Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership


Leave a comment

Don’t be a zombie: why teams are a challenge


20170114_blp516I hear it in almost every business I work with. I hear it in the classroom. It’s a collective groan and wave of murmuring when a team assignment is announced. It is that an implicit frustration that not everyone on the team will carry their own weight. It is the fear of team zombies.

Various definitions of the word zombie adequately describe the kind of person everyone hopes will not appear on the team. Zombie: the body of a dead person given the semblance of life but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.  A person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote: automaton.[1]

Team zombies show up to meetings and avoid talking and contributing. They fail to execute their assigned responsibilities, reduce trust, and seem to effectively suck the intelligence of the team deflating the team to levels of both incompetence and mediocrity. Team zombies are the paragon of Lencioni’s team dysfunctions.

What drives a zombie to act like a will less mute unwilling to take responsibility or fulfill assignments? In my work with teams, I have found four common contributors that turn normal people into zombies or as I like to call it, the forces of “zombification.”

Intimidation. The cause of “zombification” to correct is the result of someone being placed on a team with those who they feel are superior in skill, experience, and insight.  It is the normal response of a novice.  This occurs in healthy organizations in which a novice is routinely given an opportunity to work above their pay grade and experience level with a team of highly competent people in order to expose the novice to greater complexity in problem analysis and solution finding.  I am encouraged when I see this kind of “zombification” occur because it is temporary and indicates that a person is in over their head and is learning to work with others who possess different and often greater experience and knowledge.  It is also usually self-correcting because working around highly experienced and gifted individuals draws the best out of even the most awkward novice. If you work in this kind of environment take notes and appreciate the fact you are in an exceptional organization.

Fear of reprisal.  Like intimidation, fear of reprisal is a “zombification” force that is rooted in the organizational culture. However, it is the diametric opposite of the kind of organizational culture that generates intimidation. Fear of reprisal results from having previously engaged critical thinking and innovation only to be shot down by others on the team or by the manager or owner because the idea challenged the status quo. Like intimidation this is frequently experienced in the novice who has joined an organization that acts far differently than they claimed. The novice has yet to discern what I call organizational double speak because they were blinded by the possibility of getting their first real paycheck so they didn’t pay attention to the clues they had all around them that the organization was a dysfunctional mess.

What are the clues of a dysfunctional organization? There are several to pay attention to: (1) use of passive verbs to define challenges e.g., sales are down. Sales or any other problem do not have a life of their own – the statement lacks causal information. (2) Hyper unanimity. People in great organizations share a similar vision but retain a unique personal perspective and even disagree at times. When I get around an organization that seems to have scripted answers to my questions rather than individual perspective I get suspicious. Typically there is a power broker behind the script that cracks the whip of fear. (3) Deflecting speech. When I ask questions that are deflected by the person in charge I also get suspicious. It usually indicates an organizational culture that lives in a manufactured reality – that reframe challenges so that a) no one is to blame or b) one singular cause is assigned to all failure.

Novices aren’t the only ones who experience dysfunctional organizational cultures. However, healthy novices get out. Unhealthy novices adapt and succumb to the practiced-identity-dissonance I describe below.

Conflict avoidance. This force of “zombification” is clearly inherent in dysfunctional organizations where conflict is viewed as detrimental to healthy interpersonal relationships. These kinds of organizations or departments exist as a co-dependent family system with defined roles and a key member who seems to dominate the emotional energies of the entire team. This person may not be the leader of the team but may hold the leader and the entire team captive to their emotional outbursts or threats.  This is also a characteristic force of “zombification” in novice leaders or team members who have yet to understand that conflict is often the key to greater innovation and insight simply because in a healthy team conflict can represent the first step toward clarity and honesty in communication. Think about the old team life-cycle adage: form, storm, norm, and perform.  Healthy conflict may be expressed in heightened emotions such as expressions of frustration or anger. Unhealthy conflict is expressed in belittling insults, and emotional shutdowns designed to dominate or suppress the opinions or participation of another.

Identity dissonance.  Identity dissonance is a force of “zombification” characterized by a lack of clarity about who the person is in their strengths, behavioral patterns, or knowledge base. Identity dissonance is characteristic of a person who is unaware of the significant contribution they can make.  Identity dissonance is expressed in two ways; practiced dissonance and unexplored dissonance.

Practiced dissonance occurs in those team members who exist in dysfunctional organizational cultures by keeping their head down and not making waves. These individuals do not have a clear grasp on their unique contribution, core skills, behavioral patterns, or unique gifts. They practice being zombies. They may complain about the repressive and toxic environment in which they work but they will never see the way their behavior passively condones the culture they say they hate. This kind of “zombification” is difficult to heal because it has become a protective excuse to avoid pain and a form of denial.

In contrast unexplored dissonance is a form of “zombification” that indicates a deep change is occurring in the person. It is, in the words of one of my mentors, a boundary time in development. This person faces uncertainty to the value of their contribution because they have engaged a position, or challenge, or period of development that calls for an expansion of their capacity. It is a temporary disorientation that ultimately finds resolution and with resolution a greater self-understanding, capacity to lead, and capability to contribute.

