A typical injunction is that leaders should always “walk their talk.” A cost of leading, perhaps, the price of being in a more exposed and influential place where the scrutiny is that much greater. As a culture, we all seemed tuned to search for hypocrisy in other leaders, always ready to share a disappointment in someone else’s discovered feet of clay.
Yet, what really is the problem here? And so what?
A host of examples come forward:
• The CEO who says he would like “to open up communications in the management team” but becomes angry and abruptly ends the effort when members of his senior group suggest that his own behavior (blowing up at managers publicly) is part of the reason people don’t speak up.
• The senior VP of research who says he wants to encourage more cross-disciplinary collaborations, but is well known as the roadblock because he autocratically reserves all decisions to herself.
• The manager who wants to guide a team that in her words, “feels more like a community of practice than a work unit” but who becomes so emotional about human relationships and is so decision-avoidant that she drives people away from her own vision.
• The Vice President who wants his department’s management group to operate as a self-leading team and believes so thoroughly that the end of the day “the best idea will win through debate” that members’ conflicting ideologies (including his own) keep the group stuck in a frustrating cycle of decision-less conversations.
• The CEO who touts the importance of the company’s brand and core values (integrity, responsibility, etc.) but is well known for wimping out when it comes to holding his senior team accountable to these values.
In each case, the leader is a well-intentioned person whose own behaviors contradict the stated goal. Yet a variety of defenses protect the person from constructively hearing and dealing with the data — in turn deeply undermining the organizational performance the leader says is so desired. In the first case, the leader becomes more abusive and shuts down when hearing about the gap in his own behavior. In the second, the leader simply doesn’t respond (he doesn’t have to, after all). In the third, the leader takes it personally and emotionally and cannot decide what to do. In the fourth, the leader wants to debate the point. The fifth listens to feedback sympathetically but does not act. In each instance, even though the interest is creating a more open, innovative, and humane organization, the behavior of the leaders is incongruent. Offering this data to them simply amplifies rather than reduces the defensive reaction.
This dynamic easily leads people to a moral judgment, that the leaders are hypocrites; reinforcing an underlying belief, often part of the default culture, that all leaders are hypocrites as an artifact of their acquired power.
The Incongruency Principle
Instead of “walk the talk,” or the morally loaded term,“hypocrisy,” let’s call it something more neutral, and try to figure out what’s really going on. Let’s call it the Incongruency Principle: the notion that if leaders are the real system within which an organization’s members operate, then in part the system works against itself.
To begin with, this part of the system is often undiscussable because the defensive reactions to talking about “defensive reactions” are so strong as to make it a dangerous or futile conversation. The situation, to use Chris Argyris’s words, becomes “self-sealing.”
But this is not news, Argyris himself and others having covered the territory comprehensively. We know there are sacred cows, elephants in the room, a dead moose on the table, all references to inconsistencies that we have learned to talk around, not directly about, at least not to those who can do something about the problem. The undiscussables are about people, us.
The question is do we really understand our own personal incongruency and the defensive reactions we exhibit? Do we know how our defensive behaviors are interpreted by others and their impact on the work? And could we actually turn the formula around in some way so that what has been a detractor to our credibility would be an asset? How could our incongruency in fact set the stage for courageous breakthrough?
Part of the answer appears to be in acknowledging that the Incongruency Principle offers an eminently powerful and downright inspiring opportunity.
I’m working as a coach with Bob, number two in a technical services firm and slated to take over the presidency in a few years. He’s come up through the ranks and is superb technically but isn’t so good with people. In fact, there have been complaints of a confidential nature to the HR Director who is asking me now to help Bob but cannot, because of the confidences, actually disclose what the nature of the problems are. All she can say is that because of them, Bob’s future as President is definitely in jeopardy. So I suggest Bob get some feedback from others, and I will teach him how to get it. The first thing we do, using the Incongruency Principle, is to have Bob articulate his vision of the kind of workplace relationships he would like to create. I’m asking him to tap his personal values.
This is a tough task for him. He has a hard time getting through these “touchy feely” things, he says, and he’s also so perfectionistic that he wants whatever vision he assembles to be incontestable to others. But after a day or two of thought, he softens and becomes more himself. He says to me, “You know, it really only comes down to one thing, respect. That’s the kind of relationships I want to have, relationships of respect.”
“Great,” I say, “let’s start there. Now, Bob, you know that we wouldn’t be doing this work if there were not some kind of problem, and neither you nor I know what it is at this point, but what’s important is just to find out by asking some questions of a few people that you think might be able to give you data — in this case, in the area of respect. Who do you want to talk to? Who can help most?”
Bob identifies seven people on his own, three of whom I learn later, were sources of complaints to the HR Director. So I’m thinking he has an inkling of some kind where the problem might be. I teach him to start each conversation by clearly stating that he would like to build relationships of respect as part of his role and to ask about anything he might be doing that interferes with that — this is the application of the Incongruency Principle. We talk about creating a safe, sincere environment for his talks.
