The Non-Conformist’s Dilemma
The beginning of 2017 signified the end of one year and the start of the next, but for the first time in a long while, it also marked the beginning of a new chapter in my professional life. After 31 years in the corporate world, I’m excited to announce that I’m entering the next phase of my career. I fondly refer to this next phase as my “rewirement,” because I don’t ever intend to retire! Rather, I intend to expand my current speaking/writing/coaching/consulting practice with a particular emphasis on leadership development and culture transformation. I am profoundly grateful to the countless people I have encountered throughout my career, without whose contributions I would have never been able to discover and cultivate the unique purpose for which I have been put in this world to fulfill. Whatever good that comes out of this next phase of my life and career is all owed to those who have graciously allowed me to serve as their leader throughout the years. Although we can never truly repay the generosity that others have bestowed on us in the past, I will nevertheless be spending the rest of my working life attempting to do just that, by paying it forward and bringing culture transformation to as many leaders, workplaces, and organizations that are willing to embark on that journey. To that end, I am very much looking forward to partnering with and serving people and organizations that are interested in delivering unprecedented results for their stakeholders, as well as creating extraordinary levels of personal and professional fulfillment for their team members.
I have devoted a great deal of my time and effort over the past 20+ years to helping leaders gain access the Transformative Leader within, while at the same time guiding those who are led by unenlightened bosses to not only endure their situations, but to overcome them and go on to experience unprecedented success and fulfillment despite their bosses. Whether you are a leader interested in assessing where you stand relative to your ability to truly include and engage everyone, or you are a team member trying to figure out how to overcome a less inclusive work environment, I hope you will gain some insight from this post that will inspire you to take action towards transforming your workplace culture.
Of all the valuable lessons I have learned throughout my career, the one that stands out as having been the most bitter pill to swallow is that I, as a leader, have always been the bottleneck and greatest barrier to progress. I have had the honor and privilege of working with leaders who truly embraced this realization and constantly worked to remove themselves as the barrier, to their benefit and the benefit of those who depended on them for guidance or for results. I have also, at times in my career, worked for or with leaders whose insecurities and/or inflexibility prevented them from acknowledging this important truth and, inevitably, caused them to do significant harm to the organization’s results and morale.
The most common question I have been asked as I have spoken on Transformative Leadership and culture transformation at leadership summits throughout the world is, “But what if your boss doesn’t believe in this stuff? How are you supposed to deal with that?” This is because, unfortunately, a large percentage of bosses are more interested in behaving like an alpha and having everybody conform to their style, rather than empowering—or, in some cases, even just allowing—their team members to bring their unique gifts to the organization and apply them to the fullest where they are best suited. While some of these bosses are simply oblivious that there is anything wrong with their behavior, many actually preach the message of diversity and inclusion and clearly know right from wrong, but still hypocritically choose to prioritize taking control and attracting followers over giving control and empowering leaders.
We've all experienced this mismatch between intentions and actions; we've all seen the slogans on the walls at work and on our company websites. They tend go something like this: “We want everybody to be themselves everyday,” or, “We want to change the way we work,” or, “We value diversity of thought,” and so on. While these declarations certainly sound inspiring, they tend to fall short when it comes to putting them into practice. In a certain sense, declarations like these are necessary in order to communicate leadership’s intentions about the culture they desire to create, but they are not at all sufficient to actually bring about any real change. Slogans and declarations and posters don't distinguish an organization, because nobody ever overtly declares any negative intentions. I have never seen a company unveil a set of values that says, "We don't care about people being themselves. We just need them to do their job." I have also never seen a slogan that states, "In our company, if we want your opinion, we'll give it to you." No! Everybody says the right stuff. So how do we know if our bosses really mean it when they say they value what people bring? We observe the behavior of our leaders and the behaviors that they tolerate or condone in others. And that is the message we walk away with, whether it matches the slogans on the company website or not.
