Leaders Challenge Dangerous Beliefs

Last month I wrote about five dangerous group beliefs that create pernicious conflict. If groups that work in your shop have such beliefs, your profits could be toast. If you are a leader, this is the kind of problem you get paid to solve. The ideas that follow may help.

Superiority: The belief of superiority exists to the extent that one group believes that it is superior to another. Some executive groups, for example, confuse superiority in the company hierarchy with superiority as people. Excessive privilege can encourage such confusion.

Executives are higher up the organizational structure of the company. Their role is to make decisions that can have a profound effect on the course of the company. This role does not make them superior people to those who work on the shop floor. Each group plays a different but essential role.

One medium-sized company found an effective way to counter the “superiority complex.” Before a new executive can begin regular duties, he must spend six weeks working in the factory. Real life contact with people on the shop floor and the challenges that they face helps to overcome the myth of superiority.

Injustice: Beliefs of injustice exist to the extent to which a group assumes that another group is “out to get us.” For example, a layoff may be seen as an attack rather than a result of lost market share. It is all too human to blame others for problems in our lives. Doing so when inaccurate leads us towards solutions that fail.

A pervasive belief in injustice dis-empowers the group from helping itself. A labor union that recognizes a layoff as market driven might help its members learn new marketable skills. Executives who recognize low production as a problem in work process, instead of passive aggressive behavior, have the opportunity to take action to improve the process.

Information also helps overcome injustice. The CEO of one local company holds quarterly meetings for employees in which financial performance is openly reviewed, along with other evidence of progress towards strategic goals. (Steps are taken to keep the information confidential, i.e., within the company.) Such information allows employees to understand decisions by leadership. Without such information, employees may fill in the gap with an “injustice theory.”

Vulnerability: Some groups believe that they can do little to protect themselves from danger. As you can imagine, seeing yourself as vulnerable creates anxiety. When all of your peers share and reinforce your belief, anxiety becomes disruptive. Groups in companies that experience layoffs and downsizing are particularly likely to feel vulnerable.

Leaders of companies that must reduce head count can take two steps to reduce workers’ sense of vulnerability. First, at the time of the layoff/downsizing, deal with everyone’s emotions, yours, those who lost their jobs, and the feelings of the survivors. Openly acknowledge the pain that you feel in having to let good people go. Doing so will help employees recognize your humanity. Acknowledge the anger and loss of those who must leave. Listen to the fear and guilt of those who keep their jobs. When such feelings are allowed to be expressed and accepted, people can move on. When emotional expression is stifled, the feelings fester and breed greater belief in vulnerability. An excellent guide to responding to the emotions of downsizing is David Noer’s book Healing the Wound.

The second step is to keep people accurately informed. Information reduces anxiety. People who receive terrible medical diagnoses often report that the worst part was not knowing. Once they understand what they face, they can begin to adapt. Therefore, resist the temptation to give employees an over-rosy picture of the future, simply to achieve a temporary sense of comfort. Treat employees as the adults that they are, able to live with and adapt to truth.

Distrust: Distrust exists when one group sees another as hostile towards their interests. When one group assumes hostile intent from another group, it fails to distinguish between actions that are hostile and those that are not. Even positive actions are misconstrued. For example, if chronic conflict exists between management and labor, an unexpected bonus might elicit, “What have they got up their sleeve?”

The antidote to mistrust is trust. No one owes us trust. We must earn it everyday. One company includes in its mission statement the promise “to do what we say we will do everyday.” The extent that all members of the company fulfill this pledge is the extent to which trust can exist among its groups.

Other methods that build trust are information and mutual understanding. The firm that shares its financials with employees builds trust. The company that sends it executives to work in the shop for six weeks builds mutual understanding. Not only do new executives learn what shop workers face, shop workers become acquainted with executives as human beings.

Helplessness: “No matter what I do, I cannot get what I want.” When you believe nothing you can do will make a difference, motivation disappears.

The remedy is empowerment. Granted, empowerment can be a buzz word. It can also be authentic. It is up to you. Give people the power to make decisions that they are competent to make. To do so, develop an accurate assessment of what they can and cannot do. If you want them to make better decisions or decisions at a higher level, train them to do so. One company that trained supervisors to know how to help employees solve their own problems, rather than encourage unnecessary dependence on supervisors, reduced lost time accidents by 50%, and exceeded production goals dramatically.

This is not an exhaustive catalogue of methods to overcome dangerous beliefs. These examples do demonstrate that people in your position have succeeded. Maybe you can too.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at dana.ackley@eqleader.net.

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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