After three conversations Bob calls me up to tell me it’s already clear where the pattern is — for that’s what I’ve asked him to do — not to fixate on individual relationships so much as find the patterns that are in the way of his stated goal.
He tells me that he’s learned about how his sexually oriented abusive language with staff is undermining his credibility as a boss and deeply distressing staff members. He shares specific examples with me, some of them shocking. At that point he and I can begin looking together into some alternative methods of dealing with his frustration and anger at work, especially when the performance of his team members seemed to reflect some lack in his own leadership capabilities. Embarrassment that things had not been done perfectly had been driving him to some very bad behavior.
You can ask, shouldn’t he have known better? Wouldn’t that be common sense, especially when discriminatory language of any kind is known to be illegal? If he was truly interested in respectful relationships, how could he have engaged in this conduct in the first place? Good questions, and they get at the personal and emotional sensitivity and unconsciousness of our defensive systems and how reciprocal they are with others. Who would talk with him about this behavior, given the very pattern of abusing others that he had adopted? Indeed, how would he have learned about his blind spot without asking in this way?
Now the point of this is to move as quickly as possible from judgment to compassion. We, too, have blind spots. We see them easily in others, but as a therapist friend pointed out, “When you are sure you see someone else’s shadow, there’s a good chance you are standing in your own.” The more important discovery is that we are all implicated precisely because we don’t know what we don’t know, and we therefore have an opportunity: we can always request data about our contradictions, and the results are likely to be valuable. We can always ask, “How am I getting in the way of the things I say I want?” or even better, “How am I colluding in the problems I say I want to solve?”
Making these questions a conscious, deliberate, and continuous inquiry with others — a practice — reduces the defensiveness to a level where we can actually hear about the incongruency, and begin to do something constructive about it. But it has to be a choice to ask, which means from the beginning we accept that some kinds of incongruency are always present — an interesting form of self-acceptance that assumes we do not know our true impact.
And this point is key. I may well suspect who has a problem with me, and have some sense of what it is I’m doing, as Bob did, but the truly missing piece is often the impact that problem has on others and on the work. When Bob heard how devastated people felt, how much time they spent at home trying to recover, how it affected their day-to-day performance and mistakes, how angry they were, it was a great deal easier for him to begin working the issues — more so than even knowing his future as president was at stake. But if you never choose to hear the incongruent data, especially the impact part, if you run from it, if you allow your defensive reactions to prevent you from hearing about your defensive reactions, then you and the system you lead remain the same.
And this, it turns out, is possibly why innovation is often so hard in organizations — because the deepest innovations probably tweak the personal defensiveness and sensibilities of those who have the power.
The real triumph for Bob was not just ending bad behavior, it was replacing it with something else that worked a whole lot better, and also knowing that as a leader he could make a profound difference in the culture of his organization by not just avoiding abuse, but actively intervening when abuse of any kind was appearing in front of him. He went from avoiding certain negative comments and jokes to noticing and calling them out when they came up and with whoever was voicing them.
This is a somewhat harsh example of putting the Incongruency Principle to positive use, but this essay is not about something that’s necessarily harsh. It’s about the structure and nature of an inquiry that can lead to breakthrough. How could you use the principle to make more every day improvements? Going back to the five examples at the beginning of this essay, the following questions could have been asked by the leaders:
“How am I personally contributing to the problem of a hesitant and closed management team?”
“How am I standing in the way of the high level collaborations I say I want?
“How is my own behavior interfering with the ‘community of practice’ workplace I’m trying to foster?
“What am I doing that prevents my management group from becoming more self-managing?”
“In what ways am I working against the values of our company that I say I want to uphold and promote?”
Simple questions, yes, but rarely asked and rarely answered with the truth. And taken in this personal form, they really only scratch the surface of the Incongruency Principle’s power. Since the leaders’ behaviors set the culture of the workplace, learning from contradictions actively empowers others broadly and makes learning collaborative.
Imagine, for example, the last case, the CEO whose own behavior contradicts the values of the company. These values are stated in customer literature. They are broadly advertised as part of the company’s internal supervisory and management training programs. They are, in essence, a core component of the firm’s brand, it’s competitive marketplace differentiator. So if the CEO begins to ask about himself, the company is free to ask about itself. But if the CEO is not open to the contradictory data, isn’t learning from the data, doesn’t want the data and continues to behave defensively, then the brand is never lived — by him or anyone. The brand is not the vital force of the company. It can’t inspire.
This is, by the way, why values training programs for staff are typically so useless. If the leaders cannot themselves show their own learning based on the values, why should anyone else? And we go back to a default culture that assumes defensive incongruence.
But imagine if we could make a practice of asking and learning from the data about where the brand isn’t real — whatever that brand is. We could find all the places where change is needed, exactly where innovation needs to occur. And suppose that we didn’t dissociate the information from ourselves; that it isn’t about the other people, and our righteous interventions to stop them from doing the wrong things, but our humble interventions to learn about our own self-contradictions and blind spots? What then would be possible?
