When Leaders Have the Courage to Confront the Unacceptable

“Jeremy hasn’t called out Courtney on it and the rest of the management team thinks he’s a wimp because of it. He has no idea that they’ve lost respect for him because of that.”

Brent (not his real name), a highly respected senior manager at a company that prides itself in having a healthy culture, had been expressing his frustration with his colleague Courtney’s lack of work ethic, including a Howard Hughes-like reclusiveness when it came to showing up at work. Brent had expressed his concern at least once to their boss, Jeremy, about how Courtney’s behavior affected his own ability to deliver results, yet nothing changed.

As I heard Brent’s story and his observation about how Jeremy’s unwillingness to have the courageous conversation was affecting Jeremy’s credibility — and therefore his ability to lead — it reminded me of a coaching client of mine from a few years back.

Jillian (again, not her real name) was a senior leader being groomed for a promotion. She was widely recognized for her brilliance and deep institutional knowledge. She loved her work and fully intended to work there until retirement. Her employer was also actively engaged in succession planning with her because they realized how crippled they would be if something were to happen to her.

One of the themes we explored was how she could manage up. More specifically, we discussed how she could engage her manager, the president, in a conversation about two colleagues he had hired that had neither the ability nor the work ethic to do their jobs well. Instead of addressing these deficits with the two colleagues, Jillian’s boss repeatedly asked her to take on their work.

We discussed how Jillian could bring up this issue in an open, respectful way and offer possible solutions, which she did — but to no avail. Her manager said he just didn’t want to go through the process of hiring their replacements. He also confessed to despising difficult conversations.

The result?

Jillian — and all her intellectual horsepower and institutional knowledge — left.

The very risk her employer was trying to mitigate through succession planning, they brought upon themselves because of one leader’s lack of courage.

A psychologically safe culture

Now, contrast these two stories with one I heard from Josh Broder, CEO of Tilson, a national network deployment and IT professional services firm, headquartered in Portland, Maine, and a member of Inc. magazine’s 5000 fastest growing companies for the last nine years.

I was interviewing Josh for a follow-up article to “Psychological Safety Requires Courageous Leaders,” and asked him what he tried to do as a leader to foster a psychologically safe culture.

After sharing multiple examples of how Tilson demonstrates deep caring for employees as humans and not just means to an end, or machines that deliver results, he shared the following story:

Word got back to senior management that a middle manager wasn’t treating his team well. While his behavior hadn’t crossed the line into illegal hostile workplace behavior, what Broder and the leadership team heard revealed behavior that was “neither nice, nor respectful.” He would call at all hours, not show respect for employees’ right to have a private life, and would speak to his direct reports in a harsh way.

This manager was also, according to Broder, loved by Tilson’s clients because he delivered results.

I’m sure you’ve worked in organizations where senior leadership turned a blind eye to the impact of such a manager’s behavior. In doing so, they also turned a blind eye to the message this sent to other employees about how little management cared about them and their wellbeing.

Not so at Tilson.

Senior leadership interviewed team members to get more context. The consistency in feedback made it clear that his behavior was not, in Broder’s words “appropriate or normative at Tilson.”

Within 48 hours, the manager was terminated. Furthermore, Tilson’s leadership told clients and employees why the manager was released.

Recalling this choice, Broder noted that this approach went against what most HR professionals would tell you: “Just give name, rank and serial number and no explanation when someone is terminated.”

The problem with this, Broder continued, is that it would be a lost opportunity “to let employees know that if you speak up, we have your back.”

Reflecting back on this decision, Broder notes:

“One thing I’ve learned is that a key component of healing a moral injury — as can occur when a manager is not respectful of an employee — is having leadership act when the stakes are high, as was the case with our client. In the end, this actually cost us some work with the client, but this was totally worth it.”

If you have ever been lucky enough to work for a leader with this sense of honor and integrity, you know full well how that affects your loyalty, respect, and desire to give it your all, day in and day out. You also probably know firsthand the impact it has on your level of commitment and engagement when you don’t believe leadership “has your back” or cares about you.

