Dr. Tom: A Solution Looking for a Problem

April 4, 2021

How does leadership reinforce creation of negative work environments?

We like to believe that rumors, backstabbing and harassment occur within the lower ranks of organizations.  As with most behavior, it survives and thrives where it is reinforced.  When leaders in an organization are pulled away from the day to day operations of that organization, the disconnect creates tension and insecurity that seeks reduction within the leaders.  Left with the desire to feel connected and valued by their employees, and given the “gift” of a problem looking for solution on an individual basis, leaders fall prey to the trap of accepting that an individual perception reflects a larger group.  To reconnect, these leaders jump in to save the day.

How does perception lead to chaos? 

When an individual holds a perception, he or she seeks to affirm that by surrounding themselves with similar minds.  In that process a reciprocal exchange of affirmation occurs as each convinces the other of the accuracy of their perception mixed with the need to join as a servant of the social nature of our species.  As this negative minority seeks greater and greater connection, individual realities merge and reinforce each other.  Conflict within this minority is inherently avoided to prevent the erosion of this new connection again in service to the basic need for social interaction.  The more isolated or alone, the greater the need.  This provides affirmation for fringe cohesion among the individuals allowing for further disconnect from a widely held and more objective, positive reality.   Minus the analysis, when on the outside, individuals are better served to continue to move in cohesion with increasingly deviant perspectives.   This creates a vocal minority and the belief that their perception is the only accurate reality.  The silent majority is left with its own desire to avoid conflict and thus shake their heads in silence.

How is this chaos reinforced?

Back to our focus on those at the top of the organizations…in such a culture, a vocal minority raises a divisive viewpoint.  The leader’s need to be needed overrides the judgement that would otherwise value those who maintain the balance within an organization.  “If there is a fire, I am the one first on the hose” creates an identity within leadership that is a fragile entity riding the pendulum of reactionary drive.  With each “crisis” comes a new directive to quell the reality held by the few who are screaming, without the recognition that those screams are based in personal agenda not that of the organization.  A problem is solved, the screams are silent, and the majority remain quiet to move on to another day.  The greatest accomplishment of this management style is the death of motivation for the bulk of the work force.

Every problem has a solution! 

The first step to regain motivation is to correctly identify whether a problem actually exists.  It is rarely the one presented by the person stating, “this is how everyone feels” or “this is what everyone thinks”.  Broad generalities and representations of the silent majority are most often false by virtue of their silent nature.  They did not voice an opinion because they were happy in the first place.

The second step requires the exploration of the personal agenda of the self-elected “spokesperson”.

The third step is understanding inverse intention.   As an example, “I don’t want to make waves but….” translates to, “I want waves to be made but I am too insecure to bring an issue forward for solution…”  Alternately, more attention is gained by bringing something negative forward while repressing the real agenda.

The fourth step is dissection of the basic complaint at hand that is couched in partially related issues.

Once these four points are evaluated, and reflection of trust placed in the targets of the vocal minority is considered, action steps can be taken.   The first action step moves from the first problem step, challenge the “everyone” statement with the requirement to list the names of everyone for direct follow up.  Second, explore the agenda of the “spokesperson” to determine that individual’s intention – “Why are you bringing this to me and not the person you are talking about?”  This will flow into an understanding of the underlying agenda that can lead to personal growth for the individual voicing the complaint.  The third action point is to reverse “I don’t want to create problems” as a likely statement of exactly what that person does want.  Although it is change oriented, this change may well be for the individual’s benefit rather than any true gain to the system overall.  Fourth and most important, adopt a “face to face” culture that requires comments, complaints, and/or concerns go directly to the person they are about BEFORE bringing them to leadership.  Final and most complex, what we say we want is often not what we really want, but have little idea what the latter is.  The person experiences discontent but often does not understand the nature and origin of it.  This leads them to latch on to external situations and an apparent solution-focus as a mere band-aide where a psychological tourniquet is required.

In short, if leadership lacks the trust in themselves to lead, they will lack the trust in those they place in positions of leadership.  This lack will create a chasm in which a vocal and negative minority can erode the interconnections and fracture an organization’s potential by forcing leaders to pivot between survival positions.  When operating based on survival, secondary leaders’ growth, motivation, loyalty, and professionalism are all compromised.  Reflecting on the contributions, gathering alternative data, and requiring conflicts to be resolved on the face to face level can repair the damage caused by rushing in to save the day.

– Dr. Tom