In both my work – and in scrolling through recent social media posts and memes, I have noticed an increasing amount of bashing and smashing of workplace leaders. I am not referring here to articles that offer meaningful, respectful and constructive feedback. I am referring to the disrespectful generalizations (e.g. “All leaders are ‘this’; All leaders do ‘that’”), unforgiving declarations (e.g. “Leaders are narcissistic; Leaders don’t care”) and permanent “name-calling” of “bosses”.
I’m concerned about this given the legal and humane requirement of respect for all – no exceptions, no excuses. The fact that one leader has disrespected their team doesn’t mean that all leaders are disrespectful (in the same way that one employee’s theft of time doesn’t mean that all employees are disloyal).
The more we generalize, shame and attack each other, the more polarized we become and the less inclined any of us are to change. If we truly want to support positive change, we can’t engage in constant negativity.
Without question, there are leaders who contribute to disrespectful workplaces through their actions (e.g. intimidation, nepotism, favoritism, discrimination) and inaction (e.g. wilful blindness to bullying and harassment; failure to act in the face of unsafe or reckless conduct; or a general refusal to hold staff, clients and customers accountable for day-to-day disrespect and dysfunction). Leadership concerns of this nature need to be acknowledged and addressed by organizations in a far more timely and effective manner.
However, in doing so, we need to understand that most leadership frailties are systemic in nature and do not exclusively fall on the shoulders of individual supervisors and managers. Let me explain.
Organizations Are Not Treating Leadership as a Competency
- Many organizations do not treat leadership as a competency in which individuals should be demonstrably qualified before being hired. Many people end up in supervisory/managerial positions either because they have “put in their time” or because they are “content experts” in a particular field or profession.
- The fact that someone has worked in an organization for a long time does not mean they are suited or ready to lead a team. Leadership requires a set of skills (related to communication, decision-making and accountability) that are not learned simply through the passage of time.
- Similarly, the fact that someone has built up expertise in a particular field, trade or profession does not mean they are necessarily suited or ready to lead a team. Defensible and respectful leadership needs to be cultivated through education, experience, performance evaluation and feedback.
- Organizations need to hire qualified leaders (from front-line supervisors to the most senior executives) who are able to effectively and meaningfully support diverse groups of individuals who come to work every day with complex personal and professional challenges and goals; and who need to be supported, encouraged and held accountable in an appropriate manner.
- Leaders at all levels have significant influence and authority over others. Those selected to fill these roles should be qualified to exercise such authority in a responsible and respectful manner.
Organizations Are Not Onboarding or Training Leaders
- My next concern is that many organizations are not investing in their leaders through appropriate onboarding, training and mentorship.
- Instead, leaders move from being employees who are led to those who lead. With this new role comes a number of significant and often competing legislative, legal and operational expectations regarding their communication, conduct and decision-making.
- Many leaders with whom I have worked commonly hear about the “right way” to lead only after having done it wrong. They are questioned (by their leaders and/or HR) as to “why” they said what they said or did what they did without having been given clear expectations, tools and training from the outset.
- While it is unquestionably important to hold workplace leaders accountable in response to concerns with their conduct, communication and performance, it is critical for organizations to set them up for success from the outset. Leaders should be provided with consistent expectations, training and support; and accountability should follow if and when they fail to meet these expectations.
Front-Line Leaders are Caught in the Middle
- Oftentimes I will hear or read sarcastic, derisive or critical comments about organizational decisions, delays and directions being attributed to an individual manager – why are they doing this? Why is it taking them so long to do that? What seems to be lost (or not fully considered) is the fact that many front-line leaders are influenced and at times constrained by the priorities and decisions of senior boards, councils and leadership.
- While there is no easy answer for this one, it is important for all of us not to assume that everything being relayed from a “leader” is, in fact, coming from them.
- Another way to genuinely support front-line leaders is for senior leadership to engage their entire team in the face of significant or controversial operational changes. As part of this, senior leaders could co-present details around the change, explain the basis and rationale for the change, answer any critical questions and receive feedback and concerns from all their reports, including their indirect ones.
Don’t De-Humanize Individual Leaders
- Finally, while I hear and understand the frustration of many employees regarding the “state” of their workplace, it is important not to conflate leadership with an individual leader.
- In my experience, most individual leaders are doing their best, often at a time or in a place that challenges their own personal interests and values (and often, in an organization that may not have adequately supported their professional desire or need to learn and develop). While many supervisors and managers have undoubtedly made mistakes that have impacted others, most are attempting to “do the right thing” based on all the competing requests and interests coming their way.
- Malicious, self-interested “leaders” cause significant and costly personal, professional and organizational damage. They need to be held accountable through the imposition of serious consequences. However, they are the exception and not the norm. The memes, jokes and generalizations that treat all leaders like the few malicious ones – or equate individual leaders with an unhealthy leadership culture – are not only inaccurate, they are disrespectful and damaging. We are humans first, regardless of the role we play in any workplace; and as humans, we deserve to be treated with civility and respect.
I repeatedly hear “It starts from the top” – and it does. Executive boards, councils, senior leadership teams and other critical decision-makers need to ensure their leaders show up in a respectful manner, make respectful decisions and hold themselves and their teams accountable.
This happens by treating leadership as a stand-alone competency, hiring qualified leaders based on their demonstrable ability to respectfully communicate and support others, and providing them with comprehensive leadership training, support and feedback throughout their leadership journey.
Please contact me to explore how I can help ensure this happens.