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Being a People-Centered Leader Just Got Harder

By Jonathan Bates

If you are a people-centered leader, you’ve noticed some trends in the workplace that have you scratching your head (or, maybe, grasping for a Kleenex or a vodka).

I’m talking about the Brave New World of “Bossism.”

We are regaled daily in the press and on social media about the antics of Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon and others who are presently taking the opportunity to do what is in their hearts. Or, at least, where their hearts would have been.

Not long ago, I read an article in the New York Times that spelled out this trend called “Elon Musk, Management Guru?”  Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned loyalty oath, eh?

Spectacle, yes. Hero, not so much.

However, Elon is not alone in this endeavor.

These behaviors and attitudes make most people-centered leaders cringe.

Let’s look at it all more closely (and what to do about it).

THE NEW “EXCUSE-ISM”

Senior executive “Bosses” are taking back command. Heaven help us.

Forbes Magazine featured an article not long ago, “CEOS Will be Clamping Down on Employees” that describes some of the near-glee that executives are exhibiting in demanding a full return-to-office, insisting on long, brutal hours once again, and stamping out the office Kombucha bar.

Don’t like it? It’s mostly a resounding “Too Bad, So Sad.”

The situations I’m describing embody what some bosses have been pining for since the employment tables tipped in the employees’ favor in recent years.

It’s all disguised under the excuse of “economic necessity because of over-(fill-in-the-blank) from the pandemic.” Perhaps a believable smokescreen for behavior they’ve had to hide away for some time?

But it’s just a cover. Because even with potential looming economic challenges, you can still treat your people well. If, that is, you actually want to and you even try.

I’m not saying it’s all companies and all leaders.

It’s highly visible at a bunch of big names out there. However, these examples “tickle down” to regional and local companies as well. Monkey see, monkey do.

BTW, I don’t expect to be invited to do any coaching work at Twitter anytime soon (but I can probably make referrals to licensed trauma therapists in the meantime).

HIDING BEHIND SCALE

So, let’s talk about mass firings. This is new.

I’ve been laid off once in my career in the “tech bust” in 2002. This was in the aftermath of the boom in the need for technology services spawned by the ultimate non-starter “Y2K.” Google it if you’re under 35.

I was working for IBM at the time and one bright day in September, I got a call from my boss’s boss who explained that I was impacted by a reduction in force.

As much as it wasn’t a pleasant situation, they conducted the RIF with some dignity.

An individual call, respectful conversation, and the proposition that for the next 30 days, I was freed from my duties to seek another role inside the company. If I didn’t find a suitable role or chose not to, I’d separate from the company with a modest but OK package.

Even though thousands were let go ultimately, they invested the time, energy and money to do it the best way possible. I give them a lot of credit and I saw how it could be done.

So back to present day. There’s been a rush to announce mass firings – almost like a pervasive mass hysteria.

I mean, were these companies we see in the news really going out of business Monday if they didn’t lay off 10,000 people Thursday? By email… or worse yet, by their employee badge no longer working? C’mon.

Would it break the bank to treat people like people you value?

DOWNGRADING DIGNITY

It’s not even the mechanics of the communications for the personnel actions that is the biggest problem. It’s the lack of willingness to find a way to treat their employees with any dignity whatsoever.

It takes real intention and creativity to treat your ‘most valuable assets’ like Human Commodity Management.

POWER AND CONSEQUENCES

I spend my days helping people-centered executives be better people-centered executives and create extraordinary results.

I know that being a bully is kind of ‘in vogue’ these days. At least in the minds of some of the leaders I’ve described in this article.

However, there’s one truth that these leaders, in their reckless and careless use of power, never get…

The people you abuse ALWAYS get you back. And, in ways you’ll never know.

Your people know your organization, your systems, your desires, and your weaknesses way better than you.

So whether it’s subtle sabotage, undoing things important to you that you’ll never know they undid, invisible underperformance, tacit thievery, or spitting in the coffee you demanded they fetch for you, they always even the score. And, I have to say… they’d probably be right. Treat them as transactional and their loyalty will be transactional.

Bully at your peril. Here’s an idea… treat them with respect in the first place.