What is the conclusion then? I have said that internal (to the person) and external (corporate culture) forces exist that contribute to “zombification.” When analyzing your own hesitation to be a member of a team because the fear of “zombification” threatens to place inordinate responsibility and demands on your already precious time, I recommend a series of questions.

Is your hesitation rooted in the awareness that your organization is toxic? If so, why are you still there? Can you make a difference? (The answer to this depends on the power you have in the organization and the degree to which the organization is dysfunctional.) Who should you talk with to find a different organization to work for?

Is your hesitation rooted in the awareness that one of the forces of “zombification” have actually made their presence felt in your life and who can you talk to about it?

Is the “zombification” of one of your team members rooted in their being a novice? How can you mentor them to better performance?

Is your hesitation rooted in the fact you just don’t like being dependent on others to perform at your peak? Then check your arrogance. You have not succeeded alone up to this point. Is your avoidance of team participation actually a form of “zombification” in your own work behavior?

If you are stuck and you know you are a team zombie, find a coach or mentor and talk through how to become a contributor to the success of the team rather than a drain on the team’s performance. Work will be much more engaging and your interpersonal relationships much more fulfilling. Who wants to hang with zombies?

Finally, take responsibility to help the entire team raise their level of execution. If you refuse the force of “zombification” in your own life you can model for others how to do the same. But, don’t think you can model this from a posture of relational neutrality. You will have to talk about the subject and help others see how their behavior may, in fact, contribute to the very kind of work environment they hate. This doesn’t mean you must become a task master – it simply means you become a friend rather than a zombie.

[1] Source: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/zombie; Accessed 12 May 2017.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Take a deep breath, slow down – hiring doesn’t need to be a pain


agree-to-disagreeHiring, none of my clients enjoy hiring. In fact, they strongly dislike the entire disruptive process of finding a new person. The process is fraught with risk, expense, and distraction (hidden costs). Hiring, however, is not like removing a band-aid, do not just rush through it thinking that reduces pain. Hurrying through the hiring process exponentially increases pain. Hiring is more like creating a fine wine. You need the right process, the right ingredients, and time to age.  Which is to say, good hiring is as much about perspective as it is a good process.

Here are some stats on hiring that SHRM recently published. örgen Sundberg, CEO of Link Humans, estimates that bad hires cost as much as $240,000.  Several variables that go into calculating the cost to replace a bad hire in our experience. These include:

  • Recruitment advertising fees
  • Recruitment follow-up and review
  • Staff time for interviews
  • Relocation costs
  • Training costs
  • Reduced team performance
  • Disruption across related projects
  • Lost opportunity
  • Assessment costs
  • Placement services
  • Litigation fees

A 2015 talent acquisition study from Brandon Hall Group and Mill Valley, Calif.-based Glassdoor concluded that the lack of a standardized interview process makes a company five times more likely to make a mistake in hiring compared to those companies with a standard process. Look at your process. Do you have one? What makes it work or why has it failed? What needs to change?

Ten percent of the respondents to one survey noted that new hires did not work out because they did not fit the culture of the organization. Oddly, determining cultural fit is typically one of the last steps many companies take in hiring. Since skills are easily assessed through any variety of validated skill assessment tools, it makes sense to spend more time on cultural fit. In my work with clients, appropriate skills sets are determined through communication skill, behavioral interviews, and skill testing. Communication skills are used as a preliminary test of employee capability. We provide instructions on how to follow-up by requesting response in writing. If a potential employee cannot put together professional email response they are dropped. A quick phone interview determines whether they have the presence that is needed.

Part of cultural fit is understanding the work behavior and stress behavior of the potential employee. I use the Birkman Method Signature report to look for who may make the best team fit. The Signature report from Birkman isn’t a cure-all, but it will accelerate how long it takes to understand how the potential hire will approach their work and your existing team.

Brandon Hall Group research reports that strong onboarding processes improve new-hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by over 70 percent. In contrast, companies with weak onboarding programs are more likely to lose new hires in the first year! One researcher suggested that the onboarding process should be a year-long mentoring process that routinely checks in on new hire adjustment and development.

Hiring is inconvenient, bad hiring is extremely inconvenient. Review your hiring process. The best time to make improvements in the way you hire new people is before you need to engage the process. Don’t wait until you are under the gun to find someone and whatever you do – don’t just look for a stop-gap. You will loathe the day you hurried through the process of hiring. On the other hand, if your organization is growing, hiring is a consistent need. In addition to the good process, a good mental shift is also helpful. Don’t look at hiring as a pain, look at it as part of your work to meet your customer needs with excellence.

If you are the owner or the hiring manager of your company build the kind of networks that allow you to be exposed to the best employees. Recruit even when you don’t have a position open at this very minute. Why wait? Think about what your organization needs next year and the year after, not just what is needed today. Remember that open positions actually offer an opportunity to rethink how work gets done. Look at your existing team first. Who is moving up? Who else needs to move out? If you have to do the work of hiring then look at your entire team and ensure that you have the best team for where your organization is going. Don’t fear change – embrace it.

