Everyone matters

Leader’ lack of engagement impacts both the individual and the organisation, say Pierre Casse and Eoin Banahan

A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”  – Charles Darwin

A sad reality

People seldom give enough thought to the point and purpose of their working lives and although for some people work is not the most important aspect of life, for many people work is what defines them. Indeed, given the pressures of day-to-day life, such introspection is often a luxury. Let’s face it, we don’t have time to sit back and self-assess. For most people, the work-day week is an agenda of commitments and responsibilities, a seemingly endless catalogue of activities and decisions, each one more urgent than the last, and for many of us, much of what we have to do is not completely of our choosing. But that’s life! Or is it?

When you think about it, in those occasional moments when you allow your mind to ‘zoom out’, you have little choice but to do the best you can to satisfy the expectations of your boss, your team, your organisation, your customers, and society at large. After all, you have people who depend on you, personal responsibilities and bills to pay. While there is nothing wrong with this familiar scenario provided, it gives you a sense of fulfilment and the opportunity to be the best that you can be. In today’s world of profound uncertainty, [pullquote]dedication to fulfilling the expectations of the boss, team and/or organisation is neither a guarantee of stability and security nor a fool-proof recipe for having a good life[/pullquote].

Over many years as trainers and consultants, working with men and women in a wide range of organisations across the world, our experience is that a significant majority of people are not living their lives the way they would wish if they had the freedom to do so. In reality, most people direct their energy and creativity towards ensuring that others can fulfil their life’s ambitions. In this sense, it is fair to say that most people do not live authentic lives. On the contrary, most people in organisations behave the way they do because they want to impress those who have more power. They want that recognition and acknowledgement from the boss so they behave according to what they think the boss wants. This pattern is repeated as you progress up through the organisation’s structure until you reach the top. If we assume that in most organisations, the chief executive officer is the ultimate boss, we can legitimately ask if CEOs are examples of people who live authentically. Having seen many CEOs in action over the years, in team meetings, shareholders’ conferences and briefings to market analysts, we suggest that there are very few, if any, good examples of people living authentic lives.

Our observation is that [pullquote]most senior organisational leaders are conditioned by their ambitions, the politics of the organisation and, for many, the pressure from the stock market[/pullquote]. Although this may be understandable, given the nature of the world of work and the organisations within it, it is dispiriting to see so many people surrendering their authenticity in such a servile manner.

The table below provides some of the most common illustrations of demeaning behaviour that we have observed in organisations. Reflect on each example and ask yourself if this is something you do, or have done in the past. Record your response, Yes/No, in the right-hand column.

Facing the sad reality

Let’s now consider your responses and what conclusions might be drawn. It is worth bearing in mind that our purpose here is to stimulate your thinking so that you can decide for yourself where you stand in relation to the issues under consideration. It is our experience that questioning people’s ability to live authentic lives in the workplace is a sensitive undertaking which can stimulate emotions, both positive and negative. Therefore, we would like to stress that our suggestions are not meant to be prescriptive but rather thought-provoking. So with this in mind, if you have answered ‘yes’ to at least five of the items listed in the table, then we would suggest that you are among the many people who, for whatever reason, legitimate or otherwise, do not live fully authentic lives at work. In effect, you are betraying yourself.

Over the years, drawing on our experience in training, management development and coaching people at all levels in a wide variety of organisations, we have observed a steady increase in the number of people who claim that they do not have the opportunity to perform according to their own fundamental values. Often people claim that they have a clear idea of what should be done for the good of the team/organisation but they are prevented from doing so since what they feel is appropriate, more often than not, is not in line with the expectations and/or aspirations of those to whom they report. Naturally, as coaches/trainers, we have challenged this attitude, questioning the implications for the person’s integrity. The responses betray a depressingly recurrent theme. People say: “If I don’t align myself with the boss’s expectations, I will be disadvantaged and I may even lose my job”. For many people, fear is a major barrier to leading an authentic working life.