Why We Don’t Do This
What would prevent this honest asking and honest answering? Here we come to the nub of the matter. We don’t ask and get straight answers to these simple questions because our internal defensive processes generally won’t allow it — unless we are under, as Bob was, specific duress with significant rewards at stake. Our day-to-day identities, the process of internal stability and congruence, will not grant permission because we think, at some subliminal level, that we will disintegrate with the incongruency, rather than transform. Once that potential disintegration is scented the dogs at the fence line of current identity begin to bark — and we step back from the edge, saying we don’t need to go there, have already been there, there’s nothing there to find, others motives are suspect, and it will take too long, anyway. The habit of rationalization steps in.
Defensiveness is exactly that, a habit and a reaction, not consciousness, not the deliberate, sincere intention and choice-making (soul-making) that can bypass defensiveness.
Instead, the defensive reactions continue to feed a predictable, traditional workplace culture in which speaking up is feared because of possible repercussions and the belief it will simply do no good. What we have instead of awareness is a self-reinforcing system of low interpersonal and organizational trust. After all, fear-based cultures are actually the safer ones, designed to prevent disruption by not going near what is threatening. We never ask the hard questions and grapple with hard answers — because they deal with ourselves.
This suggests that the core problem is first and foremost one of the leaders’ lack of self-trust, which is not exactly the same as low confidence. A person may appear to have a great deal of self-confidence, but actually have very low self-trust. Self-trust is about being able to trust in a fluid identity, knowing that we are much larger than whatever incongruency is discovered and that we will reforge ourselves naturally, transforming in processes called growing and learning and wisdom. It’s because we don’t trust transforming as people and as communities that the defenses work so hard to protect us and we must create fear-based cultures as a blanket of denial and dismissal.
Each of the five leaders mentioned at the beginning of this essay lacked exactly this quality of self-trust. What they did have was a strong sense of pride and confidence about the changes they felt they should foster — it’s what they stood for, after all — and you cannot, I believe, really separate people from their important ideas. Without self-trust, however, if my ideas or directions are questioned, then I am in jeopardy, too and my defenses are up, precisely to protect those ideas and the person behind them.
Although our organizations do not get the best when defenses are triggered, culturally we are still making believe the ideas we are personally invested in can be separated from our feelings. We pretend, we convince ourselves, we think we are getting the best, operating under an increasingly schizophrenic formula that rates highly the person who has “the best idea” while simultaneously expecting “collaboration” and cooperative execution. Like as not we end up adopting the idea of someone who is no longer really learning, who has high confidence but low self-trust, who dominates well. As a consequence, collective energy wanes, real innovation stalls while under the table each of our separate defensive systems continues to react, bouncing in predictable ways off anyone else in the same conversation.
Protecting Our Strengths
I’ve helped teams map out these defensive exchanges and malfunctions, based on a description of individual defensive styles. What seems to be essential in knowing your own defensive style is often less about the how than the what. The how is about behavior, such as blaming others, getting mad or pushy, withdrawing, brooding, becoming hesitant, conflict avoidant, clever, manipulative, argumentative, sarcastic and so on — the way you go about protecting yourself from a threat. But it is the what that is often the bigger problem. The what represents the self-identified qualities of myself that I will defend at all costs, all aspects of a preferred self-concept such as my integrity, my intelligence, my passion, my skill in this or that discipline, my communication, my love of others, my sense of equity or fairness, my mission in life, and so on and so on.
These are my self-defined strengths and, ironically, it is these that make me the most vulnerable. For when they are under attack (or I think they are or I am doubting them myself), that’s when the how gets most active. Most of us have some sense of our downsides, but we are not likely to feel demolished when they are pointed out. We’ve already accepted them. When the strengths are in jeopardy, however, the armies must march or retreat. We must fight or flee. We must shut down or try to control. These ancient reactions of the reptilian brain act up and then we act out.
Go back and look at the five leaders and consider what self-assessed strengths might be behind the defensive reactions. What you find are people who want to believe they are paragons of various virtues — and don’t we all have this instinct? It behooves us nothing to say these five are not like us. They aren’t the exception.
In a way the competition for best idea these days is very much like saying we are competing to be the best, smartest person — but we try to frame it in disguising ways that deny the feeling. We believe in science. We believe in the value of an abstract reasons and ways of being right. In this sense not much has changed between old style hierarchies and new birthed meritocracies. In the latter, above the water-line is the stated intention of fostering a trust-based collaborative spirit in a flattened, peer-directed environment, but below the water-line domination is still at work, and it is this culture of domination based on what we think are our personal strengths that makes the Incongruency Principle both valuable and potentially disturbing over the long haul. For the Incongruency Principle questions our self-perceived strengths and the dualistic culture behind them, calling them out as the potential flaws they can be. The Principle encourages us to go ever deeper, to genuinely trust in our personal transformations, no matter what culture or organizational design surrounds us or what self-contradictions we find, as a matter of living a vital brand and a vital life. This makes the Principle itself a kind of “meta-strength,” but also a vulnerable one, maybe even a spiritual one, too; certainly an unfinished one as all strengths truly are. It’s the sort of leadership strength that can look suspiciously like a weakness to the constantly roaming reptilian eye.