The humane leadership challenge

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Perhaps you’ve struggled with a personal commitment to humane and ethical leadership in the workplace. In a world that values and rewards hard, competitive and aggressive leadership, it can be difficult to make the more humane choice.

The humane leadership challenge

It remains a radical idea that you can get high team performance without resorting to aggression and coercive tactics in your staff management. There’s a view in business that the harder and more ruthless a leader is, the better they and their teams will perform.

Just look at the popularity of a TV series like Billions. It reifies the idea of the leader-as-cowboy. The leader as a successful Alpha male, who is often angry, publicly humiliates his underlings and is abusive in order to win. We love those characters because they seem so free to behave as they wish. There’s rarely bad repercussions from their behavior on the silver screen.

In real life too it seems that the enticement to less ethical or values-driven leadership is always there. And it’s deceptive, because it seems like the easier choice.

The competition for success between organizations can drive antagonism and struggle between leaders. The race within leadership teams for the respect and the ‘ear’ of the CEO is another inducement to lower our values and standards.

Then there’s living with risk. The risk of poor performance and the impact of risk on a leader’s daily life can be difficult. As leaders, we must learn to live with risk and manage the anxiety that emerges from it, so we can make better choices.

But in some cases our reputations live-or-die on our capacity to succeed. For those who find it hard to cope with this sort of risk, the pressure it creates makes it logical to resort to aggression and power games to get teams performing better and faster. But let’s explore that assumption a little more.

Scott Berry | Executive Coach

Hi, it's Scott here from Scott Berry Consulting Group. A dream is great to have. But unless you give it legs - plan it out, test it and commit to it - then truly living your dream is a matter of chance. Coaching can give you the edge you need to achieve your dreams. Find out more about coaching here.

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A case study

I recently coached a team whose leader resorted to public humiliation of a poor performer. Strange as it may sound for me to defend him, he is in fact a very ethical person, and would in other circumstances choose a more gentle and respectful approach to managing poor performance. But the pressures of his job led him to resort to humiliation as a quick solution to the problem of this person’s poor performance.

It had the opposite effect. It triggered something deep in the team member. The team member not only continued to perform poorly but now began acting out angrily in front of the team and even in front of clients. This person began to position themselves as the ‘victim’ of the team and the leader and became intractable.

At this point, the leader called me. The psychodynamics of this coaching engagement are really interesting. In our first session, this leader accepted no responsiblity. It was the team member's fault, they had performed poorly, then responded badly when it was pointed out to them. Nevertheless, the leader valued the team member and wanted to get them back to peak performance. All I could do at this point was agree - because it sounded reasonable.

When I met with the staff member everything changed. It emerged that the leader had publicly humiliated them in a team meeting. Public humiliation was a trigger for them in their childhood. They were furious and ready to quit. I met with other members of the team who expressed a lessening of respect for the leader because of his actions.

This sent me back to the leader - and this is the point when my work always gets really difficult. I had to give him the feedback. Then I sat with him as he processed it and dealt with first his anger, then his own shame and self-blame.  

It was at this point that he realized he was partly responsible for the drama in this situation. He’d started with a ‘zero-sum-game’ – humiliation instead of support for the team member. You only play that sort of card if you don't care if the team member stays or goes (or only if you're prepared to give up your own personal values). The team member was skilled and talented and often added value to the team’s work, so the leader didn’t want to lose them. In this second session, he realized he’d "played the wrong hand."

That situation resolved well because the leader himself acknowledged his own ethical breach. We held a resolution session with the entire team. This leader said "neither my position nor my title gives me permission to publicly shame people." This was when I saw physically how respect returned to the eyes of his team, as they gazed at him. He had enough positive ‘credit’ in the relationships to be able to apologize and have the apology accepted and move on.

Once the big game had been resolved, the little contributing problems emerged for resolution. The team member in question apologized for overreacting in front of both team and clients. But the other team members acknoweldged they were party responsible for the initial poor performance. They had left the team member to pick up extra work on their behalf so failure was almost gauranteed. 

All of this psychodynamic 'play' is full of guts and intergrity. You can see in the few words I've written how everyone in the team had to be prepared to face-up to themselves and each other, in order to move ahead. The leader led-by-example with his apology and then everyone else followed suit.

Dr Scott Berry | Life Coach

If there's a gap between where you are now and where you really want to be then life coaching can help. A life coach is someone who takes a broader view of your life. They can help you with tools and techniques that help you think through, plan out and to achieve your goals.

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So, what do you do differently?

Each action we take, each word we speak tells others around us who we are and what we stand for. In the rough-and-tumble of business and organizational life it’s easy to forget this.

As a leader, it’s therefore important to know who you are, what you stand for and what the difference is that you want to make to the world through what you do each day. This is equally true if you work in humanitarian aid or you sell sofas or mobile phones in a local mall.

To learn more about being a brilliant leader watch the video below.

Learn about how to be an ethical leader from a Business Daily article here.

Read some theory and practice notes about ethical leadership from a University here.

Read some conversational-style writing about ethical leadership here.