THE CRUSH OF CULTURES

Most of the leaders we’ve been describing value results at all costs (regardless of the human costs). They have a business strategy with which they want to prevail and win the game.

They want to disrupt and transform their company, their industry, and the world. (We’ll save the “pathological ego” discussion for another article.)

Except, here’s a big piece of truth (with apologies to Peter Drucker) – “culture does eat strategy for breakfast.”

Imagine what you do to the culture of an organization when your positive employee culture has the rug pulled out from under it because some leaders don’t actually believe in it. What do you think happens to results?

Regardless of what Mark Zuckerberg says to the contrary, breaking things actually just breaks things.

ENGAGEMENT SMITHEREENS

These kinds of “bossism” behaviors we’ve described here obliterate employee engagement. It’s hard to earn it back once it’s diminished.

Not long ago, employee engagement and retention became front and center in organizations because of the challenges of finding and keeping great talent. Among smart executives, it still is.

The war for talent is still on even if some companies pretend it isn’t.

THE PREDICAMENT FOR PEOPLE-CENTERED LEADERS

Everything we’ve discussed weighs on people-centered leaders. After all, keeping the focus on your people is what you are all about.

When faced with a leader in your organization who admires the new “bossism” (maybe the one at the top??) or when these abhorrent practices become normalized or mainstreamed, what can you do?

First, a few cautions.

TELLING TRUTH TO (POWER SAW)

While I always advocate courage as a people-centered leader in standing up for what is right, there is a matter of picking your battles. It doesn’t do your people any good for you to be sliced up into little pieces when you tell truth to power. Do it when you can advance your cause.

Although it’s exhausting, you’ll need to spend time and energy evaluating the degree of impact of any given decision or action and decide how much energy you’ll invest to push back on the tide. You ultimately have to win the long game.

COMMITTING AUTHENTICIDE

Here’s where it gets painful and dicey. Who you are as an authentic leader is likely very different from the way that you are observing some colleagues think and behave. It likely hurts you from the inside out.

Despite what your head and your conscience tell you, you don’t lose yourself by choosing to operate under the radar and behind the scenes. You can sometimes be more effective in creating change when you don’t “lead with your chin.”

AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

So, what can you actually do? Here are some suggestions:

Maintain Yourself
First and foremost, put your mask on first. Operating in these climates is draining. Focusing on taking care of yourself physically and emotionally is vital. How else can you help others?

Get Support and Develop
Don’t try to go it alone. Get support from trusted resources – a coach, therapist, mentor, colleague, friend, or spouse. You will need to grow and develop your capabilities to deal with these challenges. If you reach the point where you’re really feeling the need for support – you’re actually late to the party. Get in front of it.

Keep Perspective
Remember that there’s equifinality – more than one way to get to an outcome. It’s easy when economic times are challenging (or perceived to be) to get stuck in groupthink.

No… a mass layoff, conducted poorly and disrespectfully, is not the only way to handle an anticipated revenue shortfall even if you have to reduce headcount.

Creativity is not optional.

Shift the Conversation
In these situations, fallacies and presumptions often prevail.

Listen carefully and challenge the off-kilter assumptions, reinforce sensible beliefs, reshape unrealistic expectations and illuminate false perceptions about the employees in your organization and the possibilities for the future.

Keep at it, they may not hear it the first time (maybe not until the 27th).

Protect People
Needless to say, your advocacy for your people is a given. Even if you haven’t the power to do everything the way you would like to, give people good information, help them receive fair treatment, soften the hard realities, and give them access to resources, whether they are staying or going.

If nothing else, you can feel as though you’ve done everything in the best way you could. Acting with as much integrity as possible is the way forward.

Prioritize the Positive
Your people take their cues from you. If you continuously draw attention to what is truly positive (as opposed to putting a positive face on what is truly dreadful), you help them persist and survive. Take an appreciative approach no matter what.

You can deal with reality while still using positive psychology. Be that beacon of hope they can count on. It helps them get to the other side.

WHERE WILL YOU TAKE THIS?

Because of your focus and values, as a people-centered leader you have an internal set of resources that will help you (and your people) weather this storm.

Every hurricane eventually moves on or dies out. This latest management “fad” will as well. Your persistence will pay off.

Trust the people-centered leader inside you.

 

 

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