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The Conversational Leader

Remember that course you took in grad school about listening and engaging in good conversations? Oh right, there was no such course. Not in grad school or any school before that. If we are lucky, we learn how to have a decent dialogue through good role models or supervisors along our way. Sadly, most of us do our best and call it a day.

And then there are those folks we call “naturals”. They are people who are comfortable asking interesting questions, waiting through long pauses, listening intently to responses, asking follow up questions to probe more deeply, sitting back calmly while conflicting ideas emerge, hearing what people have in common and making everyone feel heard and valued in the process. Do these people just pop out of the womb like this? Or are these skills that can be learned? And why is this important to being an effective leader?

This seems to be the focus of much of my work lately.

  • “I know that the staff just wants me to tell them what to do but I’d rather have a conversation about the issue.”
  • “We’ve had enough conversation on this topic. Now I just want to decide and move on. When is it okay to shut it down?”
  • “My style is much more conversational but I have to get up in front of larger groups to deliver our key messages. I just don’t like the bullet point driven type of communication.”
  • “I’m much better at one on one talks than conducting team meetings. I can’t keep track of all the dynamics when there are more people in the room.”
  • “I believe in consensus building for all the big stuff. But the staff seems frustrated by having to have long conversations.”
  • “I’m very comfortable letting the dialogue meander and when there are long pauses. But I can see that others are very uncomfortable. Do I have to lead these meetings differently? Or how can I get the team more adept at hashing things out?”

Although I have worked with plenty of introverted and socially awkward leaders who are very effective, those that can engage in productive conversations fare much better in the eyes of the staff. What any of us want in our interactions at work is to be heard in a respectful manner. Sure, we’d also like to get our way and for you to see how brilliant we are but we can settle for being heard. What’s more, we do our best work and have a good attitude if we know that our leaders have respected our point of view. This is why it is an important skill to develop.

For those of you who struggle with easy, productive dialogues, think about the person across from you as a storybook. There are interesting story lines, unexpected plot twists, nuanced descriptions and new chapters all waiting for you. You ask a question and hear part of the story. That makes you curious to know what happens next or what new idea or character enters the scenario. Or you hear a passage that makes you sit and think or evokes some emotional response. Although we don’t interact with a book, learning about someone else can be as reflective as reading.

Many of us are reactive rather than reflective in our conversations. That causes quick, often short sighted, responses that creates tension. Listening has stopped. Respect may not be felt. Withdrawal or aggression may ensue. Conversation has turned into combat.

But if you think of dialogue as learning the story of someone else, you can shift away from how awkward you feel. When we read, we want to know what is going to happen next. When we listen to someone else, we can ask questions to learn more. We don’t have to think as much about responding in a smart and clever way. Instead we can think about reading the next chapter.

Being adept at authentic conversation is a critical leadership skill. Creating space and dignity for others to tell their stories, to share their ideas and to feel respectfully heard is essential in developing a healthy organization. If you have received feedback that you don’t do this well, see if you can think of people as interesting novels that you are dying to read.

 

 

 

 

The Value of a Number Two Person

Current thinking suggests that a Chief Operating Officer or a Chief of Staff or an SVP of Corporate Strategy are all roles that are expensive, create an unnecessary layer at the top and not obviously valuable to the CEO or organization. What are the other executives to make of such a role? A gatekeeper, no line responsibility, no accountability to the bottom line, a cost center? In all the ways that an organization is measured, how can you quantify the outputs of any of these right hand roles? When budgets are tight and there is slashing afoot, these are some of the first people on the firing line. I think that is horribly shortsighted.

Few executive roles have a broad view of the organization. Finance, HR, communications and strategy do but there is very specific functional expertise attached to those jobs. Although they may serve the whole system, they don’t necessarily have deep knowledge of the day in-day out work. CEOs reach out to the functional heads to get answers but who helps weave all the parts together? Sometimes the CEO can do that but his/her attention is diluted because of all the external responsibilities. Also, s/he may not get the most unvarnished data upon which to draw conclusions because of the status differential between the CEO and those on the ground.