The real problem, which lies at the heart of the tension between culture transformation and traditional leadership, comes down to one simple issue. And that issue is this: Every organization naturally needs all kinds of people for it to operate at its best, but from the minute employees come in the door, they are subjected to all kinds of pressure to conform. Even in those organizations that do a pretty good job of recruiting people of different backgrounds and styles and talents, this underlying tension remains ever-present, and it is more often than not perpetuated through the actions of bosses who either do not understand or do not appreciate the role that they are meant to fulfill as leaders.
Figure 1 depicts what happens at some point in everyone’s career when they have discovered what they truly bring to the table and how it can benefit the organization, but somehow feel constrained by bosses, rules, norms or policies of their workplace; they don’t feel they can freely express their greatness because of the fear of punishment for not conforming. Imagine that you are the round peg, and the round hole in the organization represents the perfect opportunity to be yourself and bring your gift to fulfill a unique need in the organization. Now, imagine the barriers that are placed between you and the organization, which you cannot pass through unless you change your shape to a triangle or a square. These barriers could be a controlling boss who is coercing you to conform to his or her ways, or the established norms or unwritten rules in the organization that make you feel you have to look and sound and act a certain way to fit in. The choice to be made in the face of these barriers is to either become a contortionist by adapting to the shapes that the barriers impose upon you and no longer serve the purpose that you are uniquely qualified to serve, or to preserve the integrity of who you are and what you bring and bypass the barriers at the risk of being punished for your non-conformance. There is also a third option, albeit a drastic one, and that is to find an organization where fewer or no filters exist between your unique contribution and the organization’s specific needs.
It is important to note that, in referring to the contortionism of the first option, I am not decrying the legitimate course corrections that we all must make that impact our effectiveness. We all must, at times, be flexible in adopting new approaches or focusing on priorities that may not have otherwise been on top of our personal to-do list. However, I believe most of us can tell the difference between constructive feedback from a servant leader who has our best interest and the organization’s best interest at heart, and the bullying and micro-managing done by those whose main interest is in coercing others to conform to their preferred style and approach regardless of the consequences to the broader organization. The former generates common objectives between the individual and the organization, and the latter presents team members with the dilemma of constantly having to choose between protecting their own personal interest by being on the boss’s good side, or doing the right thing for the organization.
In most organizations, the people at the very top genuinely want team members to bring their unique gifts and talents to bear and put them to good use toward the goals of the organization. The individual performers and lower level leaders also see the benefits and work to achieve the same end. However, the problem usually shows up with 1-2 layers of middle leadership who are too insecure to give up control. They are the ones who introduce what’s called the “Great Filter of leadership.”
In Fig. 2, the various objects at the top represent different types or groups of employees, differentiated by skill set, unique gift, level of experience, personality type, cultural background, or any other distinguishing factor. The distinctions between the objects and what they represent is arbitrary, so no object necessarily represents a particular characteristic, and the number of objects is also not meant to be exhaustive. Now, the block below the objects represents the organization itself, and the slots in the shape of the objects represent the unique opportunity for contribution that is offered by each team member or group of team members. The dark grey filter in between the objects and the block represents the boss. The bosses who either have a “my way or the highway” attitude or show up as benevolent dictators represent the filter that only has one shape hole, in this case a square. This type of boss allows only certain types of people to be who they are and be given opportunities to excel, while demanding that all others change their shape (i.e. their style, approach, priorities, methodology, etc.) to that of the boss. This, in turn, renders them ineffective at fulfilling the specific need in the organization to which they are best suited and often leaves them frustrated as a result. Aside from the fact that the organization is deprived of the unique gifts of many different types of employees, the end result of this phenomenon is that eventually, the organization’s weaknesses become identical to those of the boss.
On the other hand, Transformative Leaders create unprecedented levels of engagement in organizations by giving everyone license to be themselves and bring their best gifts to work. They have enough confidence in their own abilities not to be threatened by other people’s greatness. They are “multi-lingual” rather than expecting everyone to speak their language and cater to their preferences. They certainly generate alignment and focus, but not at the expense of constraining team members and expecting them to fit a certain mold. They are not focused on controlling everyone, but rather on establishing clear boundaries and guidelines that are in line with the vision and mission of the organization. In doing so, they seek to liberate team members to contribute in whatever ways they see fit in accordance with their unique gifts. As shown in Fig. 3, these leaders, represented by the orange-red filter, celebrate differences and seek to be inclusive. They are not big on being in control of everyone and forcing them to be like them, but rather on enabling them to remain in integrity with themselves and meet the specific needs that the organization has by simply being themselves. These leaders are the true servant leaders who get that “it’s not about them,” and they create empowered and energized teams of owners through their actualization of this key insight.
