Steer Clear of Organizational Leadership Turbulence

Originally published to the January, 2012 Edition of T+D Magazine. Reprinted here with permission.

by Dan Pontefract

Frequent airplane passengers are likely to have read the following message prior to watching an in-flight movie: “the following film has been modified from its original version. it has been formatted to fit this screen.” for purposes of this airborne analogy, let’s fasten our seatbelts, power off any electronic devices, and firmly adjust our trays to the upright position. Better yet, let’s substitute the word film for new employee and the word screen for organization so it reads as: “the following new employee has been modified from its original version. it has been formatted to fit this organization.”
Sound familiar? This is the precise moment when we hit what can be denoted as organizational leadership turbulence.
In Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, authors Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright posit that leadership is far more successful in an organization if it “focuses on language and behavior within a culture.” They go on to opine that “what makes some tribes [teams] more effective than others is culture.
Marc Weber of the University of Waterloo asserts that given the choice between individualism and the situation, people will naturally gravitate toward the situation rather than their own individuality. In other words, if the behaviors of an organization are, for example, hierarchical, rigid, closed, noncollaborative and uncoopera- tive—even if the individual employs the opposite of these traits at a personal level and from the onset of his arrival— employees will, over time, act more like the organization (the situation) than how they might have behaved prior to joining the organization.

Do you feel that turbulence yet?

Fitting in

When new employees enter into an organization for the first time, they have previously been feted with the perks, benefits, and niceties of working at said company. The recruitment department is, at times, akin to the flight attendants of our airplane: smiling, providing free refreshments, and making sure your time in the airplane is as comfortable as possible.

What happens during mid-flight, however, is the inevitability and beginning of turbulence. That smooth, refreshing, and relaxed flight that was originally promised now has become a horror show of bumps, bruises, and spilled drinks through the first few months of employment.

Is the language and behavior of an organization paradoxically displayed by recruitment and those enticing new employees to join the firm? Does an organization’s culture run counter to the individuality of a person’s natural conduct? As new employees enter into an organization for the first time, are they formatted to fit the situation of negative language and ironic behaviors?

New employees enter into an organization with two things in mind. First, they want to perform well in the eyes
of those who have made the hire in the first place. After all, those who have made the choice to offer employment to the new employee probably want to see some form of return in their decision investment before too long.

Second, the new employee yearns to do well for himself. He also has made a decision, in this case accepting the job offer. It’s important for this new employee to do well in his own eyes. No one wants a sketchy past of poor career decisions; thus, it is far more likely for the new employee to push himself to be a model corporate citizen for his own personal and future career development path.

Simply put, new employees will conform to the situation that presents itself in the tribe to impress their manager and fellow employees at the risk of their own personal beliefs and career needs. And if the situation is defined by a culture that exhibits contradicting language and behavior rather than their individuality, it now has become the most uncomfortable and cramped flight ever.

Company culture

New employees do not enter into an organization to experience organizational leadership turbulence, otherwise referred to as cultural chaos. They do not want to join an organization so rigid it takes 12 layers of management to order office supplies. They do not want to enter into an organization that demonstrates default behaviors such as hoarding, competition, blame, or ambivalence.

They don’t want to become part of a company where there are rules that are not applied consistently to all. New employees don’t want to be locked in a cubicle only to have human contact at the annual performance review. And new employees certainly don’t want to be voiceless, bullied by other employees (or particularly management), or lacking input on anything that might move the business forward.

But after the blatant sell job of all positives and no negatives by recruitment and perhaps the hiring team, a new employee has no real way in which to adjudicate the culture of an organization prior to day one. Like many before her, our passenger is simply going to have to experience the turbulence for herself. She even may have to learn to fly solo.

This brings us back to Logan, King, and Fischer-Wright. All too often, organizations are missing the point of leadership, and new employees are forced to conform to an overly hierarchical and closed paradigm that ensures they are “formatted to fit the screen.”

If the screen is one that contains the attributes mentioned above, how would you feel?

Establish a leadership framework

It behooves organizations (and thus the makeup of its many tribes and teams) to establish a leadership framework that ensures a participative, cooperative, and collaborative culture. The culture we are seeking is, as Weber describes, the situation. It is the positive and open environment that benefits every new employee as well as every existing employee. The situation can’t always prevent turbulence, but it certainly can provide a better environment for new and existing employees to operate throughout the cabin.