How can the CEO know: if the strategy is being well implemented, if the critical priorities are on track, if various departments are operating productively, if the latest change initiative is taking hold, if there are pockets of resistance or rebellion, if there are under utilized superstars or if there are projects that should be ended? Back in the day, a Number Two person had the scoop. Since the early 2000’s those roles have been disappearing because consultants were claiming it was just an expensive extra layer with no obvious value.

I propose that it is time for the pendulum to swing back in favor of a right hand wo/man. Here’s why.

  • Organizations need connective tissue. Try as they might, breaking down silos is still a big problem for organizations. Few leadership teams achieve a holistic, systemic approach to how they operate on a day to day basis. I’m not talking about those annual budget and strategy meetings; I mean getting the work done. Whatever collective agreements get made, everyone goes off into their own world to manage their slice. A great Number Two person sees across all these functions and helps create internal partnerships that aren’t obvious, knows who needs extra support and how to get those resources, steps in where necessary to keep things moving forward and tinkers around the edges. S/he has the broadest and deepest knowledge of the operations and people and can stitch pieces together to get the right things done.
  • Individuals need a sounding board. There needs to be a safe place/person where people can vent, problem solve out loud and be less censored. This person keeps the confidences, is highly respected and trusted, tries to get people to work out issues and then sends them away to go forth and be productive. HR can be used this way but a Number Two is more immersed in the business and is granted more credibility.
  • Someone needs to understand the politics without playing politics. Organizational dynamics can be infuriating, a time suck and unproductive. Someone who is perceived as neutral (the “ollie ollie oxen free” zone) can make useful suggestions to people about navigating the shark infested waters or how to steer clear of them. S/he can help individuals avoid career limiting moves or redirect attention to the important stuff. Best case scenario, Number Two can reach out to political animals and counsel them on how disruptive their behavior is and what to do instead.
  • The CEO needs a close advisor who has the true pulse of the place. If there is a Number Two, it is safe to say that the CEO has selected the person because they can work well together. S/he trusts this person to speak up when it is important, address annoying but critical issues away from the CEO, push back and challenge him/her, serve the whole organization rather than a small fiefdom, be a sounding board, offer early warning signs of trouble, share insights about morale and tell the truth always.
  • Without having a horse in the game, the Number Two serves the organization. Rather than bringing in the quarterly sales numbers or successfully launching a new product or orienting 35 new employees, there are no specific numbers this person must hit. Instead, s/he is helping others achieve their numbers. While divisional heads may use this as a way to dismiss the value of a Number Two, the organization at large is well supported by this person. In other words, everyone wins.

Can all this value be quantified? Nope. Do organizations know what they are missing without this person? Not particularly except for those mythic stories that float around the building about that long gone Chief of Staff who made the place hum. Do organizations understand what they are getting when they have a Number Two? Sometimes. Sort of. So if you can’t quite name it or measure it, how can you assign value to this role?

Have we really arrived at a place where only those things or people that have a numerical value are prized? Have we reduced the world of work to all numbers? Have we become so robotic that if someone isn’t directly contributing to the bottom line then they are fluff or overhead? I call bullshit. One of the greatest things a strong Number Two does for an organization is connection. Connection between people, projects, teams, functions, goals, opportunities, overlapping strategies and initiatives. Connection that closes the gaps between competing priorities and scarce resources. Connection to bring a wide swath of people together to solve extremely difficult problems. Connection between levels and across departments. Connection between people or activities that seem diametrically opposed. Connection to make the right stuff happen throughout the organization.

So before you consider eliminating a Number Two role in your organization because you can’t exactly define what this person does and what numerical value to assign, please stop. This may just be one of those positions that is not a commodity but can be Priceless.

Bring Your Humanity To Work

Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.