We have challenged senior executives, those at the top, for their reactions to this disturbing trend and there is also a common theme among the responses given. In first instance, senior executives often adopt an aggressively defensive posture and question the validity of our contentions. When pressed to consider our contentions as an accurate reflection of reality on the ground, senior managers are quick to point out that their organisations enter into employment contracts which make clear that people are expected to contribute to the success of the organisation. When challenged further, they passionately refute any suggestion that the object of such agreements is, or should be, to provide people with the opportunity to live their lives according to their fundamental values. “People are not here in this company to enjoy themselves” is a popular refrain. However, we question why senior management must view the interests of the organisation on the one hand as diametrically opposed to providing their people with opportunities to perform according to their own, personal, fundamental values? Why must so many senior executives continue to be seduced by the ‘either/or’ proposition? We suggest that the potential pay-off for both individual and organisation in every respect is high if the working environment is designed and managed in such a way that the aspirations of both individual and organisation are addressed simultaneously. Everybody wins!

But don’t take our word for it. There is plenty of evidence to support our contention. Successful companies such as Google, Kaspersky, Facebook, Apple, Lego, Twitter, to name but a few, have proved particularly effective in matching individual’s aspirations to job requirements. As Jack Welch, previous CEO of corporate giant GE, an executive famous for his success at building high performance organisations, was fond of saying to his people: “Join me and we will design something around your talents.”

The nature of the sadness

“Every man dies. Not every man really lives” – William Wallace

The current reality for most people in many organisations today is that, sadly, they are not making best use of their true potential. For many, the organisational environment is not designed and managed in such a way that allows them to do so. Fear is a key obstacle for everyone involved and people are under pressure to contribute to the aspirations and expectations of others rather than their own. This is reflected in the nature of common approaches to performance management such as ‘management by objectives’, ‘organisational value system’, ‘job appraisal review’, ‘and ‘peer pressure’ and so on that we find in most organisations. In this sense, many people are not living their own lives but living the lives of others. Despite evidence to the contrary, many organisational leaders resist the idea that it is in their interests, and those of the organisation, to design the work environment around the talents and aspirations of their people. But the question still remains: Why is this so?

In our experience, one of the fundamental reasons is that most people are not conditioned to constantly and continually challenge their assumptions. In fact, most people are unaware of how critical our assumptions are in determining our attitudes and behaviour. Moreover, it’s fascinating to see that most people fail to realise the transitory nature of assumptions and the importance of subjecting them to constant revision.

Let’s be clear as to what we mean when we say assumptions can so easily become obsolete by providing some examples as follows:

Assumption: “My manager expects me to behave as he/she does.”

In our coaching sessions, this is a very common response when we question people’s reasons for behaving the way they do. Of course, while we have seen some instances where this assumption is valid, in the majority of cases, the assumption is false. Following careful reflection and analysis, we conclude that there are two principal reasons for this:

a) The person who holds the assumption does so for historical reasons. At one time in the past they worked with a boss who expected it and as a result they assume, incorrectly, that all bosses expect the same.

b) They think that by mirroring the boss’s behaviour, they will attract the boss’s patronage. So, metaphorically speaking, they prostrate themselves at the boss’s feet.

However, in most of the 360-degree feedback analysis programmes we have conducted, where this assumption comes to light, this is not at all what the boss expects.

Assumption: “My boss/organisation would never agree to my desire to redesign my job.”

It’s a common response to our suggestion that if the job does not allow you to be yourself, then make it so. Of course there are bosses/organisations who would resist any such initiatives but, in our experience, these are in the minority. We conclude that there are at least two principal reasons why people cling to this assumption:

a) The effort required to redesign the job will require creativity and innovation and let’s face it, there is more comfort in the familiar.

b) In redesigning the job, they will expose themselves to different expectations that will require risk and increased pressure.

It is surprising how many bosses/organisations are open to the idea of job-redesign provided the business case is clear and it can be shown that the boss/organisation will benefit. The problem is that to redesign the job requires courage, a characteristic sadly lacking in many
organisations today.

Assumption: “I must skate carefully because I’m always on thin ice.”

Let’s be realistic; such an assumption is not so surprising in today’s economic environment but we contend that in many, if not most instances, this fear is exaggerated. This assumption is nothing more nor less than a symptom of the fear that pervades most organisations. Once again, in some instances the assumption may be accurate but in our experience, despite the challenges in the current climate, this assumption is overcooked. We see two principal reasons for the enduring characteristic of this assumption:

a) The belief that the person’s position is always ‘on the line’ is an excuse not to take initiative.

b) The situation is so precarious that it is better to ‘tip-toe’ around the challenges rather than meet them head on.

We refer to this as the ‘fail-safe’ position but in reality it’s an excuse for complacency.

