Scott McCarthy, from the Moving Forward Leadership podcast, and I talked recently about leaders’ responsibility to sustain a productive work culture, even when individuals behave in countercultural or unnecessarily disruptive ways. We agreed that coming up with effective ways to work things out is not an intuitive process. These four aspects of good leadership stand out, especially when dealing with disruption:
1. Leaders must set the tone. The way leaders behave is not only noticed, it also sets the bar and has the potential to galvanize the team. If leaders don’t hold themselves accountable, pay attention to employees’ needs and concerns, and listen deeply to others, it becomes difficult if not disingenuous to hold the rest of the organization to a high standard of behavior.
Everybody watches their leaders to see how they operate and react. That includes what time they go home, how they interact with other leaders and employees, how they acknowledge their own mistakes, and to whom they give credit and praise. It’s hard for employees to be more culturally appropriate than their leaders, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to be.
2. Leaders who are good role models can require appropriate behavior. Leaders who are good role models can not only require culturally appropriate behavior from team members, but also lead them to repair relationships and modify individual behaviors that are disruptive or counterproductive.
But when leaders are, say, not on the level or are disrespectful of people’s time or input, they inevitably separate themselves from their people, creating divisiveness, insincerity, and a sham culture. Divisive leaders make it very difficult for their teams to be candid and above board. When a leader is defensive, lacks self-awareness, or openly contradicts organizational norms, team members become uncomfortable to raise concerns about the leader’s behavior.
3. When a problem arises, it’s the leader’s job to repair the situation. Leaders need to uncover the roots of any problematic situation, even if it stems from their own behaviors. It never works to accost employees and demand, “Why is this happening?” That makes it seem like the leader assumes that team members are in the wrong, and puts people on the defensive.
Instead, position your questions so that people don’t have to justify themselves so much. Better options are: “How did we get to this point?” or “Please tell me, is there something else going on that I don’t know about?” You can also probe further: “Would you explain the specifics to me? Oh, I see. Now tell me how you came to make that choice.” Tone is important too. You should sound interested and curious, not accusatory or disdainful.
4. Trust — and improvements — start at the top. When beginning an intervention, it helps for leaders to remind everybody that they’re on a common path to meet a common goal. Ask everyone to review what they’re doing to further that goal, and whether any of their behaviors are actually getting in the way of meeting it. Leaders should describe their own insufficiencies first, which gives others the freedom and courage to disclose their own. When people trust each other, they’ll tell each other whenever they see something going wrong. In a trusting environment, you won’t find gloating or withholding of information.
But when tensions run high, and trust breaks down, team members often stop believing anything positive about each other. If that happens, the best repair route is through a joint commitment to the work itself. As a leader, you need to get the participants to sit down and map out — day by day, even minute by minute — how processes or relationships are supposed to work and the specific things that are going wrong and creating negative impacts. Then it becomes possible to discuss what will and won’t work going forward.