Recently, I overheard a senior leader say, “Basically, human resources is responsible for the culture.” This statement highlights the lack of understanding of how culture is created, shaped and reinforced. There is nothing HR or any one person can do to shape culture if top leaders don’t align their behaviors with the mission, vision and values of the organization. Here are five leadership behaviors that negatively affect culture and what to do instead.
Behavior #1: Walking on eggshells
Overly nice leaders nod in agreement when they disagree. They tell employees what they want to hear, and they keep bad news from their own boss to avoid dealing with a negative reaction. Walking on eggshells with another person, no matter what their title, means you don’t have an authentic relationship. The justification is that walking on eggshells is for the purpose of harmony or working with a high-conflict personality who is low on agreeability.
What to do instead: Change your interpretation. Instead of interpreting this coping mechanism as a strategy for getting along, see it for what it is: a way to manage uncomfortable feelings that arise when working with high-conflict people. Decide to expand your conflict capacity. Feel the fear, but go ahead and disagree. Deliver bad news. Represent yourself honestly instead of cautiously. Count to three and take a breath. Feel the discomfort, but don’t say anything. Let their reaction be what it is. You may suffer temporarily, but you won’t die and neither will they. With practice, you’ll stop pretending and start being more authentic.
Behavior #2: Perpetual reorganizing
Perpetual reorganization is often a sign of avoidance. For example, there’s a difficult person in a department, but no one has had the courage to give an appropriate evaluation. Or the toxic employee has tenure. The best solution is to transfer them to another department. The problem doesn’t go away it just spreads like a virus.
What to do: Get clear about the desired behavior or outcome and initiate an honest, heartfelt conversation. Take ownership of the part you (or the organization) played in letting the unwanted behavior go on for too long. Start with a fresh slate. No shaming, judging, or blaming, just a new opportunity for awareness, personal growth, and improvement. Stop moving the chess pieces on the board and instead use your courage to speak to a new possibility.
Behavior #3: Blowing up
Aggression and bouts of unmanaged anger build barriers instead of bridges. No one wants to work for a boss without self-control or emotional immaturity. If you (or your leaders) have a habit of blowing up, there’s an addiction to releasing pent-up energy. If you only lose your temper occasionally, it’s a sign that you’re letting things build up or you’ve hit your capacity.
What to do instead instead: Make sure your needs are being met. If necessary, work with a coach or therapist to uncover triggers and unconscious programming. Decide to never offer feedback when you’re hungry or tired. At the same time, promise yourself that once you’re calmed down, you’ll still address important issues, but from a place of calm, not chaos. If you’re constantly surprised by your anger, it probably means you’re letting little resentments build up. In that case, bring issues forward sooner rather than letting things go.
Behavior #4 Knowing it all
Even if you have a lot of experience, having all the answers keeps others from engaging fully. The habit of having all the answers (even if you really do) also makes others defensive and resistant. Sometimes, your employees just want you to listen, or they want to collaborate.
What to do instead: Be curious. Ask more questions. Say things like, “What’s your take on this situation,” or “Walk me through your assessment.” You might be surprised what ideas they come up with if you are willing to not have an answer. People support what they help to create.
Behavior #5 Delegating strategic work
There is some work that should never be delegated, for example, asking your assistant to get pricing bids on bringing in a Change Agent, Consultant or Trainer. Strategic initiatives and critical decisions are not checklists to be delegated by someone outside of the executive suite. A dead giveaway that you’re delegating strategic work is when the focus is on price versus value and objectives.
What to do instead: There’s some work that only you can do, which includes interviewing consultants, talking with change agents and getting clear about what outcomes are needed and why. You can delegate some research, but when it comes to critical projects and strategic initiatives, talk directly with the experts yourself. Don’t delegate strategic work to someone whose skill set and expectation is checking off the list.
It’s not up to the HR department to build and shape culture. Leadership behavior is at the heart of culture and is living proof of a commitment to the stated mission, vision and values.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, speaker and author of From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn or at MarleneChism.com
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