I am always happy to sit down with you and talk through how your company finds and places new people. Give me a call.


5 Comments

How do you Stay Engaged as a Leader?


king_david_statueI have spent the year digging into the life of the biblical character David. I was drawn to David because much can be learned about how to survive the pressures of leadership when there is a way to get inside the head of a successful leader. That David was successful is apparent, he unified a loose confederation of tribes into a central government; he established the infrastructure needed to sustain a nation including the enormous task of shifting the “corporate culture” of the nation from one of tribal self-service and intrigue to one that engaged a sense of unified purpose and support. He survived several attempts to topple his reign and he engendered the kind of loyalty in others that gave them permission to speak the truth and express a willingness to put their lives on the line for him.  Success alone isn’t that impressive, a lot of jerks are successful. What makes David’s success so amazing is that he consistently came back to the kind of character and ethical decision-making process that raised the character of the nation. He openly admitted his faults and openly changed for the better.

It is possible to get inside David’s head because he wrote a lot.  David put his emotions, insights, fears, questions, distress, gratitude, and celebration. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, in my observation leaders who fail to express the full range of emotion ultimately derail into only anger and resentment. These leaders cannot see the impact of their behavior and emotion on others. They become toxic and abusive. Second, the leaders who exhibit emotional awareness and remain emotionally engaged are leaders who can then express a range of emotions appropriate to what they experience.

David wrote 71 Psalms that I analyzed for their major themes. The distribution of these major themes across the Psalms of David is illustrated in the chart below and defined in Table 1.

Chart 1: Themes in the Psalms of David

psalms-by-theme

Three things jump out at me when I review the chart. First, notice the preponderance of lament in David’s writing. Over one-third of David’s Psalms were laments in the face of disaster, disappointment, danger, and loss. I like this because those who study leadership seem to rarely write about how leaders face disappointment, betrayal, loss, danger, and disaster. All of these experiences are part of leading which is why many sane people avoid jumping into a leadership role.   David faced these things with an emotionally healthy expression of anger, grief, and howling. It’s a good lesson for leaders when they face the turbulence of leadership – get alone and have a good howl.

Second, David lived with a profound sense of purpose. It is meaningful because leaders who produce lasting results possess a transcendent awareness of purpose. They inspire others with it. It drives them to continue when every other aspect of their being may just want to throw in the towel. David worshiped and he worshiped with a sense of gratitude. He lived the practical, dirty, gutsy reality of leadership with a perspective that included a sense of the transcendent. This impacted his decision-making, his respect for the experience of others, and his decisiveness and compassion. Leaders devoid of purpose, leaders who have no real sense of the transcendent can fall prey to data pedantic that dehumanizes work and aims at efficiency in profit unaware of the stultifying impact on those who make profit happen.

Table 1: Definition of Terms

Theme Description
Lament Expressions of distress, grief, sorrow
Worship Expressions of devotion, adoration, praise, and love for God.
Worship/Gratitude Expressions of adoration, appreciation, and thankfulness.
Vindication Desire for God’s help to clear from accusation, imputation, or suspicion.
Wisdom/Reflection Expressions of what has been learned through experience.
Confession Repentance Acknowledgement of a lapse in moral judgment and deficiency in behavior.
Vulnerability w/ God Deliberate exposure of intent, dependency, and susceptibility.
Judgment Request for God’s direct exercise of justice and punishment of evil.
Benediction Innovcation of divine help, blessing, and guidance.
Prophecy Insight to the future promise and action of God’s working.
Reflection on Mortality Thought on the meaning of life in light of its ephemeral nature.

Third, the frequency with which David reflected on his experience and drew new insights into the present as he prepared for the future is impressive. The wisdom Psalms of David point to an element of healthy leadership i.e., healthy leaders learn from their experience and learning is defined by a change in behavior.  I am surprised at the number of leaders who relive the same experience over and over from one company to the next, from one year to the next without every asking what has happened and why it continues.  Some leaders operate like a tether ball running faster and faster with less and less a scope of influence until at last they hit the wall only to recoil and start all over again.

Thanksgiving is a good time to do some reflection as a leader. How emotionally healthy are you? Do you have an appropriate outlet for your emotions? Are you aware of your emotional health or distress? Learn from David and be a leader whose emotional awareness gets leveraged into new insights and deeper connections with your partners, employees, and clients.


Leave a comment

Make a Difference! Lead Like a Servant


web versionHave you ever had something you wanted to say that you knew had the potential of changing the game? Have you been so convinced of its significance that you were willing to put it to the test of review, the discipline of systematic research and reflection, and the vulnerability of distribution?  Then you understand the passion of writing a book with the hope that it will amplify your message and your communication capacity. I have a message for market place and non-profit leaders who want to integrate their faith and leadership best practices.

There are some very strong books on leading like Jesus. Why did I write another book? I saw something missing. The way Jesus led not only transforms the way a leader acts; it also transforms the way an organization behaves for the better. Changing the way we think about leaders and their organizations is the intent of Change the Paradigm.

Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today’s World is a clarion call to apply the concept of servant leadership to every organizational context. It is a handbook that demonstrates how the concept of Servant Leadership goes to work in the leader and in the organization. It investigates Servant Leadership through five perspectives: (1) the lens of Jesus’ call to serve; (2) the Missional impetus of the church and its foundation in a future hope made present in experience; (3) the latest insights from research into effective leadership; (4) the influence of an organization’s development on leadership practices and (5) leadership development. Servant Leadership is fundamentally a transforming perspective and composite of personal motivations that impact how the act of leading is expressed. It alters the way leaders view and value followers and stakeholders. Servant Leadership engages a personal relationship with God that changes a person’s definition of: self, ambition, values, situation, and the development of other leaders.

Change the Paradigm is available now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as a paper back or an e-book. We are working on agreements to get it into book stores everywhere in 2016. Get a jump on the crowd and order it today. It will show you how to think differently about the act of leadership.


2 Comments

Toxic Leaders Spurn History – Bad Leaders Hide Behind It


PharaohIs toxic leadership the inevitable norm? Do people just need to suck it up and endure the chaos until they can retire? Are alternative ideas about healthy leadership possible to carry out or are they illusions that distract people from being productive? The story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt has important insights about leadership. Two leaders (Moses and Pharaoh) engage in competing agendas that launch far-reaching consequences. The narrative presents a dichotomy between good and bad leaders that defines how to approach the complex tasks of leadership in a different way. Pharaoh got it wrong from the start of the narrative. In his case the story is a progression that starts from a biased opportunism that accelerates to self-destructive hubris that left him at a strategic disadvantage.  Moses on the other hand wins yet enters the uncharted experience of birthing a nation. Moses has to grow as a leader or face a future no different from what characterized Pharaoh.

Over the next several articles I will investigate the behaviors of Pharaoh.  What characterizes a toxic leader and what insights can be gleaned about the motivations? The answer to this question will help decide the possibility of change for any leader.  So here is the first lesson – toxic leaders spurn history – bad leaders hide behind it.

Pharaoh is introduced in the Exodus story as a leader who did not know Joseph.  The history behind Joseph explained the contemporary presence of the Hebrews and their privileged location within the nation. Joseph had saved Egypt during a time of severe famine with his prophetic insight and his administrative skill. Pharaoah’s predecessor honored Joseph’s contribution to the survival of the kingdom by providing a place for his family (the Hebrews) to live and thrive.

However the new Pharaoh’s fear obscured his historical perspective – he viewed the Hebrews as a threat to his power.  It is one thing to hide behind history as a reason to avoid making mistakes.  Such a posture is a fast rode to mediocrity. However, Pharaoh takes a more radically ignorant path. The threat presented by the Hebrews was rooted in nothing more than the fact that Hebrews were not Egyptians. In the void of Pharaoh’s lack of historical grasp (that explained why these foreigners were in the country and their contributions to the nation’s thriving existence) ethnocentrism rushed in and created a narrative of fear and mistrust.  Pharaoh rewrote the history of the nation in his actions and the outcomes were not good.

Who is writing the history of your organization and on what foundation are they writing it? The narrative determines the culture of the organization and the culture determines the values and behaviors.  It is odd that something went missing in Pharaoh’s education and in his development. What happened? Bad leaders don’t work in a vacuum they work with the permission (either implied or overt) of their followers. Jean Lipman-Blumen’s work outlines this uncomfortable reality.  She writes:

…What are the forces that propel followers again and again, to accept, often favor, and sometimes create toxic leaders?  Isn’t it high time we come to grips with why we usually let toxic leaders mistreat us and depart when it suits their purposes? …Still, the majority of followers stay the course, many because the barriers to escape seem much too strong, be they financial, political, social, psychological, or existential – or, worse yet, some overwhelming combination of these formidable obstacles.[i]

Don’t ignore or dismiss Lipman-Blumen’s point. As followers we have a responsibility toward leaders. If we implicitly or overtly allow bad leaders to continue in their power infused invectives of bad behavior then we must ask ourselves what is it we think we get from these leaders and what would really happen if we said, “no” to them?  Perhaps Pharaoh had eliminated the bold followers who disagreed with his unique views. We don’t have that part of the story. What we do have is the insight that for tyrants to succeed they have to divest themselves from the encumbrance of history to rewrite history for their own support and sell it as a destiny.  Pharaoh succeeded at this and turned the tables on the Hebrews first oppressing them then enslaving them. When you see a leader who is ignorant of history consider it a challenge to help them see from a larger perspective. If he or she is not open to understanding the history of the organization specifically and has little appreciation of history generally then in the words of Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Pharaoh rewrote history to reposition the Hebrews in society. He framed their existence as a threat to the well-being of the nation. He initiated structures to limit the threat. Finally he oppressed them to maximize a benefit to the nation at minimal cost.  How is labor relations characterized in your organization?  A connection exists between the value a leader places on history and the way they ultimately treat people. What kind of leader are you?  Are you a student of history or are you writing your own history?  The answer indicates the trajectory of your leadership.