Article Continues Below

I can still remember the response to my sharing this story with two people who work in organizations where bad behavior isn’t confronted. One said, “That just gave me chills.” The other said, “That just gave me goose bumps. Do they have any job openings?”

Listening strengthens the bond

Responding decisively to mistreatment doesn’t just show employees that you care about how they are treated, which obviously strengthens the bond between employees and employer, and fosters respect for leadership.

Responding to their concerns also helps prevent Learned Helplessness, a phenomenon that plagues organizations in which employee concerns are not welcomed nor acted upon, and where toxic behavior is ignored. These are the workplaces where mistreatment or dysfunctional behavior is brushed off with comments along the lines of: “Hey, no workplace is perfect. You’re always going to have to deal with difficult people.”

Decades of research reveals that when a human being or a laboratory animal is repeatedly placed in unpleasant situations — such as a room or a cage with a loud noise — and nothing they do can stop the unpleasant situation from continuing, they develop Learned Helplessness. In future challenging situations, they passively “take it” rather than try to escape or remedy the situation. I believe much of employee disengagement and lack of initiative that managers find so frustrating, is because of Learned Helplessness created from years of input, feedback, and concerns going unheeded or asked for and nothing changing because of it.

The cost in energy

I remember years ago hearing a leader in the childhood trauma field comment on the truism in the psychology field about the resilience of children. She commented on how people often say how amazingly resilient children are; how they can come from abusive or neglectful families and still grow up to be highly functioning adults. She commented that, while this is true, this cheery observation ignores the cost to the child.

It ignores the incredible amount of energy and life force children in these environments have to devote to survival.

Energy and life force channeled towards survival is not available for essential developmental growth. So for instance, energy and attention that should be devoted to cultivating a sense of identity, is instead used to avoid or modulate a parent’s hair-trigger, rage-fueled outbursts.

While adversity does cultivate resilience — “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”— and post-traumatic growth can come from horrible situations, there’s no denying the energetic and attentional cost of dealing with ongoing adversity.

In the workplace, the primary goal is not personal growth, but rather helping people apply their intellectual, emotional, energetic, and interpersonal resources to the best of their ability in their jobs. Thus, energy and attention required to cope with an unhealthy culture and deal with toxic behavior is energy and attention not available for producing business results.

Furthermore, the more energy and attention siphoned off for coping, the less energy and attention employees have to respond resourcefully to organizational and marketplace challenges. A beaten down, beleaguered workforce doesn’t have the resilient, optimistic, confident spirit required to meet challenges head on.

Employees who know their leaders have their backs, who know their leaders have the courage to provide appropriate protection from abuse, and haven’t had to use much of their energy and attention to cope with a toxic environment, are far more likely to have a sense of agency, personal power, and “We’ve got this!” attitude.

What about your organization?

Which stories are more likely to happen in your organization, the first two or the one from Tilson? If it’s the first two, I recommend you read and share with your fellow managers this article, plus: “Stop Paying the Price of Conversational Cowardice” and “Psychologically Safe Cultures Need Courageous Leaders.”

Find out from employees:

  • How psychologically safe they feel your culture is. Why, and the impact of this (whether positive or negative).
  • If they believe speaking up will make a difference. If so why? If not, why?
  • If they believe toxic behavior gets addressed or not. Why, and its effect (again, whether positive or negative).
  • What they would recommend your organization do to create a stronger, healthier, more psychologically safe

While the following recommendation might seem self-serving, I believe it’s true: Have an outside expert in interviewing conduct these interviews if you’re serious about getting honest, in-depth insights you can use. Not only do employees usually feel safer being open and honest with someone outside their organization, the quality of information you get is directly related to the interviewer’s skill and knowledge of factors and human needs that affect employee satisfaction and performance.

And, invest in training and coaching on how to create psychological safety, including how to bring up difficult issues in a safe, respectful way, especially when there is a power differential.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," and Dealing with a Difficult Co-Worker, volume one of the Courageous Conversations at Work series, as well over 100 articles and book chapters.

You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

Topics