Over the past 12 months, I have witnessed a series of shocking people-related decisions. For example:
• Retaining a technically savvy leader who demeans people with angry outbursts and derogatory comments
• Laying off employees right before Christmas, with no notice
• Transferring an employee and his family across the country to a job in which he is destined to fail
• Outsourcing a large portion of an organization without proper planning
• Hiring externally rather than promoting qualified internal candidates
Are these decisions really shocking? After all, they’re nothing new. But consider how these decisions were made: In each and every one, the impact on people was an outcome, not an objective.
The leaders who made these decisions are good people. They love their spouses, invest in their kids, and support their friends and communities. But they have been taught, year after crazy year, that success in today’s global ultra-competitive marketplaces requires focusing on keeping the shareholders, customers, governments, and lawyers happy—with people considered after the fact or not at all.
There’s no question that staying competitive requires change, and that change creates winners and losers. Every day, leaders make decisions that affect people’s lives. The challenge is to make them with heart, as if your children are watching.
We have raised a generation or two of mercenary leaders, fed almost exclusively on maximizing shareholder value. In their book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), John Mackey and Raj Sisodia describe mercenary leaders as “hired guns…who operate with short time horizons and tend to largely disregard the interests of stakeholders other than shareholders.”
Truth be told, I am—or rather, hopefully, was—one of those leaders. More than 30 years ago, I graduated from a highly ranked MBA program that didn’t teach the role of leaders in building and sustaining a healthy organization. Soon after, I joined an “up-or-out” company, and learned how to identify the bottom 10 percent of employees and manage them out of the organization. The annual succession planning didn’t require me, or any other leader, to assess how I was negatively affecting the organizational climate, or to identify how I was going to remedy the weaknesses in my leadership by clarifying purpose, strengthening leadership team cohesiveness, and closing the gap between stated values and practiced behaviors.
The collective consequences of such malnourished leadership are reflected in the employee engagement statistics. According to a 2013 Gallup report on the state of the American workplace, 70 percent of employees are actively disengaged. Last year, another survey identified employee engagement as one of the top five critical human-capital priorities facing organizations.
Typically, big problems require big solutions—but not in this case. As I realized the powerful potential impact of employee commitment over compliance, I met with a wise executive who advised me to act like a “border guard” for my organization by letting the good stuff in and keeping the bad stuff out. In each and every one of the decisions listed above, ordinary leaders—three or four levels down from the CEO—had the authority to significantly shape the decisions for the better:
• The demeaning leader could have been fired
• The laid-off employees could have been given more notice
• The employee could have been counseled to reject the transfer offer
• The outsourcing scope could have been modified with a more rigorous analysis of the financials and inherent risks
• Internal employees could have been given a chance to prove themselves
According to Mackey and Sisodia, and our own common sense, these are the type of decisions that are made by leaders who act as “merchants of hope and entrepreneurs of meaning,” who “appreciate the unique talents and gifts of each individual…putting the individual in a position to succeed,” and who “seek strategies that can simultaneously fulfill multiple values.”
“Border guard” leaders are empathetic and courageous. They look away from their phones, their bosses, and their peers so that they can see the faces of the employees affected by their decisions, and envision a company they would want their children to work for. In a sea of mercenary leaders challenged with adjusting to the global shifts in the competitive landscape, they are the lone voice that asks, “How do we achieve our desired results in a way that builds, rather than harms, our organization?”
One of my clients asked and answered this question by investing a significant portion of projected outsourcing savings into improving their employees’ skills. Another avoided layoffs by anticipating a downturn in sales and judiciously using contractors rather than hiring employees to fill vacant positions.
A few righteous decision makers can have profound impact. As psychologist Daniel Golemen said in a TED talk on compassion, all it takes is one person acting empathetically to influence the behavior of many.