[i] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive Them. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24.


1 Comment

Paying Attention to What Your Management Actions Generate in Others


ImageDeveloping as a leader and as a person has more to do with paying attention to the relationships around you than it does the last training seminar you attended. What have you learned about yourself by watching the behaviors your actions have generated in others? Are people more open, courageous, creative, confident and happy around you? Or are they withdrawn, non-participative and agitated? What does this say about your management style or leadership? Who will you talk to about what you see?  What can you do to change?

Of course it is possible that you believe that agitating and keeping people on edge is the best way to motivate high performance. This line of still popular management lore assumes that people will not give their best work unless without the right mix of carrots and sticks (i.e., rewards and punishments) controlling their behavior.

The bad news about this belief is that it is a myth.  The assumption that rewarding activity yields more of it and punishing activity yields less of it simply does not pan out. Rewards and punishments applied to intrinsic motivation does not respond at all to pattern – motivation simply evaporates – although this does not hold in all situations. There are still some highly repetitive jobs that benefit from extrinsic motivation. But think this through carefully, carrots and sticks may result in:

  1. Extinguished intrinsic motivation. Researchers discovered that contingent rewards dampen interest in tasks requiring heuristic action. Why? Because contingent rewards required people to relinquish some of their autonomy hence diminishing their motivation.
  2. Diminished performance. Once basic life needs are covered incentives the higher the incentive the lower the performance in many cases in direct contradiction of accepted business sense.
  3. Crushed creativity. People rewarded for addressing a conceptual challenge perform far less creatively and efficiently than people given the challenge for the challenge’s sake. Rewards by their very nature narrow focus hence cloud thinking and dull creativity.
  4. Suppressed good behavior. Research demonstrates that adding incentives to intrinsically motivated behaviors actually diminish the frequency of the behavior. When incentives disregard the ingredients of genuine motivation (i.e., autonomy, purpose and mastery) they limit achievement.
  5. Exhibition of cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior. “Goals people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy.  But Goals imposed by others – sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on – can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”[1]
  6. Addictive behaviors. The research of Russian economist Anton Suvorov demonstrated that rewards often signal that a task is undesirable. Enticing rewards then result in action the first time – but the level of enticement needed to continue the action consistently grows.  Rewards become expected and feel less like a bonus and more like an entitlement. Rewards’ addictive qualities actually distort decision-making.
  7. Fostering short-term thinking. This is illustrated ad nausea in Wall Street motivated business decisions that focus on short-term at the cost of strategic long-term perspectives. (Recall Collins’ work, Good to Great.)

Rewards are not all bad.  Tasks that neither need deep thinking nor deep passion may be helped by the presence of rewards – success in the application of rewards is enhanced by:

  1. Offering a simple rationale for why the task is necessary – explanations help a job that is not inherently interesting become more meaningful and hence more engaging.
  2. Acknowledging that the task is boring – this act of empathy helps people understand why this instance of “if-then” rewards are needed.
  3. Allowing people to complete the task in their own way – think autonomy versus control. Give freedom for how a job is done.
So what is the outcome of the behavior you show as a manager or leader? It does not take long to see how we impact those who follow. Every decision managers and leaders make result in behaviors. If you activity in creating lean, continuously improved management objectives has not produced the results you anticipated it could be that the problem is not a matter of better processes but better relationships. Take stock and if you can’t see the cause and effect relationship between your decisions/behaviors and the productivity of your team it is time to talk with a mentor with greater experience.


[1] Daniel H. Pink. Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009), 50.


1 Comment

When Life Happens – It is Still Leadership Development: An Overview of Career Coaching/Mentoring Needs


hard questions 2Life Happens and Not Always with Kindness

“I feel lost,” the words belied a crisis.  This is a guy who has charged through is career successfully running over barriers, obstacles and inherited mistakes with fun, gusto and obnoxious jubilation. He is contagious, obvious, loud and a lover of people.

“I don’t know where I am going, my life seems shrouded with a cloud” he continued.  His lament stems from a series of losses he has recently experienced. He is my age (we are approaching our 40th high school reunion). He owns a thriving business he intends to give his sons and has a clear succession plan.  The big loss that anchors his grief and redefinition of himself is a back injury that prohibits him from playing basketball and being as active as he has been. Activity has been central to his ability to stay emotionally centered and to work through stress.  He struggles with some of the decisions his children have made. He struggles with redefining his marriage through the emergence of empty nest. He is surprised that these things have affected him at all.

“Listen,” I responded after a moment of taking in the full weight of his situation, “this may not be of too much comfort but what you describe is a normal process in development for men and women our age.”

We sat in silence for a long moment after that.  Then he finally spoke, “Well Ray, it is comforting.”  The conversation meandered after that as we reflected on the reality of being baby boomers. Baby boomers now face the full brunt of life.  Suicide rates among boomers shot up between 1999 and 2010 with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 percent to 30 per 100,000.  The suicide rate among women in their early 60s rose by nearly 60 percent.[1]  Why?  Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Pennsylvania makes this observation.

