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A Behavioral Leadership Approach to Workplace Problems

April 23, 2009
009 is proving to be a time of intense trial for organizations and for the people who work in them. The worst economic climate in decades is intersecting with a new administration in Washington, whose intent it is to bring about greater workplace and business regulation. Even though this combination of forces brings great challenges, I believe that leaders can actively build upon the progress that their organizations have made and keep the commitments they have pledged for the future without disrupting operations or even incurring great expense. In fact, those commitments are more important than ever if leaders intend to weather the economic and legislative changes of the upcoming year.

The complex issues we face require leaders to do their jobs in a consistent and professional way. Of course, this will not just happen by itself. Organizations must adopt a simple, clear leadership behavior strategy. This strategy is as important as the individual steps leaders will take to review policies and communicate new standards as they arise.

In truth, many organizations have sorely tested the trust of their workforces in recent years, and employees are not only anxious about their jobs, but doubt that they can rely on their employers for honest communication and professional treatment. Employers can best deal with these perceptions if they communicate truthfully, listen carefully to employees’ concerns, address problems promptly and act professionally. None of these standards require financial outlay. Leaders must just follow clear, specific behaviors to fulfill them. The challenge lies in ingraining these behaviors in the organization so they apply to all the actions, initiatives and workday responsibilities of leaders at all levels. Only then can organizations prevent problems that can arise across an increasing range of the issues that are being invoked by the debilitated economy and the political changes that are now taking place and beginning to affect businesses nationwide.

2008’s financial meltdown continues to exert economic pressures, causing further job cuts and business contraction. Some people, in the midst of such crises, will search for means to protect themselves. Some will just try to get even. Charges and lawsuits typically rise in recessions. In fact, EEOC discrimination claims in 2008 were already at their highest level since 1992. The economy’s downward spiral, marked by steep unemployment and tanking financial markets, increases the odds that these claims will surge even higher. Furthermore, as a reaction to remote and disengaged leadership, union organizing efforts this year will be an increasingly attractive option for disaffected employees.

The Obama administration has stated its commitment to not only turn around the economy but to act swiftly to regulate business more aggressively than the previous administration. Regulatory developments will give employees new avenues for administrative and judicial relief that we have not seen for many years. At this moment, provisions are either already in place (Title VII, FMLA and ADA) or contemplated (FLSA) to strengthen existing laws.

Next up is the Employee Free Choice Act, which was reintroduced in the House of Representatives on March 9 and which President Barack Obama has indicated he will support, in some form. At this writing, its chances of passage are not certain, given that 41 Senate Republicans have indicated they will filibuster to prohibit a final vote. The measure went down in 2007 on such a move. But if the act is passed in any of the forms that have been discussed so far, it will greatly facilitate union organizing and increase the risk to employers who try to combat union drives in their workplaces. In other areas of business, from occupational safety to securities, increased regulatory provisions are being planned.

How employers might respond
The resulting press of legislation, government oversight and risk will place on organizations an added burden of cost and a decreased focus on business, just at a time when most have already slashed budgets and resources for both operations and staff. Recognizing all that confronts them, many organizations will respond in the same way they have to lesser challenges that have arisen since the 1970s. Most organizations, understandably concerned about increases in litigation, charges, lawsuits and potential union organizing activity, will look at each area of new or enhanced risk and devise separate strategies to address and manage these concerns. They will send out e-mails regarding new statutes, put revised compliance processes in place and review each and every organizational policy to ensure it is legally accurate. Then, they will launch initiatives related to each of the new laws and assign them to subject-matter experts who will develop information sheets or fact-laden training sessions coupled with multiple processes to field complaints.

And that will be the end of it. While processes and briefings are important, organizations relying on these measures alone will not address the very root causes that are likely to trigger or inflame today’s workplace problems. Worse yet, they will hinder their ability to resolve these problems internally. Leaders who do not welcome complaints, who do not take decisive steps to fix problems, who do not communicate honestly and act professionally, will spawn new problems arising from what may appear to be disparate causes. In fact, though, common leadership misbehaviors are responsible for these problems.

These intensely trying times bring a heightened urgency for leadership strategies focused on daily behaviors. These strategies are as important as any organizational initiative that is meant to address processes and broad communications. In fact, now more than ever, organizations must insist on the highest standards of professional behavior if they intend to weather the economic and legislative changes we face.

Adopt a behavioral leadership strategy
Implementing a day-to-day behavioral leadership strategy cannot be left to chance, nor can we give it secondary status. Instead, it must be the first step, rather than the last, of a workplace plan to deal with our current challenges. A comprehensive behavioral strategy must be the pivotal point around which organizations build all other processes.

Regrettably, without organizational direction, the same economic stresses that affect employees will bring out the worst behavior in some of the leaders who manage them. In industries from health care and banking to telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and electric utilities, some leaders will vent their fears and stress by reverting to disruptive behaviors that will lead to discrimination and harassment claims, inattention to safety and quality details, ethical shortcuts and outright lapses. They can also pave the way for unionization efforts.

This unchecked behavior is already prevalent in too many workplaces. In compiling the results of a workplace survey in which many of our clients participated last summer, my colleagues and I found signs of what such "leadership" can do in an organization, regardless of the industry.

