The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman
I am confident that had GBS lived today he might have adapted his language to include women?
Over many years in business, I have watched as poor leadership in business has enabled behavior, which has lead to a “toxic” culture.
The issues emerge around people who are considered to be high performers and their management.
High Performers are highly driven people and their pursuit of a result can lead them to believe they are special and without them there would be below par results.
High standards – low tolerance for “stuff” which gets in the way seems in many cases to be acceptable business behavior. There is latitude given to high performers not given to others. Degrees of inappropriate behaviour (emotional outbursts, bullying, arrogance and general egocentricity) all seem to be acceptable in the pursuit of profitability. Some high performers are driven to the extent that the behaviour creates toxicity, which permeates the culture. There is a “conspiracy” of silence in the business designed not to upset the offending person. Fear plays a part, but ultimately the source of this conspiracy is greed.
The issues are many but in summary, can be crystallized in the matrix below.
Naturally the employees on the right side of the matrix are “easier” to deal with than the left side.
- High-performance – High Cultural Fit – by definition we want to retain these people
- Low Performance – High Cultural Fit – if possible can be encouraged (training and mentoring) to achieve higher levels of performance
- Low performance – Low Cultural Fit – these people probably should not be recruited – in the event they are – there are solutions that have dignity and integrity
- High performance – Low Cultural Fit – it is these people who are the focus of this Blog.
This is a very challenging group. The behavior can range from smooth and disarming on occasions, to positively dysfunctional.
My grandmother had a saying about men. “They could be social angels but home devils.”Maybe this is a way of describing these “high performers”.
The levels of toxicity can vary person to person but overall there is no doubt the culture is sub-optimal and working in an environment like this is debilitating.
Leaders have an obligation to confront business challenges. High performers who are demanding, judgmental and regularly question others competence can be very challenging. This behaviour combined with the inability to acknowledge that there is a problem or even apologise for problems created is extraordinary. Over many years, I have seen it a number of times. While not always understanding the whole situation (how it became as bad as it is), I wonder what goes through someone’s mind after their cathartic explosion which affects everyone. I also wonder how they continue as though nothing has happened.
In all situations, there has to be a catalyst. There is always two sides but to explode in a way that is less than respectful is totally inappropriate for anyone let alone a business leader. What I don’t understand is how people with this personality type reach leadership positions. It appears these same people often have a charming and smooth side. They can be gracious and publicly disarming in the monomaniacal pursuit of their own agendas. Their performance is often outstanding –and allowances are made for their unreasonableness!
In fact, the business rewards them on by continuing to appoint them to leadership positions.
Hypothesis: Greed causes groups to tolerate/overlook inappropriate behaviour in the cause of something bigger – money!
These people are often technically outstanding and socially limited. In one case I witnessed, there was a suggestion that the person in question should never be “let out of the cage”!
What in fact happens, is these people are recruited as passionate advocates of a “business idea” and they grab the idea by the throat. It all looks promising. There are a few followers. The business starts to perform and shows serious potential. At this point, there are some behaviour problems but they are overlooked. The system makes allowances because the business is performing and has great potential! There will be results (money). As things progress the business becomes more successful. There are more incidents of inappropriate behaviour and more casualties emerge. After a period, the high performer suggests the system (the leadership group) is trying to control her/him in some way! Somehow everyone else is an obstacle, preventing them from using their unique talent to make everyone rich!! More inappropriate behaviour – random outbursts – allegations – staff walking on eggshells etc. The system develops mechanisms to accommodate the “high performer”. The “high performer“ has reached a stage where they have the system just where they want it – a robust business. Only they can run it to the standard required. It is a “toxic” workplace where the leader has poor relationships with business colleagues. There are some loyal supporters (who tolerate him/her). The market is oblivious to it all.
No one wants to “rock the boat” directly as the business and /or personal risk is too high!
The whole system is now captive, dysfunctional and toxic – both sides are in denial – the “high performer” somehow is a “white knight”. The business leadership is busy “defending the castle” while trying to capitalise on the “investment”.
It is like cancer. It needs to be cut out but the leadership system is either too weak or too greedy to confront the issues head on. The prospect of success “money/power” distorts the perspective.
I have recently reviewed “The Killing Fields” a documentary about a period in Australian politics, which we would prefer to forget! It appears POWER has the same impact. The individual pursuit of power allowed a whole party to subsume its values (such as they were) to elect a leader who in the end was perceived to be a high performer and not a cultural fit.
My question is: why do intelligent people allow this to happen. Where are the integrity and/or courage?
One rationalization put to me was that the system needs mavericks to challenge and extend it. That may be true but it does not need egocentric bullies. The mavericks I have worked with actually respected the people in the system – but challenged the system unmercifully. They were high performers but in the process, they engaged with others to lift the bar – at times very confronting but always maintaining a sense of respect.
Bullies just demand their own way and make life difficult for everyone. Often they get away with it!
A bully pursues their own agenda to the exclusion of all else! Bullying is never acceptable!
Are you a maverick? – Are you or have you ever been a Bully?