Change, Moral Courage and Doing Right by Your People

Change, Moral Courage and Doing Right by Your People

8 min read

Brian Canning

There is no doubt that for the past couple of years the economy has been a major source of concern, not only for individuals like you and me but also for business owners, broad industries and entire governments around the world. Suddenly banks were failing; real estate values were plummeting, housing foreclosures skyrocketed and unemployment rates nearly tripled. Job security was suddenly a thing of the past. For many, this instability came out of nowhere, on the heels of decades of growth and expansion. The effects of this collapse are still very much in evidence. Fear and anxiety are tangible realities.

Would it surprise you to learn that rates of tardiness and absenteeism across the country are way down from where they were five years ago, or that productivity is way up? This isn’t so much the result of great new business practices as it is both management and workers abnormally working to be more efficient and reliable, though from very different perspectives. Fearful of losing their jobs, workers are proving their worth by arriving early, working hard and productively during the work day and being very willing to stay late if asked. Businesses are trimming expenses, including payroll and finding ways to be as productive and efficient as is possible. These combined efforts leave us well positioned going forward, with a lean staff that is there, motivated and productive.

As leaders we are often challenged by what our environment throws at us, our job being to deliver results no matter what the market condition, nor the current challenge or obstacle. Not fair but that is what being the leader is all about and if this type of pressure is uncomfortable for you, if you have trouble standing up to these types of demands toward success, maybe this is a case where you really can’t take the heat in that kitchen and for everyone’s sake, you should get out.

During the course of my many years of employment, I worked with someone who was knowledgeable, but beyond that was an extraordinarily gifted instructor, having an uncanny ability to connect and relate to the small business owners and managers he served as operations director every day. Unfortunately where he was very mission driven and caring of the company and customers, his care and concern was less obvious in dealing with his managers and professional staff. In making decisions and in working with corporate executives, he was very willing to take on any and all tasks, which can be a great thing, but too often he did this with little or no consideration for how it would impact his staff members. It is such a simple thing to involve our people in the broad mission and to get their feedback and input (even if we ultimately chose to ignore it and go our own way) but many among us would rather run with our positional authority and bully our staff members into submission. In this particular case it was complicated further by job insecurity which prevented this department head from questioning decisions that were being made or actions being taken by those above him. More than once I heard him declare “I’m not willing to commit professional suicide” and as a direct result, his hard working and loyal staff members fell victim to his moral weakness and actions that impeded and undermined the ability of his people to do their jobs.

In most companies managers are expected to voice concerns and where warranted, to raise objections but rather than rock the boat, this department head abandoned his people in favor of his career insecurities. I have always been of the opinion that staff members well supported and set up for success are the best job security you could ever need. Certainly you will always want to set high standards and continually challenge your people for their very best effort, but fidelity to their plight and being willing to risk it all in their defense will go a long way toward assuring their very best. Conversely, selling your people out and abandoning them to protect your own career is certainly a great way to communicate your lack of care and concern and take away all of the reasons they would have to do anything beyond what they need to do to retain their jobs. Actions such as these are much closer to tyranny than they are to leadership and this behavior underscores what happens when you put your needs above the needs of your people. The very sad case here is that this individual had the very visible respect of his staff. They would willingly have followed him anywhere he would have chosen to lead them. Leadership was something that was obviously beyond him and he chose a course that served his needs, not the mission and certainly not the welfare of his people.

Mutiny in the work place is an incredibly rare thing and the truth is that people as a whole will put up with almost anything you throw at them, even more so in an environment such as we have seen over the past couple of years, with people being laid off all across the country and job insecurity running very high. There is no doubt that at a time like this you could push your people much further than you could have four or five years ago, using that job loss fear to drive your people beyond what is reasonable, the threat of being fired stifling any objections. Most among us are of the herd, sheep, followers and not likely to voice our dissatisfaction, especially in an environment such as this. The down side of this is our creating a workplace that discourages initiative and frowns upon anything approaching an open constructive dialogue with our staffs. The very sad fact is that as an expedience, many leaders among us have taken this path and are using fear as a tool to move their people and fear, more than any other emotion, will certainly inspire most of us to move but move exactly where they are directed, with no inclination or interest toward a better path.

Change in most organizations and businesses is a fact of life, doubly so in recent years with all the innovation coming at us in technology and in how we communicate and interact with our customers and vendors. In an environment such as this I would be concerned with a workforce mired in fear and hobbled by a reluctance to raise objections or to suggest a better path. If Americans are anything, we are innovators and great ideas are what drive this. I can promise that if your people live in an environment of fear, their thoughts are more toward survival and keeping their job than innovation. Successful change and in this, our viability and survival, is a function of leadership. Fear will certainly get them there but effective leadership will get them there happy at the journey and motivated toward a better result.

In ‘Leading Change’ John Kotter says “Better for most of us, despite the risks, to leap into the future. And to do so sooner rather than later….As an observer of life in organizations, I think I can say with some authority that people who are making an effort to embrace the future are a happier lot than those who are clinging to the past….But people who are attempting to grow, to become more comfortable with change, to develop leadership skills-these men and women are typically driven by a sense that they are doing what is right for themselves, their families, and their organizations…”

People want to have a voice, want to know where they are going, want to contribute and want business owners and managers to know and appreciate that contribution. Our job as leaders is to give our people all of that as we move our business or organization where we need it to go. Fear would seem a very poor choice as we ask our people to go out there and take on the world.

You are the leader. As you charge up that hill are your people going to follow you in confidence or abandon you in fear? If you are unsure of that answer I am guessing that this is something you will want to dig into. People will amaze you with what they can accomplish under the most difficult of circumstance but only when they are confident in taking those first difficult steps. Great leadership inspires that confidence.

‘Illegitimi non carborundum’!   (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”)

About the author:

Brian Canning is a regular contributor to weLEAD and a business analyst working in the federal sector. For the past thirty years he has worked in the automotive repair industry, most recently as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Training Institute in Savage, Maryland. After serving as a tank commander with the 1st Armored Division in Europe, he started his career as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington D.C., moving on to oversee several stores and later a sales region. He also has been a retail sales manager for a large auto parts distributor, run a large fleet operation and headed a large multi-state sales territory for an independent manufacturer of auto parts. His passions are history, leadership and writing.

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  • Quote of the Day

    “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

    — Sam Walton