There is fear deep in the heart of many organizations. It has become worse over recent years due to the economy, but it’s not new. I’m not referring to the fear of layoff, but rather the fear in middle management that speaking up or bringing bad news will lead to punishment in one form or another.
It’s difficult for those at the top to see this, but it exists, and it damages the organization’s ability to innovate, improve, perform, and have strategic discussions.
Effective strategy implementation and execution requires an organization culture where discussions can be honest and candid – sometimes even brutally candid. I once worked for a Frenchman whose passion for excellent work could offend consultants and cause staff to cry, whereupon he would suddenly become consoling and say, “It’s only business, don’t take it personally.” On the flipside, one could tell him anything and he’d actually listen and give you credit.
But blunt honesty is much different than punishing someone for expressing an idea or providing feedback. Just one incident of such punishment will damage important communication for years. And there are still managers, and even presidents, motivated by their own insecurity and need for control who will punish people who have thoughts, opinions and ideas that differ from their own. In doing so, they prevent entire organizations from being their best.
Senior leaders need to work hard to establish a productive culture, one where the walls are taken down between those with power and those with knowledge.
My message last week was that consensus decision making is a mask for weak leadership – either because the leader is afraid to make a decision and wants the group to make the decision for him or her – or the leader has already made the decision and wants to manipulate the group into thinking it made the decision thereby relieving the leader of accountability.
Do not confuse this with a leader asking for and getting input from a group, which is a mark of a strong leader, one who does not feel threatened by getting the best thinking from other ideas. And it’s not the same thing as getting the group to fully support a new direction. Leaders make decisions, often times with input, and they expect the group to fully support the decision once it’s made.
I’ve seen each of these scenarios in organizations. The consensus route always seems to result in a façade of good leadership, but underneath is a current of dysfunction, political maneuvering, and an obsession with blaming others.
Despite all the gurus and HR literature about building commitment, engagement, and the like, the fact is a high performance culture is often imposed by a tough boss with clear direction, high expectations, and an obsession with results. Think of Jack Welch at GE, or Roy Vangelos at Merck, or Andy Grove at Intel, Bill Gates at Microsoft, or Steve Jobs at Apple. The best course is to be yourself and use leadership techniques that result in successfully implementing your strategy.
Fresh from business school with my MBA, I went to work for a global consulting firm in Chicago. The office was run by a brilliant Israeli who was a tank commander in the Six Day War. He expected high performance of his 100-person staff – and he got it. And I learned a ton.
There’s a widespread misconception that effective leaders manage by consensus. That’s baloney. Think back of the best teachers, coaches, and bosses in your life. Odds are each one was clear about what they wanted and expected you to perform. And the reason you hold them in high esteem is because they helped you do more and learn more than you thought possible.
Weak leaders seek consensus because they want to be liked, or because they want the group to be accountable for the leader’s decisions. They think that employee satisfaction comes from giving people things.
You don’t have to be a tank commander to provide clear direction, expect high performance, get people to perform near their potential, and engender greater self-esteem from achievement. But it won’t happen from consensus.
“Pink slime,” was in the news last week. Whether you call it “lean finely textured beef” or “salvage” as one scientist called it, you won’t want to eat it, especially if you read about it in Wikipedia. What everyone agrees on is that it’s added to ground beef as filler. Organizations have their own pink slime – filler that’s of questionable value. I’m thinking of the many reports, meetings, policies, procedures, rules, and processes that add no value, but sap resources and attention away from a focus on serving customers better, encouraging employees to be their best, and generating improved cash flow.
There’s tremendous value in putting all those forms of waste on trial for their lives, as Peter Drucker noted, and get rid of the ‘pink slime’ in your organization. It’s healthier.