“They can’t do this”, “I don’t trust them” and “They don’t know what they’re doing”. Just some of the commonplace examples of office conversations that happen in the majority of workplaces across the globe. But behind the bravado and often strong rhetoric, what does this say for the relationships between leadership and staff?
Tribal mentality within any social structure seldom reaps long-term prosperity in any form, however it is also perhaps one of the true natural characteristics of humanity, and one which we yearn for by default in the workplace. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ references within the workplace are often derived from a perception of poor communication, understanding and distrust. From all parties most often.
Humans have evolved to be conservative and sceptical, from the days of venturing out of the cave only to forage, to building walls to keep others out and to not asking the girl to dance because she might say no!
We live in times of increasing flux. Economic, social, political, technological and environmental. The opportunities for distrust and scepticism are more abundant than at any other time in human history. There are as many people alive now who believe the earth is flat, than at any other moment in human history – despite, seemingly at least, overwhelming evidence.
Within the workplace increasing pressures lead to increasing frequency of change, those leading change must increasingly make uncomfortable and often painful choices.
Niccolo Machiavelli once famously outlined that there are three avenues for leaders - albeit Renaissance royalty - to maintain control in times of change:
1. the first is to ruin them
2. the next is to reside there in person
3. the third is to permit them to live under their own laws, drawing a tribute, and establishing within it an oligarchy which will keep it friendly to you
(Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532)
Given maintaining of the status quo is often not an option for modern business, this leaves the option of either war or camaraderie.
Ruining the spirit and camaraderie between work groups is easily done within modern organisations. It is probably fair to suggest that practically it is relatively easy to remove those we do not want in the workplace, whilst not falling foul of legislation and employee protection. It should be noted that Machiavelli himself suggested that “he who becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it, can expect to be destroyed by it”. Although it should also be remembered that Machiavelli was making reference to 16th century Medici rulers.
Remarkably, most leaders are in fact not sociopaths, and do not wish to cause harm or suffering to subordinates. I have encountered many examples of managers who appear stern and icy leading processes of redundancy in the workplace, but suffer in silence whilst losing countless hours sleep over these life changing decisions they make.
For a healthier, trustful and less adversarial working relationship both leadership and staff must remove the labels which divide them. Conversation, understanding and honest communication not only lead to solutions we did not foresee, but makes work harmonious and enjoyable.
There are countless examples of where open dialogue has led to business improvement, Blockbuster’s ignorance of its own staff advising on the opportunities that acquiring Netflix could afford, the continued successes of Google who’s business model is formed around the idea of open communication and thinking, and growth of Japanese manufacturing which is built upon principles of Kaizen and continuous improvement.
News we wish not to hear, can be handled and managed effectively. Remember the time you were told as a child you could not go outside, how much more palatable was the response when told the reasons why you could not? And did you even ask the question, if the circumstances were clear from the get go?
Let’s also flip that, remember the last time you said ‘no’ to a request from a friend. How adversarial was the conversation when the circumstances and reasons for your denial were clear?
Or did you just go to war?
The rational choices in times of change seem to be clear:
If you are a new ruler of a Renaissance principality, destroy everything and everyone - and then rebuild again (if they don’t destroy you first).
If you are in a position of leadership in a 21st century organisation, be compassionate, empathetic, honest and communicative.