Category Archives: Accountability

When Leaders Insulate: The Dangers of Corrosive Privilege

I recently read a fascinating article by Rebecca Solnit on how being born to privilege has had a corrosive effect on Donald Trump and his presidency. She discusses the ways an individual raised in a protected bubble of wealth and power becomes isolated from the rest of the world. After reading Solnit’s piece, it’s evident that the trappings she associates with Trump can become obstacles for all leaders. Here are three lessons that sound out:

Setbacks

We gain awareness of ourselves and others from setbacks and difficulties; we get used to a world that is not always about us.—Rebecca Solnit

There is a mentality amongst some leaders that acknowledging failure is a weakness. As a result, they shift responsibility (i.e. blame others) so they are no longer accountable, artificially reframe setbacks as new opportunities, and/or outright change the end-goal so the outcome can now be viewed as a win.

While “not failing” may feel good, it is a false sense of satisfaction. Leaders must build the thick skin necessary to accept and learn from disappointment without carrying the weight of feeling like a failure. Otherwise we risk becoming overly sensitive and brittle, unequipped to make the adjustments necessary to rebound and adapt.

As leaders, we must also allow others to fail. Solnit writes of rich college kids who are not allowed to fail because their parents “[keep] throwing out safety nets and buffers” that protect them from experiencing adversity. As nice as this may sound, when we live without consequences, our lives become inconsequential—we cannot feel the highs of achievement without also having faced the lows of failure.

Self-Reflection

Power corrupts, and absolute power often corrupts the awareness of those who possess it.—Rebecca Solnit

In Hannah Arendt’s book On the Origins of Totalitarianism, she promotes the need for an inner dialogue where we can cross-examine ourselves, where we can ask the difficult questions. If we can master this skill, we are better equipped to have these discussions with the people around us. If we lack the ability to self-interrogate, we are prone to suffer from, what Arendt calls, the banality of evil, i.e. “the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself, or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”

Obliviousness

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society.—Rebecca Solnit

We need people in our lives who have the ability to provide unfiltered commentary. These individuals cannot be fearful of repercussions, nor can they hold back in the hopes of gaining some type of advantage. They must be willing to give it to us straight and we must be open to what they are saying. Otherwise, we risk becoming oblivious.

Obliviousness is not a sign of low intelligence, but an indication that the leader is sequestered from information that runs counter to their viewpoint. It tends to happen over time as we weed out those who are the bearers of bad news, those who are perceived as not being “on board,” and those who are damaging our precious self-esteem with their critique. Before we know it, we are surrounded by yes-men and sycophants who tell us what we want to hear versus what we need to hear. In the end, not only are we alone, but their biased feedback has infected us with delusional thinking, faulty decision making, and a general lack of insight into how our team and the population-at-large are feeling.

Being in a position of power can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to. Leaders must seek and foster relationships outside of their power structure. Our associates keep us honest. They ensure we remain grounded and in touch with reality. And they provide the feedback, criticism, and advice that, while not preferable, is essential to avoiding the impairments of corrosive privilege.

Did You Catch My Interview with Aidan McCullen?

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Aidan McCullen, host of the podcast The Innovation Show. We discussed the need for courage in innovation, leadership skills utilized in creativity, and the ways disruptors can utilize the five superpowers outlined in Cape, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheroes.

Check it out!

Three Ways to Assess Someone’s Ethics

What if unethical behaviors emitted a visible indicator? That’s the premise of a great book I just finished, Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Set in Victorian-era England, people produce a trail of smoke every time they sin. As a result, they are not able to hide their worst thoughts or impulses.

As leaders, there are certainly benefits to a smoking-inducing culture. We’d always know who to trust, intentions would be crystal clear, and we could take immediate action when faced with ethical hiccups. Of course, with our morals on display we’d also have to remain on the virtuous path, but that wouldn’t an issue, right?

If you want to avoid the smokey discharge of corruption, the following are three ways you can assess your team’s ethics.

Establish a Baseline

When identifying an ethical quandary, many rely on perception. Sure, some situations are black and white, but these are the obvious examples. For those predicaments in the grey-ish area, perception is dependent upon circumstances and the individual trying to recognize the breach. Therefore, if you are going to be on the lookout, you need to ensure that everyone on the leadership team shares the same expectations.

Creating a foundation begins with assessing your current organizational culture. According to Kenneth W. Johnson, Director of the Ethics & Policy Integration Centre, there a number of measurable factors that can serve to align a company, including how employees:

  • perceive that leadership prioritizes ethics and the core values over the bottom line,
  • speak openly about ethics and the company’s core values,
  • consider the core values in decision making,
  • feel that they and their co-workers are treated fairly,
  • pressure felt to compromise values,
  • distinguish that ethical behavior is rewarded and unethical behavior is punished,
  • identify that “good faith” mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth and development, and
  • hold themselves and others accountable to the standards.

These factors provide a profile of the organization so as to help leadership design and implement an effective ethics program. Then, after the program has launched, this list is valuable in evaluating program success.

Ask the Right Questions

When you know what to ask and what to listen for, a behavioral approach to conversations can uncover a person’s ethical leanings.

If you ask people if they’re ethical, they’re going to say, ‘Yes.’ Behavioral questions tell you that the person was in a situation that they saw as ethics-related and tell you how they thought through the problem and what they did.—Patricia Harned, President of the Ethics Resource Center

When trying to gauge someone’s ethics, consider a few of these questions:

  • What makes up an ethical workplace?
  • At Acme Corp, we are accountable, dependable and transparent. How do you define accountable, dependable and transparent?
  • Did you see the section of our website where we described the company’s stance on ethics? Which of our core values made an impression?
  • When you’ve had ethical issues arise at work, whom did you consult?
  • Can you describe an instance when you witnessed or learned of someone engaging in unethical behavior? What was that behavior and how did you address it?
  • Tell me about a time when you felt it was necessary to cut corners on the quality of a job. What was the situation and how did you resolve it?
  • Describe a time where you were pressured to cheat on a [test / expense report / project. What were the circumstances and how did you handle it?

Clandestine Observations

Famed basketball player and coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” To really assess someone’s ethics, you need to observe them in situations where they aren’t aware of being observed. Consider:

  1. Creating a list of ethical criteria in which you are interested. This will provide a starting point in the behaviors of which you need to be mindful. They may involve honesty, value driven decision-making, modeling, humaneness, trustworthiness, and fairness.
  2. Getting a full picture. Use 360 practices to gather the team’s experiences with the individual. For instance, with interview candidates, I like to utilize the receptionist. How do they treat him/her when a manager is not present? Are they courteous and respectful or dismissive?
  3. Observing firsthand. You can’t rely solely on other’s perceptions. Watch the individuals’ actions and reactions in a manner where they do not realize you are monitoring their behavior. Take note of the criteria you outlined and anything else you find pertinent.

In the absence of smoke, a growing Pinocchio nose, or a flashing red “LIAR” sign, leaders must be able to detect falsehoods. Start with establishing your code of conduct. Then engage in intelligent conversations and observe people’s behaviors. It’s not as easy as watching someone emit smoke, but it’ll sure cut down on the cleaning bill.