October 30, 2012

Bully, Brute or Jerk: The importance of language

I recently attended a 4 day training seminar led by Dr. Laura Crawshaw of the Boss Whispering Institute. Dr. Crawshaw works with what she calls "Abrasive Leaders" and has developed a focused coaching approach for helping companies and individuals who are struggling with difficult management situations.

One notable issue  raised during the course of the training was the importance of language, and specifically why Dr. Crawshaw does not use the term "bully" when referring to these leaders.  Interesting.

It is true, there are psychopaths, bullies, narcissists and obnoxious people in the workplace, and, unfortunately, some are in high places (e.g. the executive ranks). However, it is also true that many people who exhibit controlling, berating and unprofessional behavior are not criminals or psychopaths; many are not even "jerks" but basically well-liked people behaving badly at work.  They may be acting this way because of learned behavior patterns, pressure on the job, a lack of insight and/or because their behavior has been rewarded over time.  In other words, they may not fully understand the impact of their actions.

Why are these linguistic distinctions important?  Primarily because how we intervene in these situations will depend upon how we define the problem.  A psychopath will not respond to behavioral coaching; a person with a serious psychiatric problem may require psychiatric treatment.  A real bully may need to be fired.  An "Abrasive Leader" may be someone who, when confronted with the negative perceptions that coworkers have of his or her behavior,  is motivated and able to turn that behavior around. Probably not without help,  but through  appropriate measures such as good management strategies and mentoring or coaching.

Language does matter.  It influences how we interpret the world and, therefore, how we choose to act.

September 27, 2012

Political leadership: moving beyond individual heroes

It is September 2012 and election day is fast approaching.  It is an interesting time to examine leadership in the political arena.

What can we apply from our knowledge of leadership in business and nonprofit settings to the political context? How are the issues similar, or different?

When applying leadership theory to the current political situation, I am struck by the importance of context and systems theory.  No leader operates in a vacuum. Even in business, but especially in politics, the larger setting in which the leader operates is critical.  A CEO entering a new organization has to contend with an executive team, an existing structure, an organizational history, a culture and sub-cultural groups, a diverse employee base and many other factors, both internal and external to the organization,  that will impact his or her success.  This is even more  true of the political context which is more complex and demanding.

So, when we think about the presidential election and the end result, we cannot think only of the individual leader i.e. the President. That is one individual, granted one with significant power; but one individual who works within a very large and multi-faceted system, that includes: other branches of the government, our business and social/cultural institutions and the global world in which we live.

In essence, we need to appreciate the total context in which leadership operates within our political system.  We live in a heterogeneous, and multi-cultural world. Collaboration and compromise for the greater good is the only way we will solve the critical problems we encounter. We don't need, nor should we expect, an individual hero to save the day, whether it is the economy or our foreign policy matters. We need a strong, competent visionary president, but we also need ethical, committed leaders in all branches of the government. Leaders who will keep us moving forward, even when it requires compromise or taking an unpopular position. We also need an educated, informed and engaged population that exercises critical thinking and understands the complex issues we face as a nation and a world. Wishful thinking? Maybe....but then again, I have always been an optimist!

August 31, 2012

Bringing ourselves to work

There is always a bit of controversy within the management community regarding the relationship between personality and leadership. This is especially true when discussing the selection of new leaders, because the role of personality and leadership success is hard to determine precisely as there are many factors that contribute including: experience, technical/business expertise, specific match between job requirements and the candidate, cultural fit AND personal qualities like cognition, motivation and personality.

Yet, when reviewing personality assessments with my coaching clients, I am always impressed by the interplay between one's personality and work behavior.  For example, the leader who is highly extroverted, social and spontaneous will bring this to work. Yes, it is "personal". Yes, it is not the same as education, training or work history. However, these characteristics impact one's work. And there is the potential for positive or negative impacts. It may be that the extroversion aspect of the leader helps him or her engage with others and develop the strategic relationships critical to success.  On the other hand, he/she may be less effective in work situations that require long periods of focus, reflection and analysis that are needed for complex decision-making. 

This is just one example, and, of course, there are many others.  The bottom line is this:  we bring our whole selves to work. Like it or not, when we arrive at work, our personalities arrive with us.  Of course, we moderate our behavior according to the context; what's appropriate at home is not necessarily appropriate at work. Nonetheless, understanding "who we are" as people will help us to be better at our jobs. It also, of course, helps us to be better at our lives.

July 5, 2012

Supreme Leadership.....or Not?

 Chief Justice Roberts of the US Supreme Court has received quite a bit of scorn in the aftermath of the decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).  Many conservatives believe he sold out.

This is a person who was appointed by former President George W. Bush. President Obama actually opposed his appointment; yet Roberts provided the deciding "swing" vote declaring the individual mandate is legal as a tax.

