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.
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Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.