I don’t think I have ever met an executive, leader or manager who didn’t pronounce the importance of teamwork and collaboration, then express their commitment to building that environment around them.
Unfortunately, I have met quite a few executives, leaders, and managers who said it but when the moment of truth arrived, they were too closeminded, proud, self-righteous or afraid to let go of their control and truly invest in, promote and leverage the collective power of their team.
These leaders when in public took every opportunity to express platitudes about “we are stronger together”, “the power of teams” and “feedback is a gift“.
However, when their team members wanted to have real, authentic and courageous conversations about the topics that were important to them, these leaders were very quick to shut down the conversation in a defensive and passive aggressive way.
For example, the Head of HR in a large global technology company launched a company-wide initiative to build a more honest and engaging culture. However, her own organization probably had one of most political, passive-aggressive and siloed cultures in the company, and many of her leaders blamed her lack of willingness to deal with conflict and have uncomfortable conversations, for it.
When it came time to implement the cultural change in the human resources organization the HR leader asked her leaders to invite a few second level HR managers to give both her and them some feedback and input about how the rest of HR were feeling about the culture.
The managers were asked to be honest about the perceptions of their teams, but when they described the senior HR leaders as operating in an ivory tower, disconnected from the rest of the HR team, the HR leader became visibly upset and defensive.
The open conversation quickly shut down, the honesty evaporated, the senior leaders were embarrassed, and the second level managers left shaken by the traumatic experience.
The meetings had a lasting effect on the HR team. As the word quickly caught on about what happened in the meeting, people concluded that it was dangerous to speak up and give critical feedback to the HR leader. The negative feedback didn’t stop. In fact, it increased. It just went underground, making the HR culture even more toxic.
Leaders who want to control everything give feedback to others, but they do not want to receive feedback themselves, especially critical feedback about their leadership behavior and style or any project or program they feel identified with.
Despite their declaration to the contrary, they don’t trust others, they believe they know best and they are smartest. In fact, it is more important to them that things are done exactly the way they want them to be done than it is to promote and develop the spirit of ownership, commitment, accountability and innovation among their team members. By design or by default they foster a culture of compliance, not ownership. Around them, the likelihood of a team member coming up with a better solution or outcome to a problem, or a better way to achieve something is slim.
The people who work for these leaders are very smart and perceptive. They don’t listen to what their leaders say, they watch how their leaders behave. They get the inauthenticity and hypocrisy. They don’t dare bring it up or challenge it for fear of retribution. So, the frustrations, disappointment, and criticism go underground, to the ‘around the cooler’ gossipy backchannel conversation.
Leaders who want to control everything seem to be oblivious and insensitive to the negative undercurrent. For them, as long as people do what they are told things are progressing well. In fact, for them, if there is no bad press means there is no bad news.
However, people don’t forget the traumatic passive-aggressive moments. These become the corporate scars that remind people to “Be careful”, “Not rock the boat” and “Pick their battles” because “Nothing will change anyways“.
While on the surface things may seem to be going well, this passive-aggressive environment is exhausting, discouraging and demotivating.
And, have no delusions, it has a direct consequential toll on performance too.