I spoke a few days ago to a friend who works for a large multinational. A very profitable one and a cultural leader of sorts. My friend is quite a senior player and well respected. Like many he works hard and beyond what’s expected. He’s someone you’d definitely want on your team. He and a number of colleagues had put together a proposal to their Director (a senior leader) to allow them to start the day later on certain days and leave earlier on others so they could be there for their kids at nursery / school drop-offs and pick-ups. They had worked it out so they would support and cover for each other. It was not a demanding proposal. They didn’t want more money or to work less hours, just more flex. When the response came back from this senior Director it was a flat no. There was no consultation, no referral to HR, no real discussion of any kind. Just a ‘sorry this won’t work’…(‘for me’ was the implication). My friend was surprised. After all this wasn’t just his request, it was from a number of his colleagues as well. He had never really asked for anything of the company before. He loves his job, he loves the company too, he thought the company loved him. A turning point. You could see it in his reaction – the end of the affair.
This stuff happens all the time. Sure it does. It’s not a surprise. But my friend was surprised. In fact he was gutted and angry. Now I don’t know the realities of what was behind the decision but I want to write about the reaction of that Director, because that speaks for everything. The failure to listen, to take on board what people in his team are requesting and to understand how important it is to them. To consider that people’s lives outside the business are your responsibility to support. The whole person, not just the bit of them that helps you you get what you want. This was an opportunity for that leader to cement his relationship with his team. Even if he knew it would be difficult to get their request granted, he could have supported it, even sponsored it to drive change. He would have earned respect and showed solidarity. Instead his reaction has driven a wedge between them that will most likely result in my friend and his colleagues leaving sooner to find a place that will support their needs. The net result being that it will take considerable time, money and resource to remedy. And all that will fall back on that Director, making his job harder. In that moment, that man had the opportunity to show why he has been appointed to a senior leadership position. Instead he failed to lead, epically. Bad managers cause huge damage to an organisation because they can affect so many people. Sometimes they are just messed up people missing the empathy gene but often they just haven’t been trained properly. Either way the responsibility lies with the organisation to develop its people so that great leadership exists at every level of an organisation – from the most junior all the way up. And the key to all of this is leading by example.
When we fail to relate to people on an emotional level, when we refuse to consider their individuality, when we don’t realise the duty of care that we have as leaders for the people we choose to employ for 40 hours a week, then we are basically saying we don’t give a shit. And if leaders don’t genuinely care about their people, why should they expect their people to care about their work?
Roland consults and writes about business culture, leadership and innovation.
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