“People are a time suck,” he told me in our first coaching session. “I’m sprinting and everyone else is crawling. They don’t seem to get it. I’m having to push them the whole time. What do I do about them? ”
He is the owner of two small businesses. And he came to me for coaching because “I’m not connecting with my staff in a way that’s working.”
To his great credit he also came to coaching because “There is no-one to hold me accountable. I haven’t been the greatest leader. I need someone to be a transparent straight shooter with me.”
“That I can do,” I promised him.
So: “I wouldn’t want to work for you,” I told him in our second coaching session.
And that, right there is part of the key problem. I could risk being fired as a coach. I have other clients. He is not my sole source of income. I could easily be the messenger because the risk was small to me.
But that is not the situation for most people working with someone like him.
When you have the greater objective power - when you’re the boss, the manager, the business owner, the more senior leader - it becomes infinitely harder and more dangerous for those below you to give you feedback. That’s not because they lack courage. It’s because they value their jobs and the income it provides them. They have ample evidence that their jobs may be at risk if they attempt to give constructive upward feedback - most especially when the more powerful person is abrasive and dictatorial. Because those are the very people who respond most aggressively to perceived threats to their power, status and competence.
Time and time again the advice to people working under toxic, abrasive managers is to “talk to them”.
It doesn’t work.
It’s unreasonable to expect someone with less objective power to hold someone with more objective power accountable. Absolutely part of the problem with abrasive leaders is that not enough people do hold them accountable for the impact of their behaviour. But reality is, when it’s your job and income on the line, it's completely human not to want to take that risk.
Because the messenger is usually the one who is shot.
If any of the staff of my client had attempted to give feedback to him, they would have been dismissed as entitled whining complainers, who “don’t get what it takes to run a business” (his words). And their future at the company would have been short lived.
I could be the messenger to him. His staff less so: because of the very environment he has created.
The messenger matters.
“We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces…(like abusive power). For some, that belief is valid. (But) they are the minority, the rare birds. For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion,” Philip Zimbardo, creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, writes in The Lucifer Effect. That’s not because people are weak or sycophantic flatterers: it’s because we consistently underestimate the powerful and primal need to belong and to be accepted by both the group as a whole and the more powerful person in that group. Challenging the leader of a group risks expulsion. Which to our nervous system, still wired for social living in small groups on the savannah, means death.
The idea that the people on the receiving end of abusive and abrasive leadership should be the ones to challenge that leader is cruel and unjust. It puts the burden of accountability on those who have the least power and who have the most to lose. And it's blame shifting: it’s not leadership that’s the problem, it’s people who won’t stand up to the leader.
One of the more sobering findings from both the empathy and the self-awareness research fields is that there is an inverse relationship between power on the one hand and self-awareness, empathy and emotional intelligence on the other. The more senior the leader, the less empathetic and self-aware they tend to be.
And it’s not because those leaders start out with less skill.
Rather it is the social dynamics of power that drive this. It is simply hard to speak truth to power, and so the more power one has, the less truth you are told by others. Leaders tend to be surrounded by “walls, mirrors and liars” (Tasha Eurich, HBR Ideacast #644, “How to become more self-aware”). Precisely when it becomes more important to understand your impact on others, you become less aware of it. Which compromises your ability to lead and manage effectively.
This happened to me just last week. I needed to give some feedback to a more powerful man - and a masterful coach himself. Something he had said had really impacted me as a woman. It wasn’t easy for me to give the feedback that I did. But I knew that I had to if I wanted to be able to look myself in the eye and also to continue to collaborate with him. I coach around this stuff all the time - and I still needed to get some coaching support for myself before I went into that conversation.
It didn’t go badly. But it didn’t go as I had hoped either - because even he couldn’t resist subtly turning the tables and putting it back on me. Now, what he had to say back to me might have some truth to it. But that’s not the point. By not doing that in a separate conversation with me, but rather right after I had shared the impact on me of what he had said, the impact was to discount what I was saying, and by extension discount my experience.
The impact was to shoot the messenger - no matter how subtly.
Even if my experience was totally subjective, and not how any other woman or someone with less power would have experienced it, there is only one thing to say in that moment when someone has taken the courage to speak truth to power: “Thank you.” Bonus points if you can add “I appreciate the courage it took to raise this with me. I’ll think about what you’ve said. Can we have a follow-up conversation about this tomorrow after I’ve had some time to process this?”
Will I be likely to give him feedback again? Right now, I can honestly say I’m not sure. I hope I will - but there’s that little bit less safety and trust now, and so I will be more guarded.
Do I take feedback well, myself?
In a word: no.
