Deborah is a senior marketing manager for a renowned home care services organization. I have known her and several members of her executive group for more than a decade. Over the past year she has witnessed growing discontent amongst the core leadership team, a dedicated group that pioneered significant initiatives to innovate and grow the business. During their last management meeting, frustrations reached a crescendo when the VP of HR reported on the findings of the previous month’s exit interviews. Resignations included four support care coordinators, the director of client services, a director of nursing, an accounts receivables manager, and two physiotherapists. The comments from these interviews that generated a heated discussion pertained to the CEO’s leadership style.
In their book “Credibility, How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand it” (Wiley, 2nd Edition 2011) best-selling authors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner referenced the cutting-edge survey originally conducted by the American Management Association, highlighting the question: “What values (personal traits or characteristics) do you look for in your superiors?” Analysis of the 225 factors honed in on three key areas: Integrity, Competence and Leadership. Most noteworthy was the fact that these same three categories still remain at the top of the list of admirable leadership qualities, based on Kouzes and Posner’s decades of research.
Moral authority matters, above all else. Managers and staff at all levels of an organization look up to their leader as a role model. Credibility must be earned, regardless of one’s title. The ever-increasing levels of turnover at the home care services company demonstrated cause for concern to the core leadership group, not only because of the financial cost, but also due to the fact in every instance there was one common denominator. Each departing staff member felt that the CEO was losing face with many managers, the front line, and clientele. As a result, they lost confidence and trust in the CEO’s ability to lead.
Is it possible that these resignations could have been avoided? Perhaps. While it is true that people choose to leave jobs for a variety of reasons, employees and managers at all levels scrutinize their leader’s character. The importance of a leader’s credibility is inexorably linked to the workplace atmosphere. In the eyes of those he or she leads, the following credibility killers are paramount:
Lack of humility
Humility is one of the most attractive leadership traits. It is the “equalizer” in business relationships because it humanizes the dynamic; especially between a leader and an employee. Some leaders mistake humility for humiliation, believing that by revealing their foibles, they become overly transparent. Conversely, a lack of humility is often perceived as self-indulgent, self-serving, egomaniacal leadership. In short: a major turn-off.
A leader who is not true to their word will quickly lose respect. The size and scope of broken promises rarely goes unnoticed. I once worked for an organization whose CEO reneged on a promise to my manager to honor my employment contract and provide me with a company vehicle. When the CEO finally “relented” six months later, I’d already lost complete faith and passion for my work, and the vision I’d bought into. Moral of the story: Attempts to back peddle in the aftermath of such gaffes often results in greater damage to a leader’s credibility. As for me, I’d already checked out…mentally, physically, and emotionally.
If you have ever witnessed a colleague being berated by a manager during the course of your career, you can probably remember the denigrating episode as if it happened yesterday. I recall presenting a workshop to a client who requested that the CEO address the audience with a company update prior to the start of my session. Everyone in attendance understood that the organization was experiencing difficult times. However, no one expected to be “called out” in front of his or her peers. To say that the air was sucked out of the balloon was an understatement. There is no excuse for a pejorative, public display of displeasure regarding employee performance.
Breech of trust
Without question, one of the most disappointing, unforgettable gut-wrenching experiences is learning that your candid, confidential conversation with the leader you trusted did not remain private. When an executive bears witness to the disclosure of an employee’s personal problem or extremely sensitive matter and subsequently breeches their trust, the hurt caused may be irreparable, and the ripple effect may be even worse in terms of the negative consequences to engagement and overall morale.
Permitting a “no accountability” culture
Taking ownership starts from the top. Managers and teams are mindful of double standards and expect the leader to recognize that he or she is ultimately accountable for establishing the direction and vision of the organization. When leaders sanction a lack of responsibility regarding decision-making as well as results that that aren’t acceptable, they have failed to grasp that the onus of responsibility first rests with them.
People expect leaders to take charge, whether they are tasked with making unpalatable yet necessary personnel changes, reining in costs or delivering bad news. Leaders who baulk at taking actions that may be unpopular are permitting others to do the same, thereby tarnishing their own reputation. Inconsistency or intentional stalling on the part of the leader causes additional frustration to those who want to see meaningful, positive change.
These credibility killers can be avoided if leaders are open and willing to own their shortcomings. When their inner circle is also ready to act boldly and vocalize feedback constructively, the loss of valued employees and customers, cost of rehiring and decline in morale may all serve as invaluable wake-up calls to restore trust and credibility in leadership as a whole.