This Old House
Imagine a very old small house being lived in by a quite large family that keeps adopting international kids. The space stays the same, but feels evermore restrictive while the people and their needs keep growing and changing, placing increasing pressure on the old structure. The foundation is cracked threatening the stability of the house itself, the floor plan no longer works, the electrical and plumbing systems are dilapidated among other problems and the floors creak loudly under the mounting pressure of intensifying family needs. This old house, once very useful in its time, now gives rise to more problems than it solves. The modern-day workplace is much like this old house, its restraining hierarchical structure problematic in a globally-integrated environment that demands organically-produced solutions to newly-emerging needs.
Add to this old structure our contemporary workforce possessing both exposed and hidden differences that collide in a brilliant clash of diverse personalities, work styles, values, and worldviews and, well, something’s got to give. Long gone are the days of a homogenous workforce – diversity is here to stay. It is the irrepressible fusion of prolific diversity in an old and outworn structure that calls for some serious renovation of the corporate structure. While the useful parts of the organization can stay put, others parts must be torn down in order to accommodate more productive structures. As with any major construction project, there is noise and dust that takes the form of conflict, but progress is messy and sometimes chaotic. Taking the lead in re-vamping the organization and trying to head-off corporate collapse, many well-intentioned leaders have misinterpreted what that rebuilding project should look like by going straight to the corporate rulebook.
We Got a Rule for That
In response to dealing with its constantly-changing workforce and competitive environment, traditional leadership has become highly sophisticated in developing policies. Politically-correct corporate value declarations call on us to act with integrity, to practice respect, and to somehow innately know how to work together effectively amidst the palpable incongruities we face in nearly every exchange. And should getting along prove difficult – no worries – leadership’s got another policy for that. Legalistic, and too often paternalistic, highly articulate diversity statements and Codes of Ethics embellish corporate policy manuals touting the benefits of diversity while promoting work as a place to leverage multicultural learning opportunities. Admittedly, it looks great on paper and traditional leaders appear to have all the bases of PC conflict resolution covered. But even with impeccable corporate guidance specifying espoused values, let’s be real for a minute if we can… bringing those ideas to life in an increasingly diverse workplace is painfully difficult. We see things from innumerable perspectives, we approach things in a variety of manners and we carry things out in sometimes radically different ways. Conflict is an inherent part of being interactive humans and an intrinsic part of the modern-day workplace, but our old leadership structures were not designed to embrace this present-day reality.
Power-Over “Leadership” Creates More Problems in the Name of “Solutions”
So what’s the problem? Two things: 1) the unilateral creation of policies for others to follow and 2) mishandling the implementation of those policies. Let’s address the creation of more rules first. Rules are necessary and helpful as guidelines that establish a culture of consistency, but arguably, it is the way in which they are formulated unilaterally by the top few that is faulty. When leadership attempts corporate restructuring from the same old dynamic of top-down authority, it’s a little like painting over rotten wood – it’s not going to stick on a decaying structure. So even when restructuring sounds eloquent and looks pretty in our repertoire of policies, it’s bound to fail because embedded in a ‘power-over’ approach is the idea that all the solutions reside with leadership – an objectionable notion by many. Furthermore, when leadership alone defines the problems, devises the solutions, then dictates the implementation they run the risk of perpetuating a herd mentality: Leader knows best. Follow the leader. Promoting a ‘be cooperative’ team player culture carries with it the additional hazard of cultivating groupthink, which happens when people hold back their true thoughts and feelings for fear of being viewed as uncooperative or for fear of repercussions. The unintended consequence is that people hold back their best ideas that could contribute to innovative solutions and they end up feeling apathetic and alienated. In a competitive environment that needs empowerment to spur creative innovation, the leadership practice of ‘I know best; follow me’ is counterproductive.
