Know When You Are Being Used

Leadership is hard.

The steadfast desire to create positive change brings forth many behaviors in a leader. Some positive, some negative – but all impact the work environment we are attempting to shape and mold. While it is impossible to know or profile every single leader, it is possible to create generalizations about the behavior of leaders.

 Many leaders desire:

  • A level of control or at least influence over their environment or organization
  • To know as must as much as possible about what is happening within their organization both for positive reasons and to create the leverage necessary to enact change
  • Positive Relationships
  • To feel as though they are adding value, and therefore exhibit a desire to ‘FIX’

This is not a comprehensive list, specifically ordered, nor accurate for all leaders. This fact is firmly acknowledged. But, in working with many organizations, including my own, I find that many of these desires crossover beyond regional, geographic, and even professional barriers (this is not unique to educators).

Understanding this has helped me to better understand one of the greatest culture killers that appears to exist in most organizations. Moreover, it not only exists within most organizations, but the leader (often preaching the value of culture) is one of the most common to commit this transgression.

I will refer to this culture killer as carrying someone else’s water.

Here is how it happens.

Employee A – we will call her Jennifer – comes into your office. Jennifer outlines her grievances (general term) against Employee B – we will call him Skip. As the leader you listen and then ask what Jennifer would like done. Jennifer says nothing – usually with the qualifier ‘for now.’ As the leader you encourage Jennifer to have a face-to-face with Skip, but she all but tells you that is not going to happen. Jennifer leaves your office.

You sit – with Jennifer’s monkey (h/t Todd Whitaker) firmly shifted into your lap. You are conflicted. You either address the alleged behavior subversively as to not throw Jennifer under the bus or hold it on risk accepting bad behavior. The thought that runs through head constantly is, ‘Leaders get the behaviors they model and they tolerate.’

For sake of this example, you decide to wait it out.

Three weeks later Jennifer asks, “Do you have a minute?” She explains that Skip’s behavior has continued and now there is a trust and culture issue among her people because of his behavior. Again, you challenge her to address it. She is non-committal and the meeting quickly ends.

Now, you have no choice. You address the behavior with Skip. You keep names out of it, but it is clear where the complaint came from. Skip explains his side of the story and you see that there is truly a middle ground – a place in which nobody exhibited perfect behavior. You provide Skip direction and call Jennifer back in to follow-up. Both sides leave with some expectations – problem solved!!

Except – wait a minute. If the culture of the organization is “the way we do things around here,” or “the way we behave when nobody is watching” you have not solved a problem you have created one.

You have established a culture where:

  • There is no personal accountability because adult professionals are not expected to handle their own conflicts.
  • Whoever gets to the boss to tell their side of the story has the most power.
  • Trust fades because there are not behavioral expectations or norms.
  • No ‘work disagreements’ are expected to be handled by anyone except YOU.

The culture described above is toxic and broken. It is truly an environment in which nobody wants to work in the long-term. The leader in this circumstance has modeled the most toxic behavior of all – which plays much louder than anything the leader allows to occur. (Actions speak louder than words)

In this case, the leader was used. The leader was used because this situation plays to the desire to have control and influence, to protect relationships, to have the most information, and the ability to fix the situation. Our desires to be all things to all people can be (and often are) used against us.

As for suggestions on how to move forward . . . coordinate a joint meeting between all parties until the people within your organization have the requisite skills to have this discussions on their own. Nothing great comes without growing pains and conflict. Enabling people to share ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ or ‘anonymous’ information with the leader of an organization and then for that leader to leverage that information is quite possibly the best way to destroy trust and culture in an organization.

Beware of your own desires to have influence and control. They can, and often are, used against you.