We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.

We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.

We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.

We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.

We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.

We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.

These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.

We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.

Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.

It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!

Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.

What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.

We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”

Monologues and Dialogues

Pop quiz. Which would you rather….

  • Sit in an hour long meeting just listening or speaking up when you have something to say?
  • Being told by your boss how you are performing or having a conversation about how things are going?
  • Work on a team with a leader who doles out directives or contributing to the planning and shaping of the project?
  • Attend a conference where you soak up the expert’s wisdom or having a chance to ask her questions?

Chances are you would rather be more engaged but you still appreciate taking in information too. If you scored yourself “it depends” then you see this as situational. Good answer. But I guarantee that most of us spend way too much time on the receiving end of a monologue that we are desperate to shut off. “Make it stop” is what we are screaming in our heads. Politeness is what we display. After all, we still want a job when this person comes up for air.

Set aside the experts we love to listen to for a TED talk. Think about daily work situations. Remember a time (probably 5 minutes ago) when someone dominated a conversation; s/he cut others off, talked over people, didn’t ask a single question, displayed arrogance or aggression. What did you make of this behavior? This person is insecure, loves a good fight, has no emotional intelligence, needs to be the smartest person in the room, needs to show you that s/he is the authority on the topic, is just a royal pain in the ass? It doesn’t actually matter which of these conclusions are true. It is more about the lasting impression this person leaves. We will ascribe all kinds of crazy to him/her. And we will try to minimize our time with him/her. The reason: grown-ups and professionals do not appreciate monologues when dialogue would be so much more effective.

Monologues have the impact of cutting off conversation. Almost all work is more dynamic and productive when there is dialogue; the back and forth exchange of ideas and questions to arrive in new spaces that weren’t there at the beginning of the conversation. Monologues don’t go anywhere. The language tends to be “I this” and “you need to that”. It is experienced as condescending and frustrating. When you try to interrupt the lecture with questions or different opinions, you quickly realize this is fruitless or painful. “You don’t know what you are talking about” or the person not even acknowledging that you have spoken.

People who see themselves as The Expert or The Smart One favor monologues. What could we lowly knuckleheads offer? Of course, this masks insecurities and comes off with loads of arrogance. Sadly, they don’t appreciate that most of us know that the smartest among us never have to broadcast it.

Some people prefer to be constantly in charge and in control of the environment; further signs of psychological vulnerabilities. This presents a dilemma for everyone else who is hungry for collaboration and shared responsibilities.

The bottom line for those who are more comfortable delivering monologues and cutting off all conversation is that they have low tolerance for being challenged. They fear being diminished or stupid or unable to respond to a new thought. Their anxieties loom larger than any likely reality so their behavior persists. It’s a shame, really.

The ability to engage in a lively dialogue can be the envy of these one-way communicators. A good leader asks questions, is curious about others and their ideas, enjoys riffing and generally finds other people interesting. They have a ton of experience that indicates that conversations and debates yield better solutions, ideas and outcomes. They also know that professionals are more satisfied under these circumstances.

If you are someone who struggles with dialogues, get some help. Engage a coach or mentor who can teach you some of these skills. If you sense that this is a life-long pattern that taps some deeper sore spots, get a therapist. Chances are your friends and family don’t enjoy this behavior any more than your colleagues do. Something is holding you back from truly connecting with others. Figure out what that is and fix it. Work (and life!) will be so much richer and more fulfilling if you do.

The Understated Leader: Part Three

There are hidden gems in all our organizations. They are the people who consistently do great work, play well with others, ask good questions and listen attentively. What they don’t do is make a lot of noise. That is not part of their DNA. It’s a shame that those horn blowers suck up our attention. We end up missing out on amazing stuff happening all around us.

