Is it me, or is there an epidemic out there right now regarding the judgments of leaders about those who work for them? I hear it over and over: “How do I get them to step up?” “They don’t work as hard as I do — they don’t have the same work ethic.” “Why don’t they just do their jobs?” “How come the simplest things, turning in time sheets for instance, results in my having to nag and nag?” And we are not talking about people new to the workplace. It’s the experienced managers who are not “stepping up” or “working as hard,” people who have been in their positions for some time, who appear to be the problem. “I shouldn’t have to remind them about any of this stuff?”
The tone of these judgments is one of frustration, anger, disappointment and self-blame. At a recent workshop, for example, the head of a public service agency complained, “After taking this job I tried to engage the managers in building a vision together and really taking on the challenges we collectively face, but at a point one of them spoke up to ask, ‘Look, can’t you just tell us what you want?’ ” There was a kind of mystified disappointment in the agency head’s voice as he spoke. Again, it was one of those things the others were just supposed to get, part of the job, standing up to help guide the agency, not displace their own leadership onto him. He had found himself becoming increasingly judgmental and autocratic — “the easier road,” he said.
Cobalt light in a local city park
Part of the context, of course, is what has happened over the past few years to organizations because of lack of resources and because of fear. People are hunkered down, doing tasks as if tasks were the only part of the work that mattered anymore. Get it done! Get it done! Get it done! When I talk with leaders and they become gradually safer and more open, tasks sometimes seem to be their only world. They feel the weight of it acutely; their sole value in what they can make happen. Everything else — everything else — is a risk, a fluff, a non-value-added distraction from the reality that there is barely enough time, barely enough money, barely enough energy to get on with what must be accomplished in a world where every single stakeholder except themselves is to be satisfied first.
This giving over of the self of the leader is what, I believe, then results in the symptom of distress called complaining, called judging others. When the leaders give up themselves because of the pressure, it is entirely understandable that criticizing others becomes a natural outcome, the option called emotional relief. In turn this leads to self-judgment. “I shouldn’t need to complain.” Pretty soon, this can lead to colluding in a self-fulfilling prophecy: even the leaders with the best of intentions begin to say, “just tell me what to do.”
I suppose I could insert here advice about having the guts to clarify real expectations legitimately placed on other leaders, or make suggestions about holding others accountable, about authentic engagement and relationship building, about mentoring and learning and telling the truth, but all of that is really secondary to the darker, more destructive thing going on — which is the commoditizing of people. Because frankly today the deeper message is that people matter much less than the tasks at hand. And that commoditizing first and foremost is happening with the leaders themselves.
In this transactional world, all of us can be changed out more easily; all of us can be waved aside. The inner person only matters if it is devoted to something larger: the mission, the clients, the customers, the bosses, the Board, the money. Lord knows, the money. We’re all secondary to that, and more than we’ve ever been. This is the hole that we’ve collectively dug out of giving, out of putting the work first, out of self-victimizing and compromising who we actually are and what we truly need. What our judgments of others do is remind us that we are still in there someplace, still alive. Our complaints about those who work for us confirm our value via our comparison to those less powerful than ourselves.
It’s the same old story, isn’t it? The ever-present risk of the loss of our own humanity in favor of something else for somebody else where we too often claim “no choice.” What’s really risky these days as leaders is standing up for our humanity, standing up for our intrinsic value in the midst of the pain of our systems and cultures we inhabit. Standing up to say, “This isn’t working. We need a better way, together.”
What’s to be said about such a trend other than this, that it’s heartbreaking and that the very first thing we need to do is to stop. Stop long enough to pay attention. Stop just long enough to remind ourselves who we really are before choosing where next to invest our energies.
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