As you can see from reading my blog, I have an intense interest in the way that leaders in any situation contribute to the culture of their organizations. To me, building culture, or examining what you have to make it better, is one of the most important ways to create effective organizations. It takes bravery and honesty, but with guidance and open minds, it can be done. There are wonderful reads out there. Despite the title that begins with a negative connotation, this one from the Harvard Business Review from May 2018 has a lot of positive to make it worth your while: 3 Ways Senior Leaders Create a Toxic Culture. As I said, the title packs quite a punch, but what I really liked about this article is that there are 3 areas (not too many to digest) that are explored, with techniques to use to prevent or to fix these areas.
I would love to hear from you-have you experienced any of these in an organization in which you have worked? Was there ever an effort for a turn-around? If so, did it use any of these techniques, or were there others? If so, what were they?
I think that most of us have a vision in our minds of the types of qualities effective leaders should exhibit, and I would venture that compassion may be one of those qualities. I know it’s high on my list of expectations in the person that I would take pride in saying I’d follow into any situation. General Douglas MacArthur, someone in a leadership role that required the utmost steel said, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.” Compassion, to me, is a sign not of weakness, but of great strength and a clear sense of the “why”. So then, why is it that there are so many leaders that exhibit such a lack of this trait? Lack of compassion is so stunning and baffling to me personally, that I’ve never been able to understand it, particularly in those that have made it into positions of power, where leading and affecting the lives and decisions of so many would necessitate the ability to be effectively empathetic and proactively compassionate. I think that the general population feels this way as well. Think of all of the times that you heard others, when referring to the Enron crisis, say, “How could they do this to so many people? How could they, in positions of power and trust, destroy others’ futures by gutting their retirements?” It’s got to be more than just a lust for power.
I read an article today in the Harvard Business Review , which spoke volumes to me today (you’ll also see a link to it on my Twitter feed on my homepage). While Hubris Syndrome is mentioned in this article, the kinds of things that I’ve been think a lot about are not in such a severe category, but no less concerning. A quote from the article reads, "It’s not that power makes people want to be less empathetic; it’s that taking on greater responsibilities and pressure can rewire our brains and, through no fault of our own, force us to stop caring about other people as much as we used to.”
Wow. This is such a powerful statement. It resonated with me in so many ways. Throughout my working years, I’ve witnessed or heard from others in different settings and across job types about multiple incidences of a clear lack of compassion: bosses belittling their employees on whom they rely, sarcasm and cutting words thrown around as “joking,” lack of showing care for others’ personal weights or burdens, self-centered attitudes, lack of concern for workplace climate. Now, perhaps, there’s a reason-and some hope. The article also states, “.. it does not have to be this way. Such rewiring can be avoided — and it can also be reversed.”
It is well worth the time to read the article thoroughly. I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this concern and a direct impact from those that lack compassion. In fact, the article also states these statistics, “Of the over 1,000 leaders we surveyed, 91% said compassion is very important for leadership, and 80% would like to enhance their compassion but do not know how. Compassion is clearly a hugely overlooked skill in leadership training.” The article states several ways of avoiding and reversing lack of compassion, such as:
1) Apply compassion to every interaction we have, by asking, “How can I be of benefit to this person?”
2) Make a daily habit of actively looking for opportunities to show compassion for someone in need of it.
3) Practice a compassion meditation (directions in the article).
I would add to this by saying that anyone in any sort of leadership position needs to be mindful of the possibility of this re-wiring happening to them, or the fact that it may be actively exhibiting itself. This takes willingness and the emotional intelligence to reflect daily, and ask the question in the first point above. And, referring to the second, I would argue that there is ALWAYS someone in need of compassion, however small the gesture may seem to the person who offers it. This relationship cultivation through care is the opposite of weakness. It takes strong leaders to be vulnerable enough to authentically practice compassion. The benefits are immeasurable, not only to the recipients of the kindness, but also to the leaders themselves.
I'm deep into reading The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle. In it, he makes the case that successful groups are that way because they build safety for the individuals. That safety is contingent upon a sense of belonging-of being part of a familial group. He talks about Alex Pentland's work in the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT. Pentland "belonging cues" that possess three basic qualities: 1. Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring 2. Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued
3. Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue." I've also been fascinated with the information from Susan Cain's work, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Her work is powerful, because it talks about the people in our society who are often either not noticed, or ostracized due to their need to gather energy, work, and interact in ways that are not usually valued by the society in which we live-that being one that values extraversion. Where these intersect for me gives me pause to think about microcultures. Given the complexity of the human being, could one argue that individuals are microcultures unto themselves? Is it more likely that people with introverted characteristics and tendencies, as defined by Cain, would more likely rely on a personal microculture in order to feel part of a group that does not exhibit Pentland's belonging cues? Is it valuable to consider this as we work to build our organizations to be highly successful? Is it possible that those that Cain so eloquently describes might, in fact, be more adept at exhibiting these three qualities, because of their personality traits? I think it's worth discussing as we think about building safety for all of the individuals in our organizations.