I’ve written here https://getrealleadership.com/2014/12/22/the-understanded-leader-contd/ and here  https://getrealleadership.com/2013/09/03/a-great-example-of-an-understated-leader/ about The Understated Leader in the past. This is a low ego, highly collaborative and not flashy person who is productive and admired. For this post I want to focus on two key strengths these folks have that all organizations need so much more of: leading effective teams and facilitating innovation.

Take a look around your organization and identify those teams that work especially well. They are energized, flexible and crank out good results. You see the members collaborating easily, laughing and getting down to business. They are proud of small and big wins and examine setbacks. What would you say about the formal leader of this type of team? What behaviors do you observe?

Understated leaders tend to manage teams by:

  • Guiding rather than directing or inserting themselves
  • Assuming the collective skills and knowledge of the members will get the job done
  • Being a resource rather than a driver
  • Asking loads of questions to draw out the ideas of the members
  • Facilitating team feedback and reflection
  • Deferring praise away from self and onto the team

These leaders have a fundamental belief that the best work gets done through teams of people. They coach members about how to work well together and are reluctant to intervene when things get jammed up. They value both the interpersonal skills required to collaborate as well as the improved problem solving and outcomes when more heads are in the game.

Shift focus now to how creativity and innovation take place at your organization. Are there people with special roles for that job? Is everyone responsible for it? Are some leaders more prone to new ideas and new ways of doing things while others take the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” approach? Does innovation happen unexpectedly or is it baked into the way the business is conducted? Are some staff frustrated with the lack of invention while others feel constant pressure to be creative?

When it comes to Understated Leaders, you will often see them approach innovation in these ways:

  • Challenge teams to go further, push the envelope, anticipate what happens down the road
  • Look for the best answers and input rather than the easiest or quickest or cheapest one
  • Anticipate people’s responses to the new thing and plan for the transition
  • Entrust teams to solve big issues rather than select one or two subject matter experts
  • Tap people from across and up and down the organization to invent something new or solve problems
  • Pose challenging questions for the team to address rather than take over the process

Much like their point of view about teams, these leaders know from repeated experience that answers to tough issues do not start and stop with themselves. They may feel ultimately accountable but they do not feel that they alone can solve the problem or identify what the next new thing should be. They are adept at framing the challenge, encouraging expanded thinking and new inputs and helping the team reflect on what is/is not working.

Clearly, leading teams and leading innovation require similar skill sets. And Understated Leaders are particularly proficient in these areas. It is this humble, engaging, facilitative and challenging style that works so well.

But what do you see when you look around your organization at the state of both team work and innovation? Probably a smattering of Understated Leaders but mostly more traditional leaders. I define traditional leaders as: out front, take charge, results driven, declarative statements, direction setting, strong presence. You know, the stuff we all read about in the management literature. There is a time and a place for traditional leadership, that’s for sure. But when it comes to teams and innovation, a very different style is more effective.

And here is where the rub is. We pay way more attention to traditional leaders than we do to the quieter ones. Both may raise their hands but we gravitate towards the noise. Both may get results but a closer look will usually reveal a more productive process and more stimulated and enabled staff with the Understated Leader. Both leaders may praise their teams’ accomplishments but only one will do that without ever using the word “I”.

For those of you who are in the position to dole out great assignments, I urge you to open your eyes and ears to the folks all around you who are not tooting their own horns. Listen to what staff say about working with various leaders. Pay attention to the level of engagement and enthusiasm or pressure and anxiety staff feel. Look under the hood of the reported results; make sure you blow away all the smoke and mirrors to see what is really there.

Rather than always gravitating towards the obvious shiny objects take a chance on the more hidden luminous assets.

 

Is It Caution, Resistance or Differences? Reactions to Change

Why does one person rejoice and another one feel dread when change is afoot? Why does a leader drag his heels while the staff is pushing for change? Why does a team stage a revolt when a new leader comes on board? Why do some people just sit back and hope to wait out the latest initiative?