Assumption: “My organisation does not encourage risk taking”

This is one of the most recurrent assumptions we hear when we challenge people on why they feel they can’t have the work lives they want. Of course there are organisations that are more risk-averse than others. Indeed in the current climate, many organisations have adopted a cautious posture for good reason, but, in our experience, organisations are, generally speaking, open to risk taking provided the risks are carefully calculated and potential contingencies are given appropriate consideration. We contend that there are at least two reasons why people are reluctant to relinquish this assumption:

a) It is not the organisation that is risk-averse but the individual who holds on to the assumption.

b) In taking a risk, the risk-taker exposes themselves to the possibility of success or failure. If they fail, then the repercussions are obvious but if they succeed then they are raising the bar and with it, the pressure of increased expectation.

Let’s be clear, all organisations will fluctuate in their attitude towards risk depending on the economic climate but the issue we want to highlight here is that although the organisational assumption towards risk shows some degree of flexibility, the individual attitude is much more stubborn. In effect, like the previous assumption, people use it as an excuse for complacency.

Assumption: “People who do not challenge the system have better career opportunities.”

This assumption is a particularly difficult one to challenge for us because, unlike the other examples we have given above, there is evidence to support it and moreover, there is an enduring quality to the evidence. Organisational systems and structures are, by their very nature, peculiarly thick-skinned. However, in this 21st century, given the geopolitical and economic challenges with which all organisations have to contend, systems and structures that are not open to challenge will become extinct. With respect to this assumption, two considerations must be borne in mind:

a) Without people who are prepared to challenge the system, stasis will result and extinction is inevitable.

b) People who have the courage to challenge the system must do so having carefully calculated the risks and implications.

It’s important to realise that timing is crucial when challenging any system. It’s a question of playing the political game to your advantage while balancing the range of interests involved.

The importance of assumptions and the influence they have on our attitudes and behaviour must not be overlooked nor underestimated. We feel so passionately about this because we see potentially exceptionally talented people squandering their creativity and potential by playing roles that are in direct conflict with their fundamental work life aspirations. They do so in order to survive but the outcome serves nobody’s interest in the long run. The individual is not making the best of the talents they possess, the boss is not getting the best out of his/her people and the organisation is deprived of the creativity so necessary for success. This can’t be right.

An antidote to the sadness

Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect that organisations will become enlightened environments in which people can live authentic working lives in the near future. So what can people do to counteract this sadness? We suggest that the best possible course of action for the individual is to ensure that he/she has a range of options available, both inside and outside the organisation. People who have options have, at their disposal, a powerful way of dealing with the fear that fuels inauthenticity in the workplace. More specifically, a person with options has:

  • Assurance – options provide a safety net so that people can express themselves as they would wish without feeling the constant threat of sanction
  • Freedom – options liberate the individual from servility
  • Courage – if the individual has alternatives then he/she will challenges counter-productive assumptions.

Options provide people with a foundation upon which to build an authentic life. If organisations are to effectively meet the challenges of tomorrow, success can only come about through talented, creative individuals working and collaborating in an environment in which they have the opportunity to be the best they can be. For the team/organisational leader who believes that people must be shackled by restrictive employment contracts designed to limit rather than liberate, the future, such as it is, will prove very sad indeed.

The question as we conclude this article is what can we do to improve our propensity to live authentically in our working lives? In other words, what actionable guidelines are available to us if we wish to avoid the sadness which is all too characteristic in today’s working environment?

If you wish to be true to yourself in the workplace you must:

  1. Clarify what you want from your career/work life.
  2. Review and revise your career/work life plan frequently and systematically.
  3. Use a mentor for objective guidance from time to time.
  4. Communicate your personal aspirations and expectations to colleagues with whom you work.
  5. Check your options both inside and outside the team/organisation from time to time.
  6. Develop your political antennae through monitoring people’s behaviours and interactions.
  7. Calculate the risks involved before you speak out in opposition to those with more power than you.
  8. Identify the aspirations of others and build alliances accordingly.
  9. Prioritise your interests and review from time to time.
  10. Develop your negotiation skill set.

Further reading

Casse P. and Claudel G.P. (2012). The Philosphical Leader: How philosophy can turn people into more effective leaders, Xlibris

Casse P. and Banahan E., (Spring 2015) Learning Leadership, Skolkovo Moscow School of Management


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