Overcoming organizational paralysis
Paralysis – what a horrible thought. What if you found yourself in a situation in which you had partial or complete loss of motion and sensation in your body?
What if you were powerless or incapable of moving? Wouldn't it be awful if you found yourself in a situation in which you knew you had all the appropriate limbs, plus the desire for movement, but still couldn't move? Paralysis is not something any of us wants to experience or even think about. We all want the pipeline between our head and body working at full capacity.
Paralysis happens not only in the physical body, it also happens in organizations. I was having lunch with my banker and we were discussing the business climate today and how it's changing. Since both of us work with leaders, we began talking about their reactions to the changing climate. The conversation drifted to how some leaders actually de-energize their people when circumstances become overwhelming. He made a statement that seemed to sum up our lunch discussion: "When the market gets rough, some leaders become paralyzed, which paralyzes the company."
"When the market gets rough, some leaders become paralyzed, which paralyzes the company."
The Leader Influences the Company
The analogy between physical paralysis and organizational paralysis assumes that like the head influences the body, the leader influences the organization. Leaders have incredible influence over the energy of a company. This influence becomes apparent when a leader becomes so overwhelmed that the company loses direction. Lack of direction causes organizational paralysis, which creates confusion, frustration, or irritation in the leader and affects the morale of the whole company. This is especially true if these behaviors cause the leader to blame those charged with producing results.
When employees begin to feel the effects of leadership frustration, they translate it into "Why try, we're not respected or valued for what we think or do anyway." Leader frustration and employees feeling disrespected result in a vicious "dance" that drains enterprise energy. Decreasing enterprise energy causes performance and productivity to end up in the pits.
Lack of direction causes organizational paralysis.
The following stories illustrate the influence of leadership. One of my clients is a manufacturing company executive who faces the same world market circumstances as other organizations. At the beginning of 2002 he had a meeting with all of his key players to discuss what he wanted to see happen during the year. His opening remarks were realistic concerning the difficult market, customer needs, and the challenges of the economy. However, after he finished sharing the economic "facts," he said, "Now, this year we are going to refuse to participate in all the negative stuff going around. The biggest opportunity we have is to succeed in this changing market, which will mean we have to work a little harder."
What Tom Edwards, CEO of A.J. Weller Company, committed to was an understanding that they couldn't control the outside influences, but they could control their own mental attitude about that market. Edwards' company ended 2002 with a 15 percent increase in sales. His belief is that "things aren't bad, there're just different." Edwards helped his people focus on two things: a clear goal and building enterprise energy into everything they did.
Contrast Edwards' determination with another company leader who openly and consistently expressed his frustration and confusion about how to handle the present decline in market share. As this leader's frustration increased, so did his ability to absolutely drain the energy of his people. Employees, knowing they were going to get one more verbal beating for not performing well, looked on each meeting with dread. Criticism of slow cost reductions, performance, and results was a key part of each meeting. The energy of the organization was steadily drained until many of the long-term employees talked about leaving the company.
Any time leaders take frustration out on employees, they drain the very energy it takes to create the performance and results they want. I like what Benjamin Franklin said, "A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle." Getting too wrapped up in the circumstances and reacting negatively will make a very, very small package.
Morale Is the Result of Leadership Energy
Another statesman and warrior, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said this about the success of an army (or a nation or a company): "Morale is the greatest single factor in successful wars." How does a leader keep morale high during these "different" times? I believe part of the answer is in how the leader views the market and how he or she challenges employees. Here are some leadership energy tips to consider:
- Be careful about labeling situations or people (unless it's a good label). What you label you define, what you define you produce. If you label disillusionment and defeat, people will focus on that and drive their energy to create it. When I had a psychology practice years ago, I learned that when I labeled people, they tended to live up to the label. If I told someone he had depressive neurosis, he learned all the symptoms and began experiencing them. If you are going to label something or someone, make sure it serves the person or the situation in a positive way. This also includes labeling yourself – don't spend much time on "I'm not suited for this" or "I've made a lot of mistakes" or "I didn't want this job anyway." What you label you live up to!
- Real life situations are the classrooms for leadership. Education is great, but experiences teach. We've all attended training and leadership development programs. Although many of these are good, the real classrooms are the daily grinds and firefights in business. They provide leaders with hands-on learning, even if some of the lessons are learned through error. After all, it's the mistakes we make that provide us with the greatest opportunity to grow. Walter Wriston, former chairman of Citibank, said it best: "Good judgment is the result of experience, and experience is the result of bad judgment."
Not long ago I read that great wars make great presidents. Facing the war of economics and a difficult marketplace sets the stage for an average leader to develop into a great leader. The boss has to keep his or her energy high, and one way to do this is to accept the present situation as an opportunity to grow.
Accept the present situation as an opportunity to grow.
- Courtesy builds energy. Accepting people as the experts who create the success of the company requires that the leader be courteous to and respectful of those on the team. We're courteous to people we respect. Courtesy provides the glue that bonds team members to one another. Everyone responds to the simple courtesy that our mothers taught us. Remember her admonition: "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Courtesy builds energy, produces great benefits, and costs nothing.
- I never promised you a rose garden. Remember that old song? When I was in high school I had a shop teacher who understood this perfectly. One day I was complaining to this teacher about all the work I had to do. Mr. Stack's reply was concise and memorable: "Rausch, get off the stage. No one said you would get everything you wanted." Regrettably, we don't get everything we thinkwe want or deserve. The road is not always easy, and the market is not always good.
Leaders have the responsibility to communicate perseverance to the troops. Jim Collins stated in his book Good to Great(concerning what he calls the Stockdale Paradox), "Retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality."
- Give respect to everyone because everyone deserves it. Anyone who is part of your team deserves respect, from the bargaining unit people to the top managers. If you can't respect a person then it's time to "free up her time" so she can find a place where she is respected. One of the most de-energizing behaviors is when employees realize that their leader has certain people on his black list, especially if you happen to be one of those people. Either the leader has to develop a better opinion of the person, which is often the case, or that person needs to find a company with a leader who will.
Last, look for every opportunity to build energy in the troops. The vibrant, successful organization looks for ways to energize its employees. In the words of one of my clients, "Enterprise energy and the direction of that energy are the key to the success of that organization."
More to come on how to build energy to create the performance and productivity you are looking for.