Few things will evoke more “stupid human tricks” than responding to change efforts. Most of us are wired to feel cozy with homeostasis; it mirrors our biological imperative. Our companies, however, have a knack for upsetting that balance. That sets off our own idiosyncratic reactions. Understanding some typical patterns in ourselves and those we lead can help us figure out how to interpret and manage the dynamics.

Which category do you fit in? What about your staff?

  • “The CEO just doesn’t understand.” These people have usually been around for awhile and have done a thorough factor analysis to point out that a) this is not cost effective or b) it will damage the business or c) people will get hurt or confused or disengaged or a whole host of other terrible things. If only the leader had consulted more people (sic. ME) then s/he would clearly understand that this is a very bad idea.
  • “I respectfully disagree.” A variation on the first group, these are objective thinkers with low ego needs. They have studied the situation and simply have a different opinion about the best course forward. They may actually welcome some parts of the change but their problem solving brains lead down different tributaries and they believe their analysis is a stronger one.
  • “We’re fine as we are.” Leaders and/or staff exclaim that there is nothing to see here, everything is going fantastically well and no change is necessary. These are people who struggle to absorb the facts on the ground; poor earnings, market loss, dissatisfied customers and other relevant metrics. Like an ostrich, they prefer their heads in the sand.
  • “You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding!!” Open hostility with a tinge of self righteousness and arrogance; always a fun crowd to deal with. This is not the same as push back, which is more polite and rational. These folks get nasty and make this personal although it is often hard to know exactly why that is. Where does that rage come from?
  • “Yippee! This will be so fun.” Thank the heavens for those who truly enjoy changing things up. They often see the benefit of doing things differently, like learning new stuff and have a view that if you aren’t changing then you aren’t keeping ahead of the pack. They are not just early adopters; they are flexible, open minded and adventurous.
  • “My mouth says yes but the rest of me says no way.” Most people fit into this category. They want to be good sports and have some appreciation for the rationale for change but they struggle mightily to get comfortable with it. They would rather stay in their comfort zones and don’t like the unsteadiness that comes with doing new things. They take one step forward and two steps back as they slowly inch themselves towards inevitable disruption.
  • “Please leave me alone.” If I just ignore this, maybe it will go away. These are often more introverted folks who focus on self mastery. Imposed changes upset their ecosystems and they can become semi-paralyzed. They keep doing their work but resist the change until they realize there is no choice.

As you can see, some people are more cautious or uncomfortable with change. Others can’t get enough of it while some prefer to ignore it altogether. Some people have a different rational opinion while others are just emotional spewers. As leaders, we are quick to lump everyone together and label it resistance but that isn’t accurate. Simpler, yes, but not correct.

If we see everyone as resistant, we will just use the hammer. But we can’t take out 20 different tools so we don’t just see all those nails. I suggest that leaders do three things across the board that will address the needs of this cast of characters.

  • Acknowledge differences right up front. You are launching a new organization structure. In your initial communications (and for the first few months of implementation) speak about the range of reactions you expect from enthusiasm to skepticism to complete disagreement. Tell the staff there is room for all these emotions because each person has a unique way of integrating new behaviors and arrangements. That’s okay. You want people to remain professional and civil so any venting or feedback needs to be delivered with positive intentions of supporting the movement forward. We humans want to know that we are not invisible; that our thoughts or feelings are heard. Signal that you do and you will hear them.
  • Explain the Why repeatedly. Most leaders breeze over this in favor of getting into the What details. Sure, each of us wants to know What is changing for me. But we are more likely to withstand the discomfort of change if we have a clear understanding about Why we are being asked to do this. (“Because I said so” does not work well with adults.) If the leader lays out what threats or challenges or opportunities are at the door and Why we need to act now, most people will agree even if they might disagree on this specific plan.
  • Don’t tolerate saboteurs. There will always be a small group of people who will act badly to undermine the success of the change effort. It might look passive aggressive or overt. It might be an individual or an angry cabal. We all know who those folks are and we have difficulty gauging how much real power they have to tear things apart. But we know we can’t stand being in the same room with them. As leaders, we must cut these people off. They need to know they must play nice or else. And you need to follow through on the “or else”. This is when a hammer is appropriate.

