It’s Company Awards Night. You and your colleagues are giddy with the excitement of seeing each other in “home clothes” and the carefully calculated half a bottle per head of house wine is going down nicely. You’ve cheered Lou receiving ‘Best Sales Achiever’, clapped patronisingly as Lizzie from Reception won ‘Team Player of the Year’ and now it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for: “The prize for Biggest Asshole this year goes to…”
Except that that award never happens does it? Despite overwhelming evidence that if it was put to a public vote, almost everyone in your company would choose the same bullying, arrogant individual whose reputation and indeed intimidation reach far beyond their theoretical remit, the next time you hear his or her name called out, it’s because they have been promoted. Again.
How is it that in every company there remain individuals who epitomise the diametric opposite of every behaviour the company values. And why doesn’t anyone in management ever notice?
Let’s start by defining our terms a little. I’m not talking about those colleagues, possibly sitting around you now as you read this, who you find slightly irritating. Yes it’s true that Amit never does a coffee round and Rachel nearly bit your head off yesterday when you asked her a question while she was packing up to leave but that’s all within the normal bounds of being human and a bit rubbish sometimes. Anyway, you haven’t answered Natacha’s email which has been sitting in your inbox for a week, and now you’re having to take the long route to the loos just to avoid walking past her, so you’re hardly in a position to throw stones. Nor do I mean the other end of the scale: headline-hitting, criminally Harvey Weinstein type bad. We’re talking about your common or garden Office Assholes; people who bang desks, swear loudly at individuals, lose their temper in public for deliberate impact. We’re talking about people who create cultures of intimidation where not staying up drinking til 5am before a sales meeting can genuinely damage your career prospects, people who are openly scornful of your customers, derisory about the company’s values and who actively undermine them at every opportunity. You know who these people are, everyone does. Except that somehow, extraordinarily, their manager doesn’t.
At one of the companies I’ve worked with/for*, this person was right near the top. The company in question is world-famous for its employee and customer experience. In my era, the most senior person in the organisation was presiding over a sales culture that was unhealthy to say the least. In company meetings he’d roar at department heads and threaten us all with hellfire and damnation if targets weren’t hit, while heaping praise on those who’d found ingenious workarounds for whatever restriction was holding us back. It was no secret, everyone knew. At least once a week someone would marvel at how a company with such a squeaky-clean external reputation and such family values could be run along such sleazy lines. We would all roll our eyes and agree but we did nothing more, assuming his behaviour was sanctioned from above. Some time later though I found myself spending time with that man’s ex-boss. I asked if they had been aware of what was happening. “God no! I only found out after I left, I was really shocked!” And so was I. The person I was speaking to had not been managing from afar, they were in the next office to our Senior Sleazebag.
Let’s take another example. Another household name, run by good people who were serious about the responsibility of leadership and earnest to the point of nerdy about the company’s values. So how was it that on the same day they promoted the two men everyone in the company would have singled out as prize-winning Assholes. Both men were clever, driven, funny (if you weren’t the butt of the joke) and ambitious. Both were prone to publicly humiliating their team members and only slightly-less publicly denigrating their peers. People working for them sometimes achieved extraordinary results but also tended to take long-term sick leave and suffer from burnout. After 3 out of 7 team members of one unlucky team went down with stress, we all assumed something would be done. When their subordinates starting leaving, and citing their boss in exit interviews as the reason they were going, we were certain that finally action would be taken. When their HR partner herself was reduced to tears after a session of systematic humiliation and intimidation we dared to hope it was the end-game. It wasn’t. Eventually both of them left, but not before each of them acheived one more promotion.
