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If there is one lesson I have learned during the past 31 years in various corporate leadership roles across three continents, it is that breaking down the silos and unifying an organization behind a cause that inspires them should be the highest priority, no matter what specific business or technical challenges the organization may be facing. As I reflect on my career, I am reminded of all the times that I found myself in organizations or communities that were divided and more concerned about their own individual or small group goals at the expense of the greater good. In case of one such situation where I lived in a community that was racially divided, it took a flood that affected 70% of the homes in the area for people of all races to come together and act as a united team, for a short while anyway. In other situations, in the absence of a natural disaster, intentional interventions were in order to unify the organization before any real progress could be made.
I can count seven specific turn-around situations I have been deployed to in the course of my career. I have no idea why these happened earlier in my career; maybe it was a way of testing me to see if I could make it the rest of the way. Whatever the case, in hindsight, I can see that the one common thread among all the successful organizational transformations of which I have been a part was that we were able to convince a group of talented individuals—who had heretofore been more interested in, and more adept at, optimizing their functional or business silos and cliques than optimizing the company as a whole—to come together as a united team to achieve something that they collectively considered to be worthwhile.
Unifying people and compelling them to set aside their differences in favor of a greater cause that inspires them may sound like a “nice thing to do” and it may conjure up an image of people holding hands and singing “kumbaya.” But, as anyone who has successfully led a divided organization or community to come together as a united team knows, doing so successfully is anything but touchy feely or soft. It requires the courage to challenge the status quo in which everyone has found security and stability up until that point, as well as the persistence and resilience to keep moving forward in the face of opposition from all sides. It takes an authentic level of commitment to do what’s right for the team, but it also demands the discernment and finesse to do it in such a way that it does not invalidate the individuals or diminish their sense of belonging. To give you a sense of the strength a leader needs to have to succeed at the “soft” stuff like unifying and inspiring a team, I recall one of the employees in perhaps the most divided organization I have ever been a part of, describing to visitors interested in knowing how we turned things around, that the secret was how I had “forced them to collaborate.”
I have had the pleasure of working with a few leaders who had mastered the art and science of unification. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed far more bosses, mine or otherwise, who were completely oblivious to just how much their words and actions contributed to a divided organization becoming further entrenched in their silos and functional camps, to the detriment of the team as a whole.
As I look back at the mindset and behaviors I have observed in those leaders on both ends of the spectrum, and my own experience as I have had the privilege of unifying the organizations that I have been a part of, I’d like you to consider the following leadership traits as accelerators of unity within any organization, or community for that matter.
Have tremendous empathy – The ability to relate to the hopes and aspirations, and especially fears, of various constituencies is an absolute must in a leader. It is particularly important for the leader to go out of his/her way to truly understand the concerns of the people in the organization who are not like him/her and view themselves vulnerable under his/her leadership.
Are effective facilitators – When a leader can see the world from different points of view, the next thing they do is to facilitate a dialogue and incite behaviors that enable those who consider themselves different from others to see the merits of the ideas and concerns of others, and help to find common ground by magnifying the qualities and values that bond people while working hard on reconciling the legitimate issues that divide them.
Amplify the voice of the voiceless – This is particularly important when a new leader joins an organization. As the bid for power is prevalent in this stage, it is incumbent on the leader to ensure that those who feel emboldened by their perception of the leader’s style and preferences understand that they don’t have the power to impose their preferences on everyone else. It is equally important for those whose voice has been diminished to know that the leader will amplify their voice and equalize the balance of power between seemingly opposing sides.
Don’t take sides – While it is paramount that the leader’s principles and values consistently resonate through his/her words and actions, ideally, nobody should ever be quite certain whose side the leader is on as he/she gravitates toward upholding principles as opposed to clinging to static positions or agendas, or giving in to his/her own biases and personal whims.
Perpetuate an abundance mentality – Silos are developed and strengthened out of a scarcity mentality. People come together in small groups and cliques to have a sense of belonging and make sure that they and others who are like them are not cheated out of what they feel they deserve. The leader’s every word and action ought to actively demonstrate that there is plenty to go around for everyone, and that they will do everything in their power to ensure that everyone feels that abundance personally, such that every silo can see it and willingly lets go and joins the broader team without the fear that they might lose what they had otherwise.
Consistently speak and behave in accordance with the values they aspire to promote – The leader must recognize that nobody owes them their trust simply because of their title or position, and if they want to be trusted by everyone, they must earn that trust. The leader is under constant scrutiny and the credibility he/she builds over weeks and months can go out the window just because a word or a gesture or a small act demonstrating that they are not truly committed to all the people in their charge. A leader who fails to do this sends the message that hypocrisy is acceptable, which erodes trust and effectiveness throughout the entire organization.
Routinely and authentically own up to their own flaws and make course corrections – There is no better way to perpetuate this behavior and make it okay for others to practice it than for a leader to practice it themselves. Leaders must welcome and encourage open dialogue and criticism of themselves and make it okay for that kind of dialogue to take place out in the open, rather than being driven down into the safety of small groups who agree amongst themselves.
Expect multi-faceted solutions to be developed through dialogue among peers – Organizations that are heavily divided are notorious for wanting to please the boss but not necessarily caring much about their peers in the other silos. Leaders who expect collaboration and force collective solutions to be developed promote bridges being built among peers who eventually get their other peers to join in and collaborate, and so on and so on. Knowing that no one position can fully encapsulate the reality of a situation, leaders who encourage collaboration share their power and engage the hearts and minds of others who may have otherwise chosen to remain silent, thereby robbing the team of their contributions.
I'm sure that depending on the specific circumstances, some of these traits may play a more prominent role than others in whether the leader can effectively unify the organization or not but no matter what the situation, we all sense very quickly whether our leader is a true servant leader, focused on giving advantage or a boss, interested in pitting people against each other and taking advantage. Leaders who are effective at unifying organizations personally exemplify the spirit of my favorite phrase, "I am the one and it's not about me!"
If you are a leader who is striving to unify your organization, I hope that you will perform an honest assessment of how well you are doing relative to the traits mentioned above. I would encourage you to seek feedback from someone who is willing to tell you the truth.
If you have been thinking about your leaders and how they measure up to these traits, I hope you have concluded that they are doing a great job of demonstrating these traits. If that's the case, I congratulate you and encourage you to not take them for granted. Give them encouragement and find out how you can support the effort. If you are lamenting your leader's poor standing on these traits, your job is a bit tougher but not impossible, so long as you remain committed to do your part in unifying the organization, in spite of the unenlightened leader(s). The choice you must make is whether you will tolerate the silo mentality that exists in the organization and try to maximize your gains or you accept the responsibility for making up your leader's deficiencies in some or all of these traits. Remember that while your leader will have the power to set policies and allocate resources, etc. you are the one who shapes the day to day experience that your team members have and whether than experience causes everyone to feel validated as a valuable part of the team or diminished as second class citizens.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
An organization whose members are divided into haves and have nots or driven to take refuge in silos cannot possibly perform and deliver with excellence or experience the kind of fulfillment that its members deserve. It is a leader's obligation and responsibility to unify such an organization and ensure that everyone is compelled to be fully engaged in fulfilling the common purpose of the organization and making all it's members feel appreciated for what they bring. In this post, I go over 8 traits of leaders who are effective at unifying organizations with the purpose of offering leaders a framework to assess themselves and make the necessary course corrections. These traits can also be adopted by team members who wish to make up for their leader's shortcomings and accelerate progress in a toxic and divided environment.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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