So the question is:  Is he exercising strong leadership or is this political activism or betrayal? Our political climate has become so polarized that it is indeed difficult to even speak of leadership without resorting to partisanship.  However, we must remember that the Supreme Court is supposed to be nonpartisan. Yep, that is the idea. Their role is to interpret the law and exercise judicial restraint. Their purpose in reviewing the individual mandate was to determine whether it was constitutional, not whether it was good policy. I am going to give Chief Roberts the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was acting according to what he believed was right. This has nothing to do with whether I agree with the decision. 

The issue that resonates most for me in this situation is the incredibly difficult positions in which we place our leaders. We idolize them, then shoot them down. When we agree with their decisions, we hail them as brilliant. When we disagree, they become scoundrels.  We don't always stop to think about the complexities of the decision, or what we might do in a similar situation.  We have the luxury of criticizing after the fact.

This issue also seems to illustrate the Social/Cognitive Psychology phenomenon known as the "Confirmation Bias".  That is, we select or favor information that confirms our biases.  In other words, we start with a set of beliefs, then go out in search of information to confirm those beliefs, which means we are naturally being selective about the data.

We all do this, by the way, but it is a limited way of looking at the world. It keeps us set in a particular mindset and does not allow for new ideas.  We should question our knee-jerk reactions to decisions as a way of counter-balancing the Confirmation Bias.  Questions to ask ourselves:  Are we being selective in the information we seek vs. looking for the best data?  Is there an alternative point of view that we are overlooking?

May 25, 2012

Compared to what?

 Barney Frank

I attended Harvard as a graduate student, so I like to check in on what is happening during commencement week. One of the speakers at Harvard's graduation this year was Congressman Barney Frank, who apparently graduated from Harvard with quite a few degrees.

Graduation speeches are always a challenge, and they can be memorable or sleep-inducing.  Though I didn't attend the commencement, the wonders of modern technology (i.e. "Youtube") gave me access to his speech (as well as Andy Samberg's which was certainly more entertaining).

One point made by Frank has really stuck with me, and it is the notion that idealism and pragmatism are not opposites, and they are both highly needed today. There seems to be a significant tension today between these two issues and it occurs on both sides of the aisle to some extent.  There are liberals who will not vote for Obama because of their ideals and the fact that he has caved in on some liberal issues.  There are conservatives who will not vote for Romney because he is not ideologically pure on conservative issues. There are elected officials who will not vote on any issue that requires compromise, even if it is disastrous to our country.

Now its a free country and people are free to vote for whomever they want, or to not vote at all. I understand the sentiment of those who bow out because they cannot find a suitable candidate.  But the question Frank raised, "Compared to what?" is really an important one.  We are a very heterogeneous country.  I  will likely never vote for a president with whom I totally agree.  There will always be issues near and dear to my heart that will not be popular among the whole of society.  Should I not vote because of this?

It is easy to blame the politicians and say "they're all bums", as I hear so frequently these days.  The highly polarizing environment of Washington is distressing, and it is standing in the way of the progress of our country. But I think this view is a cop out. They aren't "all bums",  they are people we elected to represent us. So to a large extent, we are responsible.

When voting for a President, Congressional candidate or a specific issue such as healthcare, debt reduction or financial reform, it is important to ask ourselves "Compared to what?".  What is the alternative? What happens if we don't vote for this person, issue, or reform? What happens if we stomp our feet and refuse to budge. This is the essence of leadership: making the difficult decisions.

At the root of this question is the reality that we cannot always get everything we want, and instead we sometimes need to compromise.  It may not be pretty, and it certainly isn't perfect,  but if it moves us in the right direction, then it may be worth it.

April 25, 2012

The New Face of Learning

I am currently teaching a course on Organizational Culture.  This course is taught through an online platform, Blackboard, asynchronously, which means as a class we do not all "meet" at the same time.

I recently had a discussion with some folks which is becoming more and more familiar--something to the effect of: "Do you really think the quality of education is as good if you don't meet face to face?".  To be honest, it is usually people of my generation (boomers) who are likely to question the value of online education.  However, it is certainly a fair question.

February 2, 2012

The Experience of People

Tom DeLong
Attended a dinner meeting provided by the New England Society for Applied Psychology last nite. The speaker was Tom DeLong from the Harvard Business School. Tom had an energetic and interactive style of presenting which was fun, and he based his presentation on the usual HBS case-based style of teaching which centered on succession planning in a professional services firm.  

There were a number of interesting tidbits but what seemed to resonate most, were the 3 questions he posed as being most relevant for people like us who work with high-achieving professionals:
  1. How do people experience you;
  2. How do you experience people; and (most importantly)
  3. How do people experience themselves when they are with you.

January 16, 2012

What do you think, Dr. King?

Martin Luther King, Jr. as a young man

              Today we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.   

 He had a dream. Did his dream come true?