (by my definition—ethical, honest, empathetic—and not very adept at playing political games) as ‘problem-people’ in the system, it won’t be too long before those people are ‘silenced’ in some way because they represent a threat. They may find themselves ‘frozen out’ of the popular clique, may be demoted, may be ignored or overlooked for new projects or promotions, or may be the recipients of a new type of behavior that I find quite disturbing. This type of behavior utilizes the employees who work for good leaders who for many reasons may be dissatisfied with that person’s structured approach or expectations or demands on them. If these employees feel stressed or put-upon, or if they feel that the demands of the job are too great or overwhelming, they can now accuse their leader(s) of harassment, which puts the burden of proof not on the employee making the accusation but immediately on the leader (and eventually the workplace) to refute the accusation. The accusation of harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature. In fact, in the instances I have been witness to, with one exception, the accusations have had to do with that the leader(s) were perceived as too tough, too demanding or too strict. In other words, the leaders could say no to these women if it was deemed necessary and this didn’t sit well with them. Why would employees do this to their boss, one might ask? I asked the same question. I have now seen this happen several times in the past few years, and I asked the same question each time. Young women have been the instigators in all of these situations—they have charged middle-aged male leaders with harassment because they have not been able to measure up to the demands of the jobs they were asked to do by these men. Or they were denied something they wanted and instead of waiting to see if the answer could in fact be yes the next time they asked, they took matters into their own hands. Who informed these women that this was a potential strategy for dealing with their situation? The only answer I could come up with was that the bureaucrats and administrators higher-up in the system who did not like these leaders suggested this to these women as a way of causing trouble for those leaders. And these women followed that advice. The result? Management informed these leaders that so-and-so had filed harassment charges against them, resulting in the women being moved into another department or group, which is what they wanted in the first place. The accused leader had no choice but to accept this outcome, and if he or she wished to ‘fight’ to refute the accusation, was informed that one was of course free to do so. But it is common knowledge that this involves using a lot of time to ‘clear’ one’s name and possibly getting a hold of a lawyer or a union representative or both to take the case or look at the situation, which could cause the workplace some grief. If the accused leaders do not have the support of their own leaders, then the likelihood of clearing their good names is very slight. For all intents and purposes this means that these leaders will have unfounded ‘harassment’ charges against them that will remain on their records indefinitely. As long as these leaders do not fight back or raise a ruckus, the passive-aggressive strategy of systemic procrastination levels the conflict to a status quo situation—the women get what they want, which was to get out from under that particular leader and to prevent that leader from having any contact with them whatsoever, and passive-aggressive management gets what it wants—the silencing of what they consider to be a problematic leader. This is what has happened in all the instances I have been witness to. The accused leader is caught between a rock and a hard place; fight the accusing employee or fight management. It is mostly a lose-lose situation. Over time, rumors travel and reputations can be destroyed. It is horrendous that such things can happen in 2010 without repercussions for either the accuser or for management that support them blindly. Things just continue as before at the workplace. But what about those who are unjustly accused? What happens to them? Why is this fair? What about the families of the accused? Have these women doing the accusing taken into account the stress that such situations cause the families of these men? Do these women ever realize that their false accusations cause problems for women who really have been harassed? I doubt it, and this makes them disloyal employees in my book, because if they can do it to one leader they can do it again to another, and in this way they always get what they want in an already tainted workplace. I have to wonder how they live with themselves. It might be worthwhile for the accused leaders to pursue the situations to their ends, because if no one ever does then injustice will always win out.

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