Pay Attention to That Leader Behind the Curtain
One of my early posts was titled “Snakes in Suits” (https://dwbracken.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/snakes-in-suits/), which is also the title of a book about psychopaths in industry, specifically in leadership positions, and how skilled they are (because they are psychopaths) in escaping detection until the damage has been done. The blog post highlighted a 360 process whose primary purpose is to identify the bottom tail of the performance distribution, essentially managing the quality of the leadership cadre by fixing or removing the poorest performers/behaviors. The metaphor is pulling back the curtain on the pretender/offender, like Toto does in “The Wizard of Oz,” who has escaped discovery for many years through cleverness and deception. Of course, he cries out, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
I got to thinking about this topic recently (no, not because of the new Wizard of Oz movie) when I got an update from Bill Gentry at the Center for Creative Leadership regarding his evolving thinking and research on the topic of Integrity (see his YouTube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d7yQHHUL-Q&list=UU9ulOx1rJK5FMlC5gbS91cQ&index=1).
One of the possible reasons that the “Snakes in Suits” book didn’t get more traction in our field is the fact that true psychopaths are relatively rare in our society (maybe 3-5% of the population by some estimates), though their “cousins” (bullies, jerks, add your own adjectives) are much more prevalent and all can cause substantial damage. By expanding the definition of inappropriate behavior to include integrity (or lack thereof) as Dr. Gentry highlights, we now have a behavioral requirement that hopefully applies to every leader, and every employee for that matter.
One of Bill’s research articles uncovers a finding where integrity is identified as a critical trait for senior executives but much less so for mid-level executives. His hypothesis is that success in mid-management is much more on the “what” that is achieved (e.g., revenues, sales, budgets) than the “how” (e.g., adherence to the values of the organization). This de-emphasis on the “how” side of performance measurement causes organizations to promote leaders to the most senior levels without sufficient scrutiny of their character, resulting in some flawed leadership at the top of companies where integrity is essential (including some very high profile examples that Bill enumerates as part of his publications).
While I’m at it, I found another piece of research that relates to the significant impact that abusive management can have across large swaths of the organization. This article (cited below) suggests that employees partly attribute abusive supervision to negative valuation by the organization and, consequently, behave negatively toward and withhold positive contributions to it. In other words, employees may believe that abusive supervisors are condoned by the company, and then lose commitment and engagement to said organization. And there is probably a lot of truth in that logic.
Organizations have a responsibility to identify and to address situations where leaders are behaving badly, and the research cited above strongly suggests that it is in the best interests of organizations to do so. So how is that done? Many organizations rely on anonymous processes that encourage employees to “speak up” without fear of retribution. That is such a passive approach as to almost be amusing if it weren’t so important.
Of course, you know where I am going with this. A 360 Degree Feedback process that is consistently administered across the organization AND has provisions for the results being shared with the organization (e.g., Human Resources) is about the only way I can think of where this systemic problem can be addressed. This should be a critical aspect of Talent Management systems in organizations, and as common and ubiquitous as performance management. As the authors of “Snakes in Suits” point out, 360 feedback can be a powerful way to identify the “snakes” early in their careers. One problem is that these snakes are very skilled at avoiding detection by finding loopholes in inconsistently administered 360’s so that they don’t have to participate, or don’t have to share their feedback with anyone.
Who is that leader behind the curtain? It may be a wizard. It may be a jerk. It may be a hero to be honored. But we won’t know unless we have our Toto to pull back the curtain, hopefully before it’s too late.
Blaming the organization for abusive supervision: The roles of perceived organizational support and supervisor’s organizational embodiment. Shoss, Mindy K.; Eisenberger, Robert; Restubog, Simon Lloyd D.; Zagenczyk, Thomas J. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 98(1), Jan 2013, 158-168. doi: 10.1037/a0030687
©2013 David W. Bracken