We can’t be all things to all people in our organizations. But we can give voice to the normal, human responses to change. It doesn’t matter if I’m slow as molasses and grumpy and you are quick and happy about it. In the end, the change will take place. It’s just that some of us will get there sooner and with less commotion than the rest of us.

How To Stay Clean In A Toxic Environment

Your boss is a nut case. Or your team is dysfunctional. Or your department is at the bottom of the heap. You can smell the stench all around you. It may be easy for you to point to others and their deficiencies but eventually people in the company will assume you are guilty by association. Is it possible to remain above the fray? If so, how can you emerge untouched by the dirt?

Amy joined the marketing department while it was still in transition. It was widely known that the group was broken, dysfunctional and avoided as much as possible. Samir was brought in as CMO with the mandate to fix the team and the function as soon as possible. Amy was one of his first new hires. He told her that the department was in turnaround mode and her skills and attitude would help shape the future. She was up for the challenge because she admired the company and felt that she and Samir were on the same page.

As the newbie, Amy was courted by all the splinter groups. The Back Stabbers couldn’t wait to tell Amy all kinds of crappy things about team members. The Never Ever Samir posse trash talked their boss with a vengeance. The Hallway Whisperers were hellbent on sharing every innuendo without any evidence to back it up. Amy felt dizzy from all the lobbying to join forces with one of these factions. She had moments when she was drawn to this one or that one but her shit detector told her to stay away.

Her resolve to remain detached from these cliques isolated Amy. She struggled to get the cooperation she needed to get her work done and she sensed that she was a target for the underground slams. She considered whether or not to discuss this with Samir but decided not to take that route.

Here is what Amy did instead.

  • Turned her attention to the internal customers. If the marketing function was broken she was going to demonstrate what a talented and responsive partner looked like. She worked closely with the key internal folks to understand their needs and to find clever ways to deliver on her promises. If she couldn’t get the assigned graphic designer to cooperate, she found newer and less tainted ones. If she couldn’t get all the sign offs she needed, she acted anyway and used the customer’s delight to justify her bending of the rules.
  • Made allies with less divisive team members. No matter what the reporting relationships were, Amy reached out to some hidden gems in the department. These were people who did not have a power base or loud voices so they were often ignored. Short of creating a shadow organization, Amy was able to get some remarkable work products done for the customers.
  • Established a “no trash” zone around herself. When she was with internal customers and they wanted to gossip about the marketing folks, she shut it down. When team mates wandered into her office to share the latest dust up, she shut it down. When peers around the building wanted to get the inside scoop, she shut it down. It became a no-win for people who wanted to engage Amy in the bullshit so they stopped trying.
  • Kept tight boundaries in her discussions with Samir. When he asked for feedback about the bad apples, she never offered generic impressions or hearsay. She stuck to her own experiences and described the specific behaviors she encountered. She suggested that Samir get HR involved to gather additional feedback so that people could be more open and the process could be more objective.

Taking this approach, you can probably guess how things turned out for Amy and the department. Yes, she emerged as the go-to person for the internal customers. Yes, the less visible and under-utilized team members began to rise to the surface. Yes, the evil doers were marginalized. They were forced to change their ways or be fired. Samir spent several months having one-on-one discussions with these folks (with help from HR) and two-thirds left the organization. As they were departing, new people were brought on board. And, yes, Amy was eventually promoted.

It is very tough to navigate a toxic environment. Find people who are not crazy or harmful and get the work done with them. In spite of the challenges, be the shining example. Above all, find and strictly adhere to your moral compass. You will be recognized as the exception and will become a magnet for the right stuff. Setting yourself apart from the nuts turns up the contrast on them. And that will be a good thing for you.

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