Overall, we observed a glaring degree of frustration among employees over managers and leaders who could not communicate accurately and professionally and who would not listen to employees and address basic issues. We found these results particularly striking because we received them even before the torrent of bad economic news hit, beginning in September 2008.Here are representative comments from survey participants:

• Bullying continues to be a problem. There are, however, even more subtle behaviors. These are unconscious or unintentional behaviors resulting from a lack of awareness of the signals and nuances of cultures other than our own. This includes differences of age and geographic roots, even within the U.S. or within individual states in the U.S.

• I work in an organization where it appears to be OK and allowed for managers to make sexist comments and lie. And what makes it even more bizarre—these folks get promoted!

• Stifled complaints have caused several employees to up and leave without promise of gainful employment. They had to leave their job for "sanity" and to preserve their reputation.

• Unethical behavior jeopardizes our ability to execute and deliver service appropriately. When it has been long-accepted, it takes time to change.

• The manager is not approachable. The employee does not have a comfort level with their manager to discuss an issue. Many times the employee feels intimidated by their manager and will not say anything.

• They fail to respond to employee issues, tell the employee to "get over it" and essentially tell them they are troublemakers.

• In health care, a double standard exists for leaders and physicians versus the rank-and-file employees. Rank-and-file employees are held to higher standards and poor behaviors are tolerated less from them than the physicians and leaders.

Recommendations for a behavioral leadership strategy
If the kinds of behaviors described in the survey responses go unchecked, serious and damaging workplace issues will result. The drafting of policies and the communication of topical information about legislative, regulatory and other issues will prove futile unless organizations address bad behavior such as bullying, harassment, lying and condescension. Establishing a core behavioral leadership strategy will produce shared behaviors that encourage two-way communication on all issues and provide a foundation of consistently civil, inclusive and lawful treatment.

When issues do arise, whether those issues are wage-and-hour compliance, discrimination and harassment or unionization efforts, a consistent leadership strategy will assure that they will be detected and corrected sooner rather than later, which is when the damage is irreparable. The shared behavioral standards of leadership must become the foundation for every policy, communication, management initiative and training session. When an organization lays this behavioral foundation, it will prevent problems, uncover them if they do arise and ensure their prompt correction. These are the hallmarks of voluntary compliance: prevention, detection and correction. They must be the standard for conducting business.

Leadership behaviors defined
Of course, talking about leadership behaviors is all well and good, and many leaders intuitively adopt these behaviors in the workplace. But other leaders need detailed instruction and practice in order to incorporate these behaviors into their daily leadership strategies. Here are key leadership behaviors and ideas on how leaders should apply them:

Communicate honestly: A tough economic time is the time for truth. This means not only telling the truth when questioned, but also sharing news, whenever possible, before it leaks through the grapevine that filters through all organizations. Leaders may not be in a position to reveal all plans and confidential business information. But they must never mislead or lie; whatever they say and write must be factual. Dishonest communications can lead to perceptions of discrimination or other unlawful conduct. This behavior gives labor organizers an argument to use: You can’t believe what your employers say; you cannot trust them to do the right thing. Credibility is crucial and cannot be manufactured. Leaders must build credibility over time in the routine interactions that touch every aspect of the workplace.

Listen to concerns: Employees are concerned about their jobs and their personal circumstances. They have questions and need to know that their leaders are willing to take time to hear their concerns. Whatever those issues are, the manner in which one concern is handled—just one—will determine whether employees raise the next concern internally or through external sources. Finding out about employees’ concerns allows leaders to find out about potentially problematic issues. They can then address the issues within the organization, rather than through expensive external avenues. What managers say and how they say it—content, body language, and tone—are all vital indicators of their sincerity. We have learned that listening is a behavioral skill; these and other components can be taught and must be regularly applied.

Address problems promptly: With the uncertainty prevalent in today’s workplace, employees will likely have many concerns. Employees must know that their concerns will not only get attention, but also responses. That does not mean the responses will be what they want to hear, and it does not mean that leaders will give out information that cannot be released. However, the responses should fulfill these criteria:

• Leaders must answer questions accurately. If they cannot divulge the information, they should honestly say that to employees.

• Explanations must be timely. A tardy response is virtually no response at all. At the very least, if leaders need time to investigate a situation, they should let employees know when they can provide the response and follow up accordingly.

Act professionally: A few simple rules can help leaders accomplish this goal. A key principle that my colleagues and I recommend is that managers make certain that they guard their words and actions. Yelling and condescension in tone of voice, body language or written communications have no place in professional conduct.

Apologize readily: Like anyone else, leaders make mistakes and sometimes fail to act in line with the organization’s leadership strategy. If this happens, they should apologize and then change their behavior.

Learning that makes a difference
Organizations that implement these behaviors as comprehensive cultural standards will prevent problems that might otherwise lead to significant damage. Conversely, organizations that launch a barrage of policies and systems without addressing the vital role that leadership behavior plays simply ignore what is essential to building a legal workplace. And that, ultimately, is what every new law, regulation and initiative which addresses individual or collective conduct is meant to foster. Organizations must clearly define what constitutes leadership behavior. Leaders must then understand that this behavior is a non-negotiable requirement. In addition, organizations must hold leaders accountable for implementing these behavioral standards and managing in accordance with them.

There is nothing complex about the behaviors described here. They are brief but concrete guidelines that every leader can learn quickly and apply immediately. When they do so, their organizations will see leadership that makes a difference. They will minimize risk and increase productivity. This is a common-sense necessity for any organization that hopes to survive and thrive in the days ahead.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.