One of my favorite writers/consultants on leadership, Peter Bregman, just posted a great article called Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail. His message is that we can teach leaders what to say and do until we’re blue in the face, but they don’t always have the courage to say and do it.
“What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical,” Bregman writes. “It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it.”
Bregman calls for us to find ways to develop emotional courage in leaders. Another of my favorite consultants, Margaret Morford, calls this concept “management courage” and she’s written an excellent book by the same name. Morford teaches leaders to handle tough conversations like employee poor performance, workplace politics and office gossip, and even the dreaded personal hygiene conversation. She says we must teach a set of principles to develop management courage; principles such as, “Be the most honest you can be, without being brutal.” But we must also give leaders a script. She would probably disagree with Bregman that leaders know what to say in difficult situations. Sometimes, she says, we just don’t know the words to use. And since it’s emotionally uncomfortable to bring up certain topics anyway, we’d rather just avoid the subject than try to find the right words to address it.
From my own perspective I think the culprit is often organizational culture. If the team norm is to let something go rather than address it because we value “politeness” and find tough conversations confrontational rather than useful, then it doesn’t matter how many principles or scripts we give a leader. We have to address the issue with an entire team by asking them to examine their norms.
I facilitated an instructional design project for a federal agency once, and one member of the team was driving everyone crazy. We’ll call him Dan. Dan lacked understanding of the relative importance of his piece of the material, and he demanded a disproportionate amount of everyone’s time and attention. He sent long emails filled with detailed information that was irrelevant to most of the recipients, and he dominated meetings with more of the same. Everyone complained or joked about it in his absence, but no one was willing to address it directly with him. My role in the project was not to be a consultant or trainer, but rather to be an individual contributor doing the nuts and bolts work of putting a training program together, so finally I chose to address the issue with this individual myself, hoping that I might set an example for others at the same time. I told Dan that we valued his contribution but we all needed him to take a lesser role in the project, because the material he was responsible for could only be allocated a very small space within the program. He was somewhat defensive, but he did back off.
Unfortunately, however, my actions were viewed negatively by the rest of the team. Their approach was to ignore the long emails and find clever ways to shut their teammate out of meetings without telling him why, because no one wanted to hurt his feelings. My actions were seen as confrontational rather than helpful to Dan or the team.
If I’d been working with the team as a consultant, I would have done things differently. I’d have encouraged the team to examine their shared values and talk about the relative importance of communication efficiency and their perception of “politeness.” Then I’d have asked them to create some new team norms that helped them strike a balance between the two. Whether you call it emotional courage or management courage, leaders cannot develop it alone in the face of a culture that says courage is rude.