“There was an illusion of choice — where people thought they’d be able to re-create themselves again and again,” he said. “These people feel a greater sense of disappointment because their expectations of leading glorious lives didn’t come to fruition.”[2]

Like my friend many boomers face loss and face the prospect of finding a new sense of purpose or falling endlessly into despair.  This is an important leadership issue. The need for experienced leaders to mentor emerging generations is often touted. However, these experienced leaders often feel displaced and under used or under valued. I remember a leadership coach once reminded me to prepare for the fact that I would have to redefine myself six to eight times during my career because of the changing social demographic and rapid technological shift. I thought he had fallen prey to hyperbole when he said this in the mid 1980s.  Now I think he was being conservative.  The need to redefine myself arose not only because technology shifted but also because my expectations about what I would accomplish in life fell short. There are multiple forces at work that force a reassessment of self. Now more than ever leadership development needs an exercise of intimacy like that between my friend and I described above. What does this mean for organizations?

Is Your Organization a Safe Place?

Can an organization be a platform for healthy, deliberate and open development of people?  The question is not derived solely from my theology which presumes and expects an answer in the affirmative.  It derives from experience that often finds organizational leaders lacking attentiveness to personal development.  Keagan’s assessment and synthesis on meaning making and development in human experience captures how people experience organizations;

Some head and definers of organizations would probably agree that their institutions are not particularly well suited to the development of the capacity for genuine intimacy in adulthood.  I image they would also be relatively unperturbed in this self-assessment, feeling that the workplace is not intended to serve such a function.  Possibly they might even feel that intimacy flies in the very face of the smooth exercises of the organization…If the notion that most workplaces are not well suited to the development of genuine intimacy is unperturbing to those who shape them, perhaps the notion that the workplace works against a person’s growth in general might be more so.[3]

I posit that the development of genuine intimacy is the center of organizational interaction and is a prerequisite to manifest personal development of any type.  The absence of intimacy is often at the center of employee complaints and disengagement at every level of the organization.  By intimacy I mean a sense of sharing who I am with another without fear of loosing or devaluing a sense of self. I mean a mutually beneficial discovery of uniqueness and similarity, of shared existence and meaning. My conversations in coaching and research persistently orbit intimacy which has a sense of value, personal recognition and a clear contribution.  These concerns are not framed by people as a demand for organizational role. They are framed from the context of a desire for appreciation and interpersonal interaction that can help make sense out of a sometimes senseless world.

Because of my background in pastoral ministry I am often reminded that a congregation possesses a different kind of organizational charter and characteristic from a business.  I find this assertion is duplicitous and contradictory.  Organizations of any kind are people working and living together. While congregations do have a different organizational charter they do not differ at all from businesses in the fact they involve people.

The reality is that every organization lives in a polarity of being a structure and an organism.  This reality points to a need for rethinking development as a out working of intimacy even more than program or training. Think for a moment about your own professional development and I bet you will think of a mentor with whom you shared many intimate encounters – some uncomfortable as your self view or assumptions were pointedly challenged.  The point is that every organization needs to deliberately develop its sense of being an organism as well as being an organization if it is to consistently thrive. (See Table 1)

Table 1: A Polarity of Expectations for Organizational Interaction

Interaction as an Organism
(the personal experience & expectation)
Interaction as an Organization
(the public entity & expectation)
Mutual Responsible
Spontaneous Structured
Respectful Efficient
Open Defined
Intimate Regulated, safe
Developmental Professional
Spiritual Reliable
Vibrant Disciplined
Forgiving Arbitrating
Loving Differentiating

The polarity of expectations outlined in Table 1 however are not mutually exclusive in themselves they are a complimentary set of characteristics that live symbiotically within a healthy or safe organizational system.  The two sets of characteristics in Table 1 must coexist in order to experience a healthy structure and consistent developmental outcomes.

So how does this impact the discussion leadership development or of helping boomers rethink their role? The way people work in their daily existence already bifurcate the personal and the public and continues exerting a perceptual influence into the experience of the organization as a tension between the spiritual and the practical or the personal and the public or the valuable and the measurable.  A person’s public experience in the organization limits behavior deemed more appropriate to the private or the personal. As a result intimacy suffers atrophy in interpersonal interactions.

Further, if we view interaction with organizational life from a developmental perspective, then it may best be described as a consistent renegotiation of the public and private perceptions that roughly equate to the dynamic interaction and renegotiation that occurs in developing people between subject and object.  That is people grow through a continuously more complex understanding of themselves uniquely and their identity relative to their integration with or relationship to others.

This means that how an individual perceives the organization, specifically the relationship between the organization as organism and the organization as structure is a function of the process of their internal negotiation between self and others.  Individual perceptions of the value and meaning of organizational relationships evolve through various stages of understanding that essentially shift from vilifying the organization to reassert the self and then to a reintegration of the self as a member of the organization.