“She’s a scrubbing brush – all smooth from above, bloody painful if you’re below her”
As staggering as it is to witness management’s blind eye in action as a subordinate or co-worker, it’s actually much more shocking to find out that as a manager you’ve been harbouring one of these little charmers. At least once in my career (maybe more, would I even know?) I’ve been that boss. There was someone in my team who was sensational. She exceeded my expectations in every way. She grasped instantly what we needed to do and interpreted it and over-delivered as a matter of course. She was my ‘office wife’, the one I used as a sparring partner, sharing a little of the burden of leadership with. She was clever, driven, funny (if you weren’t the butt of the joke) and ambitious. Wait a minute – have I written that before? Anyway, when the team grew large enough to need a team leader I didn’t hesitate and announced her promotion to the team. It was only as I was actually saying the words, looking down the meeting room table at their faces that I saw a flicker of fear in one face, frustration in another, concern in another, and I realised I’d made a mistake. One of my team told me later “I was thinking ‘Don’t let it be her. Anyone but her’. She’s a scrubbing brush- all smooth when you looking from above, bloody painful if you’re below her“. Subsequent digging unearthed a completely different side to this wonder-woman, one I’d never seen but which was bullying, confrontational, patronising, competitive to the point of destructive. How had I not known? Why had no-one told me?
Inconvenient truths are just soooo inconvenient
First let’s tackle how I hadn’t known one of these people worked for me. My guess is, it’s because I didn’t want to. This employee made me look good, she was fun to work with and she pretty much made my work-life easier in every way. Any comments I might have heard about her ‘getting a bit feisty’ in the bar after an evening out, or being too demanding on a project I would have filed under ‘jealousy’ and ignored. Meanwhile I continued to praise her publicly (in the hope that her team-mates would take the hint and become more like her) and so made it highly unlikely that anyone was going to think it worth the effort to try to change my mind. They must have thought I was an idiot with appalling judgement and who knows what other important information they didn’t bother to share on that basis.
Another answer is that particularly in the more junior stages of our career, we credit senior leaders with way too much omniscience. At my first company, (where rank was helpfully “zoned” from entry level =13 to company owner =1, so you knew exactly where you stood), I started as a lowly Zone 11. I was nervous around a Zone 6, terrified around a Zone 5 and a Zone 4 was basically a rock star, someone I knew by sight but never expected to speak to. The idea that these megastars did not know absolutely everything that happened in the company would never have occurred to me. They were gods, geniusses and gurus all rolled into one. Anything that happened, good or bad, I assumed happened on their command, or at least with their permission. As I progressed to become a leader myself, I was actually very disappointed to find out that they were, after all, just people. I had enjoyed putting them on pedestals, it made me feel I didn’t have to think too much for myself, just follow them. When I discovered they didn’t always remember every golden instruction that had dripped from their lips, or seemed tired or absent-minded, I was shaken to my core.
Leaders are human, we give off clear signals when we hear things we don’t like. This teaches our followers to hide that truth because they believe they’ve learnt telling it isn’t safe or productive. I remember one forecast meeting where, before our SVP came into the room, a few of the Sales team reported that all their retail partners said a certain product would not sell and so they would not be ordering it. We needed to reduce the production forecast drastically. When the SVP joined and enthused about the potential of this product, one of the Sales guys mumbled something about not being convinced and the SVP shut him down. The forecast remained unchanged, we produced millions and they sat on the warehouse shelves unsold.
What leaders can do
Well it’s stating the obvious (but then that’s what this post is about)… it matters hugely how we, as leaders, react when we’re told something we don’t want to hear. We might only get one chance to show that we are capable of having our opinions challenged before word gets out that “she won’t listen” to anything. Showing that we can listen to criticism of a favourite, leaning forwards rather than backwards when someone contradicts our view of the world, and being open to the possibility that what seems like an unhelpful interruption may in fact be the most helpful thing we hear is a skill we all have to master.
*Some of you might know I’ve only ever been an employee of 3 companies so you may be speculating on the names behind some of these examples. However, bear in mind that I’ve also consulted for 7 companies in the last 2 years which has given me a whole new batch of source material… so don’t jump to conclusions too quickly 😉