The Hardest Conversation: When a Leader Is the Biggest Problem in Their Own Business

The Hardest Conversation: When a Leader Is the Biggest Problem in Their Own Business

I am a former United States Army expert infantryman. I’ll never forget the 13 weeks I spent at Harmony Church in Fort Benning, Georgia, attending boot camp and advanced individual training, and then being shipped out to my duty station at Fort Polk, Louisiana – the Mechanized Infantry.

As I was being processed into my unit, I received a briefing explaining life in the Army: You only have two rights – a right arm and a right leg. There is one color in the Army – green. Some people are light green, some people are dark green, but everyone is green. A pissed-off soldier is a happy soldier. And when we want your opinion, we’ll give it to you.

In my view, the United States Military is the greatest organization on the planet. It necessarily operates a “command and control” and top-down environment. When lives are at risk, in the midst of a crisis, split-second decision-making and blind obedience are mandatory.

In business, though, that approach doesn’t always produce the best outcome. I learned that firsthand. After ETS (end term of service), I entered the private sector. I advanced fast, mostly because of the work ethic I learned in the Army. Twice a week I pulled 24-hour duty, charge of quarters (CQ) and sergeant of the guard. Both ran from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. (I used to joke about the 12-hour shifts in the private sector being half-days.)

Once I became a manager, I tended to drive everyone around me as hard as I drove myself. They often didn’t appreciate that. I deployed the management techniques I learned in the Army: Do what I tell you, when I tell you, or get out! I was often referred to as “intimidating.” That always brought a smile to my face, accompanied with a chuckle. I tended to laugh it off then, because I couldn’t imagine how someone could find me intimidating.

Years later, I’ve learned that was due to my lack of self-awareness. What people were really trying to tell me was that they found my management style to be highly confrontational. I also tended to become target-fixated, meaning that once I locked onto an objective, I would achieve that objective regardless of the cost. If you got in my way, I would run you over. In the Army, we learn that any obstacle can be breached by going under, over, around or through. And that’s exactly how I proceeded.

As a Certified Professional Coach now, and an expert in helping people learn to manage conflict, I’ve had to learn some painful things about myself. One of those was that in years past, I succeeded at the expense of others. I don’t believe any human being wants that to be true of themselves, but it was true of me. Upon recognizing that, I made a decision that when they put me in the ground, that’s not what I want to be remembered for.

Managers and owners of a business rely on radically transparent information to make the best decisions. They will only receive that information if they create an environment that makes it safe to communicate that way. If bad news is met with ridicule, belittling, embarrassment and confrontation (ala the former version of me), then that manager or owner will get only the information that someone feels safe giving them. And that doesn’t allow for the best decision-making.

When I work with people to help them learn to manage conflict, I walk them through a process. It begins by helping them discover and declare their personal values. I ask them this: Pretend you are describing yourself to a stranger, trying to convey everything you’d want a person to know about you, in six, eight or 10 words. What are those words?

After they’ve given me their words, I explain that what they were really doing was declaring their personal values. And it’s important that they understand what their values are, because all human behavior is a function of personal values. Their behavior will either honor a value or defend one. Further, conflict exists when someone feels like one of their personal values has been offended.

There’s another situation that causes conflict, though, and this was particularly challenging for the former me: Conflict also exists when another feels like someone is imposing their personal values on them. This is where it becomes really tricky for managers and owners.

It’s natural for an organization to reflect the persona of its managers and owners. Too often, though, those managers and owners are judging everyone else in the organization with respect to how much like themselves they are. When they feel someone isn’t enough like themselves, they attempt to change that, most often by continuously changing pay plans, micromanaging or crushing annual reviews. That attempt is most often met with anger, apathy and resentment, ultimately leading to high employee turnover.

Here’s the acid test: If you have more people leaving your organization than joining, YOU may be the biggest problem in your own business.


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