If stage development theories can applied to describe the relationship people have to organizations and how they perceive organizations then such theories may show (1) expected times of rejection or withdrawal from organizational life and (2) the point at which development has stalled and embedded itself in a view of organization and self that is no longer functional for the person.  If the latter is true then the tensions involved may explain the personal trauma and eventual social disengagement that results in isolation and disillusionment of they type described above among boomers like my friend.

Understanding Stage Development Helps Negotiate New Life Experience

Three different perspectives, each of which uses a form of stage development as either an overt explanation of human behavior and development or as an assumed model which influenced perspectives on leadership development within an organizational environment are helpful in thinking about establishing intimacy in organizations.

Erickson’s Psychosocial Development.  Making sense out of unexpected situations, the unknown in human experience, is part of what a stage development model attempts.  By looking at usual human development Erikson identified favorable and unfavorable outcomes to developmental challenges that show the relative success of an individual in adjusting to a new sense of self along the development continuum.  The unfavorable outcomes of Erikson’s Stage Theory of “Physchosocial Crises” illustrate the need for breaking down negative choices in favor of positive ones. [4]  Erikson views the life cycle of development, from cradle to grave, as passing through eight stages.  Each stage brings new social experiences and new crises — which, if surmounted successfully, lead to constant growth and a steadily enriched personality.  The potential for an unfavorable outcome in any stage illustrates the impact and potential for the person to adopt mis-beliefs as true.  The use of Erikson’s model in the context of developing people in organizations recognizes that concepts defining intimacy, meaning and relevance are often rooted in personal and familial interactions. People interpose these interactions onto the organization and not the other way around.  People define respect, meaning, friendship etc., first by personal experience and not by theological or strategic reflection.  As a result personal reflection is strongly influenced by familial experience both past and present.

A leadership development perspective.  J. Robert Clinton’s work on leadership emergence attempted to offer a theological insight into how a Christian leader develops in light of God’s historical working.  By investigating the growth patterns evident in leaders Clinton posits a series of stages in spiritual development or maturity and identifies processes that show God’s formation activity in the life of the leader.[5]  While Clinton did not have Erikson in mind in the development of his model (he approached his work from a theological and not a psychological foundation) there are parallels in Clinton’s outcomes to the goals inherent in Erikson’s favorable outcomes.  The use of Clinton’s model seeks to define how God’s activity may interact to the familial and social influences an individual brings to organizational participation that at times produces dissonance to personal perspective.  However the dissonance that results from an engagement with God’s actual activity serves to further the individual’s growth as a person hence it may reflect social and workplace developmental dynamics.

A mentoring perspective.  Kathy Kram’s work on mentoring in the work place identifies developmental tasks associated with successive career stages.[6]   These are particularly helpful in identifying the workplace mentoring needed to ensure healthy development.  First, the workplace is the primary culture in which values and identity are often shaped.  Second, activities in social groups is a subset of workplace activity for the majority of people and either benefits or defeats developmental outcomes.  The average person approaches the organization from the context of their social grid learned not the values of the workplace perse.  By social grid I mean the meaning making and interpretive clues that cause help an individual define meaning, significance and relationship.  This heightens the need for rethinking the development of intimacy in organizations as a means of helping individuals engage their real selves in workplace relationships.

The following tables synthesize these three views and suggest directions organizations can take to make sure their talent develops without being derailed by what life throws at them.

Table 2: The Adolescent Engagement

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Transition Years Surrender where the person or the would-be leader aspires to spend a lifetime that counts for God.
Adolescence
Identity versus confusion Seeing oneself as a unique and integrated person Confusion over who and what one really is Ministry perspective.Flexibility and openness to new ideas.Kindling a sense of destiny and identity that encapsulates a sense of personal value and missionBroadening through exposure to others.Owning and developing personal convictions from the Scriptures.

Guidance, decision-making and input are tested one against the other to find a balance.

Pre Career — Wheeler Competence: In what ways can my life demonstrate a role competence?  Experimentation with social roles and interpersonal roles that provide foundational experience for defining the basis of personal competence.Identify: What abilities and strengths make me unique, give me a reason to contribute or to participate in groups actively?  What aspirations emerge from these early experiences?Commitment: How does involvement and commitment threaten my sense of identity or advance it?  What does it mean to be involved and committed?  How is involvement and commitment differentiated from enmeshment and being taken for granted or being taken advantage of i.e., a loss of personal value?Advancement: Can I advance?  Can I advance without compromising a sense of self and my important values?Relationships:  Can I establish relationships of reciprocity, respect and trust?

Family Role Definition: Who am I within a family unit?  Is familial identify and social identity mutually exclusive or complimentary?  What defines a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Self/Family Conflict: Do I have an identity independent of family identity?

Table 3: Early Adulthood

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Entering Adulthood Discovery that competence (ministry) flows from being and not doing.
Intimacy versus isolation Development of interdependent, accountable friendships that confirm a sense of personal purpose and meaning. Loss of personal confidence and tendency to insulate from meaningful personal friendships. Demonstrate the character of God.Understand the purposes of God.Experience the faithfulness of God.Know the power of God.See the sovereignty of God.