The reason that the “my way or the highway” approach to leadership is so ineffective and counterproductive is partly that it is a relic of a bygone era, an approach used by leaders who lack the sensitivity, flexibility or willingness to adapt themselves to the current situation. This approach may have been commonplace a few generations ago, and it may have even worked well back then, but the fact of the matter is that our culture now is such that the innate desire to express our individuality through our livelihood is more emphasized and encouraged than it has ever been. Nowadays, if there is a bad fit between the organization and employee, there is little incentive for the employee to grin and bear it because there are many other opportunities available. Networking and finding other organizations that suit one’s needs better has never been easier, and with the Gig or Sharing economy (e.g. Uber, Airbnb), people can thrive without the need to contort themselves to please an inflexible boss. With a little courage and determination, they can even start their own business from the comfort of their own home, doing what they are great at and working with those who value their greatness rather than try to tone it down. The end result of all this is that there is less pressure to conform just for a paycheck, and so a paycheck alone is no longer a good incentive to offer up one’s full commitment.
In the same way that mass marketing has given way to personalized ads showing up on your mobile device based on your search history and other factors, the bosses who hold on to their “command and control” way of managing and the “my way or the highway” approach are in for a rude awakening. That is, while some people will be intimidated and compromise their greatness just to hang in there and get a paycheck, others will increasingly find ways to be fully self-expressed and appreciated and rewarded for it. Bosses who are not willing to let go of their insecurities and their strong desire to be in control will soon find out that unless they change, they will be surrounded by a seemingly homogeneous group of people whose reason for hanging around is that they have either resigned themselves to the idea that their individuality and their ideas don’t add value or that there are no better options.
If you are a leader, I'd encourage you to take a hard look at yourself and seek some genuine feedback on whether your biases and your desire to control people has caused people to lose their sense of what they truly bring to the organization.
If you are a team member who is in a situation where you feel you are forced to compromise who you are and the gift that you bring, I'd like to remind you that you do have a choice. If you are one of the 70% of employees in the workforce who are not engaged, I’d urge you to acknowledge that you owe it to yourself, your family, your community, and your workplace to examine the standards you are not willing to compromise about who you are and what you bring. I’m not advocating that anyone refuse to change and improve, by any means, but there is a fine line between responding to feedback that enhances your ability to maximize your contributions and giving in to self-serving attempts to put you in a box and limit you from experiencing and expressing your unique gift. I believe if you remain true to yourself and refuse to deprive the world of what you bring, even the unenlightened bosses and naysayers will serve a positive purpose in your life by motivating you to prove them wrong. Imagine what the world of animated movies would be like if Walt Disney had succumbed to the idea that he "lacked imagination and had no good ideas," as he was fired from one of his first animation jobs at the Kansas City Star newspaper. There are countless examples of people who were propelled to their true potential simply because their greatness was too much for their bosses or the powers-that-be to handle. I’d submit that, what is even more devastating than being fired from a job that you are qualified for, is to tolerate being conditionally accepted and allowed to stay only as long as you don’t let your greatness shine through too much.
I am extremely grateful to the bosses I have had over the past 31 years whose sound advice, albeit at times delivered in the form of tough love, helped me see what I needed to improve about myself. I am also grateful to those bosses who, out of sheer insecurity or desire for control or genuine innocent ignorance, tried to put me in a box that I was simply not willing to try to fit in. They contributed just as much to the big decisions I have made along the way to make whatever course corrections I needed to make to preserve the gift I bring and make it available to those who are open to receiving it. It has been an honor to serve thousands of people in the organizations I have worked at, sometimes in partnership with their leaders and at times despite their bosses, and I look forward to continue doing the same in a full-time capacity in my new role at The Ghannad Group.
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Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at email@example.com.
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