You may be thinking, “Me? I’d never be a leader in an organization whose culture was intimidating! I’m a nice person!” Unfortunately, organizational culture and habits have a tendency to creep, if we’re not careful. There may be some ways in which you and other leaders contribute to people feeling constrained and bullied. You’ve just been too busy or narrow in your focus to recognize it. What are the symptoms of subtle intimidation?
Fuzzy accountability, blame and consequences that don’t fit. People aren’t exactly sure what they should be doing or what boundaries exist for their work. Expectations are unclear or inconsistent from one day to the next or one leader to the next. When things go wrong, the finger gets pointed, and the consequences don’t seem appropriate given the mistakes that were made.
Intense focus on what’s going wrong. Time, energy and emotion are invested in communicating about the problems and errors, and little is said about what’s working. Employees keep their heads down and hope for the best (or at least that they’re not the ones in the wrong this time). Sometimes negative feedback is delivered indirectly, such as jabs disguised as jokes.
Intermittent, inconsistent communication. Employees hear different messages from leaders, if they hear much at all. There is no context to what is communicated, so people don’t understand the importance and priority of the message. Confusion is common, and solutions are imperfect, since people don’t have access to necessary information.
Delegation is usually “swoop and poop” or micromanaging. Lacking the time (really, it’s commitment) to delegate appropriately, leaders plop projects in people’s inboxes, give direction via short, curt email or only half-delegate and then hover to make sure the work is getting done right.
Leaders don’t want feedback. Leaders may say they want critical feedback, but employees understand that this would come with grave consequences. “Remember Joe? Well, he criticized the boss and got canned.”
Leaders give feedback indirectly or vaguely. Often the person who needs the feedback is the last to know, as people discuss Sue’s problem with everyone but Sue. When leaders give feedback to their direct reports, they beat around the bush and don’t connect the dots between the direct report’s behavior and its impact. This leaves employees wondering what they did in the first place and uncertain about where they stand with their boss.
People create silos for support. To protect themselves or to gain power, people develop a group of allies within the organization. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Invisible silos of alliances exist and everyone knows who is in whose camp, even if it is not openly acknowledged.
If even one of these statements ring true, it’s time to take a stand and promote change. Start by modeling effective listening and openness yourself. Like everyone, you are not fully aware of the impact of your own behavior. Seek information to decrease your own self-deception. Then find like-minded people within the organization and ask, “Is this culture one that enables us to meet tomorrow’s challenges and achieve necessary results?”
Work together to build a safe, healthy and productive culture that allows people to fully engage in the organization’s mission and make a difference. Good intentions won’t change anything. As Mae West said, “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
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