A number of months ago, I wrote a piece describing how one of my clients, the most senior executive in a family owned firm, decimated his son publicly for his “bad” ideas. At that time, I promised a Part Two.
The problem was, I needed some things to happen in the organization about which I was writing to happen first. They have and now - while the organization will remain anonymous - the story gets to be told.
It’s about me and their CEO and how we both got publicly mauled - at different times and for different reasons - and how that systemically happens, is (hopefully unknowingly) supported, and what the consequences and losses are.
Then, it’s about you, your organization and the culture you may be unknowingly and inadvertently supporting.
A bit of background
I was a volunteer in a charitable organization. I had been asked to sit on a senior level committee to look at both internal and global issues for how the organization operates. The committee was made up of volunteers from around the world - but with a definite bias toward the home country. My input was on the global side.
A meeting was scheduled to get the committee members together in the same room with senior staff. It was supposed to be an opportunity to get quick updates on the work previously done, discuss next steps - including expansion building on those activities - and, most importantly, to do some visioning-to-execution work as we looked at the future of the organization and its services to the global society.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, the staff lost the plot.
From disconnects to downfall
The meeting did not go well - neither from my perspective nor from that of the local volunteer participants. The problem was that the staff had a wholly different agenda than that of the people who were there to provide input.
The agenda they built - knowingly or not - was not designed to get our guidance and further commitment. Whatever they thought (or said) they were doing, what they actually did was to justify themselves and their actions since the last meeting.
Evidently they thought that was necessary. (It wasn’t.)
As a result, however, we were treated to one of the most intense dog-and-pony shows I’ve ever experienced (four hours!) and were as good as kept from providing any information or thoughts - let alone recommendations. And when, finally, we were given a topic to discuss, the time was cut, the topic was too large and the information provided was clearly not of any great interest to the staff members anyway.
It gets worse
Then the CEO arrived. This was for a special session to do with a governance issue which had arisen and a mistake he had made in handling it which needed correction. Only some of us were allowed to stay.
Of note was that we all knew the issue and the mistake. Frankly, I didn’t consider either of particularly great importance and, what’s more, because it was being dealt with proactively, it wouldn’t have any negative impact on the organization anyway.
It was, ultimately, just something to be addressed. Nothing more.
Unfortunately, because of the sense of disempowerment and disengagement that had been previously created, what happened next was predictable - but horrible.
The CEO began this portion of the meeting by apologizing for the mistake he had made. He went on to explain what his thinking had been and how, as a result, his mistake occurred.
He then told us about the emails, letters and phone calls he had been receiving since the mistaken decision was made that questioned (and attacked) everything from his capabilities to lead the organization to his sexual preferences. The attacks had been bitter and ongoing.
He ended by apologizing again and assuring us that what he had learned about the process and the organization would ensure that he would not make that mistake again.
The meeting then opened up for discussion.
It was a bloodbath. I’ve never seen anything like it - nor do I ever want to again.
The vast majority of these very smart, talented, capable and accomplished people sitting in that room turned on the CEO with a level of vitriol I would never have imagined. And, while they didn’t attack his sexual preferences, I expect that they reiterated everything else that had been previously presented to him.
Those of us who were looking for rational discussion couldn’t get a word in so we stopped trying early on. As for the rest, eventually they wound down and an acceptable solution was agreed. Not everyone was happy, but at least the most vocal advocates on both sides of the argument were appeased.
As for me, I couldn’t wait to get out of the room.
No good deed goes unpunished
Fast forward a couple of weeks and now it’s me on the phone with one of the senior staff members. Also on the phone was one of the employees in her department.
The agenda of the call was, in part about that meeting and, in part about other issues which I wanted to bring to her attention. In both cases, the purpose of the call was to give her information to assist her part of the charity in better serving its constituencies.
This time I was the one mauled. In the presence of her subordinate.
To her way of thinking, the fact that I would take issue with anything that they did - anything at all - was not only unacceptable, it was a mark of a clear lack of intellect. She was demeaning, belittling, patronizing and condescending. She was rude and not only her comments but her language were uncalled for.
Two weeks later, I quit the committee. I could, you see, because I was a volunteer. They were the losers in the deal - most particularly because of my prior commitment to this organization’s good works and all of my outreach activities on their behalf. They’ve lost that now.
The CEO is still there and, I hope, not experiencing anything like the kind of treatment he experienced before. If he is, my recommendation is to find another job. Unless he’s the one who created that culture.
Which gets us to you.
A culture of maulings
What kind of culture do you have - and promote - within your enterprise?
There’s a lot of talk about creating a culture of competition - where employees are actively working to do more and better than their colleagues. Most particularly, employees are pitted against each other - rather than against the external competition.
Or, if you follow the GE way, each year those employees who rate lowest in their annual performance appraisals become part of the 5-10% employee churn rate. After all, why would we want to keep our ‘worst’ performers?
Or, more deeply embedded, do you have managers or executives who are consistently disrespectful of their employees? Who malign and abuse them verbally - whether through direct confrontation or the always popular inappropriate use of humor? (The latter comes with the always famous, “Can’t they take a joke? I was only kidding!”)
Respect invariably rates either one or two in employee surveys when they’re asked what’s most important to them in their jobs. It’s not money. It’s how they’re treated.
That’s on you - because what you allow, you tacitly support - even if it’s something you would never actually want.
Maulings - whether public or private - are a corporate culture issue. That makes them a behavioral issue. And that makes them part of the training and reward systems of your organization.
Now for the good news
The good news is, the behaviors not only makes the issue manageable, but it’s easy to identify and address. Here’s the three step process:
- Take a step back and think about what you see and hear in meetings. Is it collegial? Positive? Participatory? Do people give their opinions - openly and honestly? If there is “cut and thrust” is it personal or toward a greater good? This is a good indication of what it looks, sounds and feels like in each executive’s and manager’s individual areas.
- Next, have a discussion with your HR Director to find out what the trends are in employee complaints, sick days and stress leaves. You’ll very likely find a direct correlation between those managers who are treating their people with the value they deserve and those who are not. And, if yours is a volunteer-based organization, look at the dropout rate. As you saw from my example, this is how those losses occur.
- And, finally, be very, very clear about what you want and what you will accept. For those managers and executives whose behavior is undermining employee participation and positive performance, stop rewarding them. Ensure that they know - and are trained, if necessary - the behaviors that are accepted and acceptable in your organization.
Most important, always remember that your organization is a direct reflection of you. Whatever your subordinates believe is okay with you is what they will do. The moment they know that that behavior doesn’t have your support, they’ll change - or they’ll find an organization that does support those behaviors in which they can remain comfortable.
In either case, the win is all on your side. Yours and your organization. In profits, innovation, global opportunities and realized potential.
And, if you need any further motivation just think to yourself: How would I feel if the one being mauled was me?