Creating a Culture Where Upper Management Admits Imperfection

Note: This is the 5th in a series of occasional articles on workforce optimization. The first, “Is Workforce Optimization the Missing Piece to Your Organization’s Success?” discusses how and why the most successful organizations are changing the way they work with their employees. The second installment, “The Traditional Organizational Culture Is Doomed To Fail,” explains why the traditional way companies engage with their workforce is not very effective. “What Makes Change So Hard?” is about the possibility of creating a great culture.

In my last article, I covered the first four of the seven steps required to create a great culture so that workforce optimization can become a reality. As a reminder, here is the complete list:

  1. Alignment of employees with the mission and vision of the organization.
  2. Alignment of roles and responsibilities with the strategies and goals of the organization.
  3. Alignment of roles and responsibilities with the abilities of the employees.
  4. Alignment of employees with the culture and values of the organization.
  5. Willingness of upper management to take an objective, honest and open assessment of their own personal and professional weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
  6. Willingness of upper management to acknowledge and commit to work on the personal and professional challenges they discovered in the assessment process.
  7. Creation of a culture of professional and personal development as a unique competitive advantage

Let’s talk now about the final three steps, which will complete the framework for realizing the potential that your organization has within it. I realize that these next three steps are where things tend to get uncomfortable. But, if we truly wish to become the people we have the potential to be, getting uncomfortable is inevitable; so let’s continue our journey.

5. Willingness of upper management to take an objective, honest and open assessment of their own personal and professional weaknesses/vulnerabilities.

OK, admittedly, this is a tough one for all of us normal human beings. Without going deep into psychology, we will cover some basics that play out in any organization. There is a three-letter word that accounts for this basic human challenge – EGO.

Our egos have self-protective mechanisms built in that are designed to protect our identity and position within any group where we associate. Anything that may challenge how we want to see ourselves or how we want others to see us will trigger these self-protective mechanisms, our defenses. Anytime we are “defensive,” this is what has happened.

These principles of human psychology apply as much to the CEO as they do to the lowest level positions. In all fairness to the upper levels of an organization, the most senior managers generally have a higher level of expectation in terms of how they are perceived. In short, they typically feel that they have more to lose by being “just another person.” They often feel that they must appear to have answers to the difficult challenges, and are expected to somehow see the future and accurately plan for it in advance. There is a great deal of pressure on the leaders. No wonder it is so difficult for the upper-level people in organizations to admit to the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that being human entails!

It is becoming increasingly crucial for executives to take an honest look in the mirror about their own weaknesses and openly address them so that their organizations can remain competitive in the future; a future where this willingness is becoming more and more the norm in the most successful organization. Most who do take this step learn that it is freeing and actually easier than continuing to play the game of self-deception. They find that the trust and respect that this engenders from others lays the groundwork for a positive and productive culture.

6. Willingness of upper management to acknowledge and commit to work on the personal and professional challenges they discovered in the assessment process.

Here is the “dirty little secret” about any of us trying to hide or deny our development areas: They are obvious to everyone who interacts with us anyway. They are like the bald man who does a comb-over to hide his bald spot. Nobody is fooled; they simply talk about it with others behind his back.

Executive developmental areas are just as obvious to the rank and file. They simply talk about these issues behind their backs and try to cope with them. Few people are willing to directly confront their superiors due to the likely repercussions. The sad part is that everyone loses in this process:

  • The executives lose an opportunity for growth/development that would enhance the quality and fulfillment in every area of their lives.
  • The organization loses a great deal both in the dysfunctions that these weaknesses cause and the loss of potential that is right there for the taking if the executives were only willing.
  • The other employees follow the lead of the executives in hiding weaknesses since the executives have shown by example that hiding is the cultural norm for the organization.
  • The other employees are negatively impacted by this and add time to their second job descriptions as part of coping.

A successful move to a workforce optimization culture begins in the hearts and minds of upper-management. Without the buy-in from the top (CEO or President level) real, lasting changes are unlikely to occur. This is because without the sincere desire and commitment at this level, changes in the culture will be stymied.

The example needs to start at the top. Expressions like “You need to walk the talk” and “Your audio and video need to match” apply here. People tend to follow the lead of their leaders. That is why they are called leaders. Thus, any change or workforce optimization effort must start with upper management setting the example and taking the lead in working on their own professional and personal development.

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7. Creation of a culture of professional and personal development as a unique competitive advantage.

The reason this step of optimizing a workforce is important is simple: The effectiveness of a workforce is dependent upon and limited by the ability of its employees to continue to improve/ develop both individually and in group interactions. When is the last time you heard a company boast that its competitive advantage is due to a stagnated workforce? If this need to improve is so obvious, why is it so difficult to accomplish? The answer is as obvious as the need: “Getting people to change!” Even the term “getting people to change” is part of the problem since it tends to create an image of applying force against resistance.

The dilemma with this mindset is that when people (leaders included) sense force being applied they naturally respond with resistance. As discussed earlier, the traditional form of organizational leadership and management is a paradigm of using force and control to achieve desired results. As leaders rely on force and control, they are likely to experience constant resistance. If we would like to move past the “force-resistance paradigm” to a “highly-engaged workforce” paradigm, what can we do? Stated another way, how can we create an environment where people want to change because they perceive it to be for their own benefit?

The answer to this question lies in working in alignment with human psychology to engage employees by focusing on what motivates them rather than attempting to exert force and fear. When engagement is the prevailing mindset, people develop and change because they want to for their own benefit rather than feeling forced to for the benefit of the organization. When a culture evolves in this manner, challenges become seen as opportunities to grow and develop rather than as existential threats to be feared. This culture creates a significant competitive advantage over traditional organizations because it is in alignment with what brings out the best in people.

Brad Wolff

Brad Wolff is the People Maximizer. He specializes in helping companies make the most of their human potential resources. His passion is empowering people to create the business success and life fulfillment they desire, in a deep and lasting way.

Brad is managing partner for PeopleMax, an Atlanta-based workforce optimization firm. Its focus is helping companies gain control over their people problems to increase productivity, profitability and employee engagement while reducing stress and conflict. This encompasses employee alignment, development of a great culture, successful strategy and leadership effectiveness.

With more than 20 years of experience helping companies hire and retain the right people, Brad combines his understanding of human psychology and behavior with his analytical skills.  He’s also a Certified Professional Coach through the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). He also has a Certification in Managing Change in Human Systems from the Center for Human Systems. As a former CPA he also understands the numbers and quantitative side of every business.