Therefore, the question for many organizations is not how to prevent turbulence, but rather why they haven’t instilled a systemic and enterprise-wide leadership framework that unites the employee base and is used to address the turbulence itself. Such a leadership framework ensures that new employees enter into an organization that doesn’t format them into a situation counter to their personal beliefs or wishes.

The leadership framework needs several key elements to be successful. Most important, it must be devised for the organization by the organization. There’s nothing like receiving an enterprise-wide email from your CEO indicating that the C-suite recently developed a leadership charter at its most recent offsite meeting that you must start using immediately. The leadership framework has to come from all walks of life, from all corners of the organization, from as many tribes as possible, from all levels and titles—and done so purposely.

Once the process has been established to ensure maximum participation and contribution, establish the pillars you believe will be key for all employees that help make up the framework. Do your core company values need updating? Should you use the existing or updated values as part of the leadership framework?

Behaviors, attributes, and disciplines.

You may want to take into account existing HR competencies. The term competency itself, however, seems to have been devised during the era when smoking was still allowed on airplanes, so you might want to explore vernacular options. Examine whether you need to develop updated or new behaviors, attributes, or disciplines for the leadership framework.

For example, is collaboration something you want your entire organization to demonstrate? If so, the working team may want to sort through what it means, how it manifests throughout the organization, and the defined level of  expectation at each level of the organization. Is communication a vital trait in your organization? Determining how communication should occur throughout your organization is an important action for the working group to take on. Storytelling, for example, is often an overlooked behavior, and it should become a natural part of your leadership framework under the tenet of communication.

Learning strategy.

Consider how learning fits into your leadership framework. Are you still stuck on the classic “spray and pray” classroom-only model, or do you recognize that learning is continuous, connected, and pervasive? Learning can be part formal, part informal, and part social, but it also could be argued that leadership is part formal, part informal, and part social as well.

Tying your learning strategy to your leadership framework is a smart move—unless you believe leadership only can occur through hierarchical order-sending from the pilot’s seat. Good luck trying to retain your new employees if such behavior is naturally rooted in your culture.

Operational methodology.

What should be your default operating model as citizens of the organization, regardless of level or title? Should those in the expensive executive class seats just bark orders to those in the economy seats at the back of the plane?

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar to the following: “Hey Sally, I don’t really care what you think, but can you go out and complete these 47 actions I just dreamed up?” The leadership framework must take into account an operational methodology that sets the stage for employee input and engagement before activity or execution commences. The pure act of inclusion is compelling enough but it ensures the situation becomes an inclusive culture for all.

Total staff engagement.

An organizational culture as well as its leadership framework devoid of innovation, creativity, and idea generation might be thought of as lost luggage. Growth of an organization cannot occur solely via the ideas of a select few. The leadership framework of any organization must take into account the expressions of interest, the inventions of tomorrow, and the imagination of all members of the tribe.

Does your organization actively encourage open debate, dialogue, and discussion? Do you explore options (and other ideas) before acting? A failure to engage with tribe members coupled with the situation being defined as such will ultimately result in negative feelings throughout the organization.

Audience.

Finally, the leadership framework needs to take into account the target audience. It is of no use if the organization believes the leadership framework is only for the most senior-level executives.

Have you thought of your partners? What about your customers? Do you possess a philanthropic arm in your organization, and if so, should your community become a target stakeholder in your leadership framework as well? By including the target audience for each phase or level of the leadership framework, context is being provided for employees as they wade through the concourse level of the departures lounge.

A cultural transformation

New employees don’t have to feel as though they are being formatted into a screen if the screen is being redefined (by its members) to illustrate an open, collaborative, and connected culture. That is the point of defining a leadership framework, and thus a new situation for your organization.

In Innovative Intelligence, authors David S. Weiss and Claude Legrand conclude that “organizational culture routinely defends the status quo.” That is similar to how Weber describes the situation—and for our purposes, the culture of the organization—if steps are not taken to introduce an open, systemic, collaborative, and bridging leadership framework for the benefit of new employees as well as existing ones. Weiss and Legrand further assert that “the more deeply embedded an existing culture, the more urgent and compelling the reasons need to be to motivate employees to participate in cultural transformation.”

A leadership framework that helps upgrade an organization’s level of collaboration, by redefining the situation and instilling new language and behaviors, is a ticket all tribes should be purchasing. It’s a ticket to debunk the status quo.

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