Transforming Toxic Leaders

Making the Impossible Possible in Troubled Organizations

Leaders Who Trivialize the Human Element

As an executive coach I transform leaders from dysfunctional to functional.

Leaders Who Trivialize the Human Element

Dr. Alan Goldman

 

Leaders who trivialize the human element put their companies at risk. As an Executive Coach I am no longer surprised by hardened, results oriented managers who trample over their subordinates in the name of bottom lines, metrics, accountability and productivity. Some are hands off leaders who do not eyeball their employees, avoid daily operations and human contact and gather skewed data from questionable performance evaluations and spread sheets. I am summoned at a minute to midnight after grievances, internet dirt, threats to the corporate brand and as the early stages of lawsuits mount. My mission is usually to coach this troubling leader and to instigate and guide a transformation from dysfunctional to functional.

It is unusual for me to work with a CEO, COO, CFO, Senior Manager or Supervisor who is not somewhat aware of how they are negatively affecting their employees. I coach leaders who tell me they are entitled to dish out pain. I am told that the weak and incompetent must learn how to take their medicine. I am briefed that bottom feeders must be ostracized and made an example of. I run into hardened managers who give me their workplace philosophy in 30 seconds or less. You’ve heard versions of it all before: “I’m not here to be liked;” “I’m not running a popularity contest with employees;” “I laughed so hard at the emotional intelligence liberals that my body was aching;” and “I’m all about results and I leave the psychologizing to faux leaders who don’t understand that employees will rip you off if you’re nice.” In other words my clients tend to proselytize during the early stages of coaching that their bad behavior is quite astute and that they are being misinterpreted by lightweight, clueless employees. Leaders seemingly devoid of humanity are quick to portray their subordinates as failing to understand that they are not going to baby them or enroll in emotional intelligence training in order to solicit productivity. I am repeatedly told that no apologies are necessary for laying it on the line and that hardball is the name of the game.

I trust I will not disappoint you to confess that at times I empathize with these common hardball assessments. Surely on the other end of the leadership continuum there are in fact those leaders who get trampled upon and abused when their employees find out that they buy into empowerment, decentralization and a madly, truly, deeply humane agenda. Ironically the nexus here is simply about the need for balance rather than extremes in leadership. Armed with numerous books, theories, case studies and direct consulting and coaching experience I break the news to my polarized client who revels in rejecting the human element. I introduce that it is in fact possible to combine a tough as nails approach to productivity with a pleasantly humane, compassionate and emotionally intelligent manner. Leadership that is too polarized whether erring with extreme versions of results-oriented or humane styles is usually doomed. We only have to look at the polarization between Democrats and Republicans or between religious zealots to observe that we humans seem to be wed to extremes – whether it means demonizing the other political party, religion or approach to leadership.

In a few cases I find that the polarization is in fact understandable but still not effective. In one case a leader emerged from a position as a downsizer and cost containment expert who functioned for years in an extraordinarily toxic, autocratic and dictatorial organizational culture. Suddenly he found himself in a new position with a company deeply embedded in empowerment, decentralization, team work and resonant leadership. He continued his old ways in the new organization not due to any personal or behavioral shortcomings but rather as a carryover from the enculturation and programming he had been a part of for so many years. He assumed that hardball was what leadership was all about. Moreover, he contended that a tough, data driven results orientation was the most compassionate approach to leadership. He eloquently explained to me that by firing incompetents and unproductive managers he was in fact facilitating the financial health of his organization and salvaging the positions of competent engineers.

In stark contrast, however, his new company was not experiencing any immediate financial hardships and was rather committed to the process of nurturing employees and creating highly cohesive teams featuring innovation and collaboration. Once the COO was provided case studies, readings and “leadership therapy” he experienced a series of epiphanies. Being extremely bright he rapidly synapsed that his polarized approach to leadership via strict, old school accountability in company #1 was a misfit for company #2. But he also recognized that his new company did not necessitate a total about face in his leadership style. There was no requirement that he pledge exclusive allegiance to the human element in managing. We rather articulated that “his new balanced agenda” as a leader was as a juggler able to balance the two extremes. Executive Coaching revealed that in company #2 he could maintain a far more tempered approach to hard ball accountability (“soft ball”) while letting his warmer, sensitive, emotionally intelligent side out into view. Employees did not take advantage of his newfound humanity – they rather found it inspirational and motivating. I was extremely proud of this client and he flourished emerging as a star in his new company.

A pointed way of expressing this balance that transforms dysfunctional managers into functional leaders is to be “hard on the task and soft on the people.” Pivotal to the Harvard Negotiation Project this axiom was at the core of the renowned book “Getting to Yes.” In fact, the harder and more daunting tasks such as massive layoffs require that leaders perform at highest emotional intelligence levels and go soft, softer, softest on their employees. This tough but compassionate style of leading is epitomized in an acute ability to negotiate task and relationship. How many leaders invite corporate crisis by abruptly orchestrating an overnight, shocking downsizing or mass firing without paying ample attention to the human element? Concentrating on the task alone is a sure recipe for grievances, terrible press, precipitating lawsuits and an outraged workforce. Leaders usually flounder and fail when they are too polarized in either task or relationship dimensions. By skillfully balancing the two the successful leader ultimately maintains both a laser focus on productivity and simultaneously places high priority on people skills.

The hardball leader who trivializes the human element operates at a deficit. What is required is an ability to import people skills into the equation. Overly emphasizing bottom lines and dismissing human emotions in a layoff solicits employee and company blowback. Inspirational leaders attend to and elevate the human element and motivate their colleagues to willingly strive for high productivity. Even when faced with crunch time and crushing financial strains balanced leaders work people sensitive dimensions into the mix. Polarization is the poison while interjecting the human element into leadership is the key.

 

Alan Goldman, Ph.D., is a professor of management and faculty director of the W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University West.

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