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When Good People Behave Badly

Posted by Bob Corlett on August 7, 2009

Today's guest post is by Pat Nichols,  who does business as Transition Leadership International, LLC. He serves civic sector organizations facing major strategic transitions--start-ups, turnarounds, mergers etc., as interim CEO or as a consultant.

These are tumultuous time and good people often behave badly in times of turmoil.  Some engage in back stabbing, rationalizing that someone else is about to stab them.  Some exclude key people on important issues because those others “would only obstruct progress.”  Some conduct whispering campaigns.  Some use anger as a weapon.  Almost universally, they impute the worst possible motives to one another with the claim that only a villain would behave in the way those others do.

The brief reflections here are based upon 14 years of leading nonprofit/NGO turnarounds, primarily as interim CEO.

When a leader takes responsibility for calming the roiled seas and charting a new course, it seems to me s/he will derive great advantage from several key attributes and behaviors:

Listening:  People have to tell their tales, in part to justify behavior that they know is less than exemplary.  They need to vent and, then, to create new, better stories.

Calm:  People will try to draw the leader’s anxiety to the level of their own, as a sort of emotional vindication.  By exuding calm the leader can do much to reduce the turmoil.

Rule setting:  I find it useful to ask people to tell their stories in ways that don’t point fingers at others.  Most won’t be able to do it, but the request sets a tone and gives the leader a way of tamping things down when the rhetoric becomes too intense.

Selective affirmation:  This is right out of Psychology 101.  It seems to me the leader needs to affirm the emotions without affirming the conclusions [e.g., “That must have been very hurtful to you. I wonder how the other person perceived it.”]

Discouraging attribution of motives:  People often want to reinforce their positions by ascribing evil intent to their adversaries (e.g. “the only reason she would have done that was that she is after me.”  Once those motives take on an aura of truth any bad behavior on the speaker’s part becomes an act of virtue—because fighting evil is inherently virtuous.  So, I think it is important to directly, if gently, confront this.  (I try to use phrases like, “I understand why, seeing the facts as you do, you would come to that conclusion.  But, isn’t it possible that his motive was…).

Trust:  It is important that the leader not jump to conclusions, that s/he assume that each person involved is both well meaning and reasonable.

Mitigate risks:  That said, some people will prove that they don’t deserve the trust.  If most people think that Blackbeard is a cut throat there’s a pretty good chance he is.  So, though, both Blackbeard and the organization may benefit from trust, nonetheless, it would be wise to think about how cut throat behavior might damage the organization.  The leader can, then, be prepared in advance to deal with it.

Tie everything to mission and values:  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, people, in working, want to identify with a mission and a set of values.  In turmoil, lots of other values and emotions get in the way.  It seems to me the leader should be constantly puling conversations back to the mission and the core (or aspirational) values of the organization.  (e.g “I understand why you did that, but if we’re committed to a transparent and supportive workplace aren’t there other approaches available?”).

Almost everyone actually wants to behave honorably, in my experience.  However, in situations of turmoil the models and expectations often get distorted and doing the right thing actually comes to seem inconsistent with the organizational norms.  Thus, treating others well can seem too risky. Approaches like the ones above have been useful for me in trying to build a healthy organizational culture.

Topics: Human Resources, Performance Management, Executive Transition