Negative feedback, no matter how constructive or skillfully delivered, still lands like a gut punch to the stomach for me. I immediately want to get defensive. And my go-to defense strategies are to go on the offense, play the victim card, and/or bleat “that wasn’t my intention.” In that moment I have to lean hard into my training and practice, and just say “Thank you”. And try, if I can, to get curious - to really understand them as a human being. And if I can’t, to stick with the thank you and exit as graciously as I can. And then do my work to process it. I am very much still a work in progress on this. But I keep on practicing.
Because the messenger matters.
If I shoot them down, I don’t get to know more about them as a person (most especially if I thoroughly disagree with what they are saying), or more about me and my impact.
Yes, some feedback is more about the giver than the receiver. But relying solely on your own judgement to determine that is a recipe for self-deception. If you are a leader, it is 100 percent your responsibility to create your team of loving critics who tell you the unvarnished truth, and with whom you can check hard feedback. You need to create a psychologically safe environment for people to give you that feedback - not from those above you, but from those below you. And then explicitly seek it out. You cannot wait for people to come to you: if you do, you will never get enough of the feedback you need to become more self-aware and more effective.
And no matter how much you disagree with the feedback, under no circumstances do you shoot the messenger. Not ever. Because word will spread and you’ll enter the feedback desert. And your next ask for feedback will be met with deafening silence at worst, or useless platitudes at best.
The messenger matters.
Creating a feedback team of loving critics is something I will be working towards with my client. As will be supporting him in shifting his company culture to one in which his staff are explicitly encouraged - and rewarded - for being straight with him. It will take time, he has work to do, but it is one hundred percent possible.
What are you doing to value the messenger, to encourage and reward those who speak up to you when you have the greater power?
Why do good people become abrasive leaders?
Is it because they're bad people?
Or something else?
There is a wealth of research, and articles and publications on building healthy workplaces and workplaces cultures. What tends to be far less talked about is why organizational cultures go bad in the first place. Why do good people turn into toxic, abrasive leaders? Why is that behaviour tolerated, even encouraged? Why do leaders, bystanders and Human Resources fail to intervene to stop the behavior? Why is all the training on psychological safety, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, not resulting in real organizational and culture change?
For despite the vast body of information, practices, trainings and resources out there on building healthy, thriving, compassionate workplaces that allow people to do their best work, we are still seeing steady increases in toxic cultures and abrasive leadership.
At the core, I believe, is because we are not talking about, let alone addressing, the situations and systems that lead people away from compassion and humanity in the first place.
In much of the literature and popular press around “bullies” and “toxic bosses”, the emphasis is on individuals and their personalities. The focus is on the bad apples. And not on the barrel that is rotting the apples. Or the barrel makers who are responsible for the barrel in the first place.
The reality is: bad barrels turn good apples into bad apples. The research is abundantly clear, any of us - truly ANY of us - can become that “bad apple” given particular circumstances and situations.
Good intentions are not enough. All of us intend to be moral people (except perhaps for the true psychopaths - and they are, contrary to popular press - not that common). Toxic workplaces tend to happen by accident rather than design. No organizational leader sets out intending to create a toxic environment. It simply doesn’t make business sense to have people burning out, going out on stress and medical leave, high rates of turnover, and systems and conditions that compromise performance.
So what is going on?
That’s going to be the focus of these newsletters over the coming year.
We’re going to look at people, situation and systems. Or to use an analogy: the actors (people) in the play (situation) that is being written, directed and managed by the theatre owners and producers (the system). It is the system that has the power to create the situations that people then have to function within.
That does not absolve people for their choices and behaviour within any particular situation, but it does explain why they tend to make those choices and act the way they do. And why all the training we’re throwing at this problem doesn’t seem to be working. It doesn’t matter how much training you give the actors, if the play is still the same.
Within most organizations, people are still hired, reviewed and promoted primarily on their ability to get the work done. Managers are routinely selected and trained for their ability to manage work - not to lead people. Managing work and leading people, are however, two fundamentally different skill sets. Both are important, but when the focus on the work and performance outweighs the focus on people as human beings first and foremost, something very predictable happens: you create the conditions for toxic environments and leaders to emerge.
But all is not doom and gloom.
When we understand the power of situations and systems, we start to inoculate ourselves against their corrosive effects. Good people can - and do - withstand, and change, bad situations and bad systems. We don’t need to become whistleblowers, or superhero’s, or martyrs to do this. We truly do have the power within our hands to be the change we want to see in our workplaces - no matter where we sit in the organization. Yes, the greater one’s power, the greater one’s responsibility, to borrow from Spider-Man. But the reverse is also true: the greater our responsibility - the greater we understand the forces acting on us, and the behaviour that is likely to foster - the greater our power.
Thank you for being on this journey with me: to bring humanity, dignity and compassion back to the workplace. So that all can thrive.
To get updates directly by email:
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.