The second part of the problem occurs when leadership misuses the policies. For example, when leadership invokes corporate values such as tolerance and respect for the sake of cooperation and not rocking the boat, they are often misused as ways to avoid, reduce and smooth-over conflict in the workplace. Being compliant and avoiding talking about what is real in the name of team player and respect without addressing the heart of the conflict is not conflict resolution, but instead conflict avoidance and denial – painting over rotten wood so to speak. Saying “I’m fine with whatever you think” while biting our tongue and smiling in agreement with flawed ideas might appear to be cooperative, reasonable and pleasing to leadership, but this approach backfires because, far from resolving conflict, it actually exacerbates it by allowing persistent issues to go on unresolved at their core. When compliance is valued more highly than conflict by leadership, it is at this point conflict goes subterranean in the form of resentment, gossip, apathy, resistance, sabotage, stealing and other destructive behaviors. Certainly these are not the results traditional leaders are going for. In fact, many leaders know these practices create problems and they want to do better. So what’s preventing them from trying a new approach? Two things: 1) they don’t know how and 2) it’s dangerous. These ideas will be explored more thoroughly in future articles, however for now, attention to a fundamentally new approach enshrined in Moral Leadership will be addressed.
A New Approach is Needed Seeking Truth at Its Core
If a traditional, top-down leadership approach to contain conflict doesn’t work well, how would a Moral Leadership approach view and address conflict? First, it is important to understand one of the universal principles of Moral Leadership is the insistent search for truth. The ability to look at unpleasant realities and face them head-on is requisite to remaining relevant in today’s competitive global environment. Avoiding status quo thinking necessitates having full and valid information and this requires facing uncomfortable facts. If a leader does not go out of her way to solicit challenging viewpoints and contradictory information, thereby inviting conflict to the table, then she is likely making uninformed decisions and probably violating a few of her organization’s espoused values in the process. Moral Leaders know that new thinking and novel ways of working together are the only way we will find solutions to the unprecedented problems of today. They also know they do not have all the answers. In order to solicit full and valid information a Moral Leader is unwavering in their commitment to creating a safe and trusting environment that welcomes diversity in its full glory to the table conveying a ‘power-with’ approach to solving problems. Employing a power-with approach invites differences and therefore conflict should be expected as a normal part of the process. A Moral Leader appreciates the value of conflict as a natural and healthy part of daily life, and recognizes that it is the way in which we handle conflict that can cause the greatest angst. So how would a Moral Leader go about leveraging diversity in the search for truth? It’s important to first understand that a Moral Leader sees things much differently than a traditional leader. This vision informs the blueprint moving forward.
Transcendence Through Vision
A Moral Leader has a very different vision of people, the role of the organization and especially their own role as leader. First, they see the innate beauty in people’s uniqueness, knowing that an integral piece of desperately-needed solutions to the most difficult problems reside in each person and only through their full contribution in organizational problem-solving can those ideas be brought forth. Second, far from the singular purpose of profit maximization, they see the role of the organization as a central component of the lives of the people they employ and as a vital contributing member of the greater community. Third, they understand a primary function of their role is to create a workplace environment that cultivates the development and expression of people’s distinctive capabilities towards the organizational mission as well as the greater good. By seeing things differently, a Moral Leader is able to transcend the constraints inherent to traditional leadership. Power-over is an obsolete practice in the eyes of a Moral Leader. Their blueprint of the workplace looks very different than that of traditional leadership’s. So they go about recreating the work place structure to bring this vision to life.
A Little Corporate Renovation to Leverage Diversity & Creative Solutions
A Moral Leader embarks upon corporate renovation reconfiguring the top-down, conflict-inducing structure where the top-few dictate solutions which are passively accepted by the bottom-many. Just like the home renovation project that requires demolishing structures that have outworn their use, so too does the Moral Leader go about tearing down the traditional top-down corporate communication processes and operational practices where the very few tell the very many how things are and what needs to be done about it. Their rebuilding project includes the creation of a space where true and authentic participation are brought together in a spirit of collaboration searching for the best approaches to the problems at hand. Creating a safe and nurturing environment that invites the unknown perspectives and worldviews to brilliantly clash in search for the truth is a requisite foundation to this building process. A Moral Leader initiates this confidently knowing that bad ideas will never fly in a place where everyone’s voice counts and their ideas are truly valued.
The approaches of traditional leadership and those of Moral Leadership to rebuilding the organizational workplace are in stark contrast to each other when compared side-by-side. The former stays in the same paradigm of “I’ll diagnose your illness and then give you a prescription to follow” whereas the latter says, “Tell me what the problems are and what you think we should do to fix them” … power-over vs. power-with. Where would you rather work?