Form Christ-like character.

Early Career — Kram Competence: Can I be effective in the managerial/professional role?  Can I be effective in the role of spouse and/or parent?Identify: Who am I as a manager/professional?  What are my skills and aspirations?Commitment: How involved and committed to the organization do I want to become?  Or do I want to seriously explore other options?Advancement: Do I want to advance?  Can I advance without compromising important values?Relationships:  How can I establish effective relationships with peers and supervisors?

Family Role Definition: How can I establish a satisfying personal life?  What kind of lifestyle do I want to establish?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I effectively manage work and family commitments?  How can I spend time with my family without jeopardizing my career advancement?

Table 4: Middle Age

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Generativity versus self-absorption Concern for family and society in general Concern only for self — one’s own well-being and prosperity Recognize that God’s guidance comes through establishing ministry priorities by discerning one’s gifts.A clear vision for the people of God.Clear reflection of the character of God.Maximization of the growth process and investment in the gifts and abilities of others.Consistent defeat of the strategies of the enemy.

Joy of relationship (with God and with others)

Middle Career — Kram Competence: How do I compare with my peers, with my subordinates, and with my own standards and expectations?Identify: Who am I now that I am no longer a novice?  What does it mean to be a “senior” adult?Commitment:  Do I still want to invest as heavily in my career as I did in previous years?  What can I commit myself to if the goal of advancement no longer exists?Advancement:  Will I have the opportunity to advance?  How can I feel productive if I am going to advance further?Relationships: How can I work effectively with whom I am in direct competition?  How can I work effectively with subordinates who may surpass me?

Family Role Definition: What is my role in the family now that my children are grown?

Work/Family Conflict: How can I make up for the time away from my family when I was launching my career as a novice?

Table 5: Aging Years

Stage & Crisis Favorable Outcome Unfavorable Outcome Spiritual Goals
as Defined by Clinton
Integrity versus despair A sense of integrity and fulfillment; willingness to face death Dissatisfaction with life; despair over the prospect of death Extended influence through reflection on life lessons, acquired skills, insights and relationships.
Late Career — Kram Competence: Can I be effective in a more consultative and less central role, still having influence as the time to leave the organization gets closer?Identify: What will I leave behind of value that will symbolize my contributions during my career?  Who am I apart from a manager/professional and how will it feel to be without that role?Commitment:  What can I commit myself to outside of my career that will provide meaning and a sense of involvement?  How can I let go of my involvement in my work role after so many years?Advancement: Given that my next move is likely to be out of the organization, how do I feel about my final level of advancement?  Am I satisfied with what I have achieved?Relationships: How can I maintain positive relationships with my boss, peers and subordinates as I get ready to disengage from this setting?  Can I continue to mentor and sponsor as my career ends?  What will happen to significant work relationships when I leave?

Family Role Definition: What will my role in the family be when I am no longer involved in a career?  How will my significant relationships with spouse and/or children change?

Work/Family Conflict: Will family and leisure activities suffice, or will I want to begin a new career?

Conclusion – We Need Leaders Who Exercise Intimacy

Many of the organizations and congregations I work with have yet to accept the significance of building intimate relationships that also leverage what is known about human development. Congregations tend to reject these models as “secular” and unrelated to church growth.  Businesses tend to reject these models as a distraction from efficiency and profit generation.  However, it is time for leaders to reconsider such stands.  Building a safe environment in which intimacy contributes to development is not an option it is an imperative to organizational health, relevance and profit (growth).

Use the models above to help your leaders or team members or colleagues define their experience in the context of a developmental process. This recognition sets the stage for people to exercise the power of personal choice.  The fact is that whether one emerges from crisis healthy or as a victim is not dependent on the circumstance they face but the way they decide to respond to that circumstance. These models help show both the choices available and outcomes that are reasonable to expect.

So what about the friend I talked about above?  Like other leaders he is working through his experience in three different phases.

Retrospection. My friend started here. As we talked I asked questions that helped him define his pathos and the trigger event or crisis.  He had to honestly face his own bitterness and resentment and choose to believe something good might result if he looked and choose for forgive the people who contributed to his angst.  Theologically we talk about being broken i.e., recognizing that we do not exist independently but interdependently. In a theological sense it is this stage that help people find their need for God – which often rises out of the wreckage of their own self-absorption.

Future shift. As we moved together through his choice to see his situation from a new perspective (the developmental stages helped with this) and as he chose to forgive those who had hurt him along the way an internal shift from depression to hope emerged.  He saw a potential for something other than disaster and disappointment. He began making plans on how to exercise the future he now sees as possible. Theology describes this as hope. An encounter with the ability and presence of God offers a different view-point to life and a sense of meaning where meaning was lost.

Decision making.  Finally he decided to act on his new perspectives versus remaining a passive victim. He is not done processing his loss yet however, he is on the right track. We will probably traverse this ground a couple more times before the new course is set. Again theologically we call this repentance i.e., a change of course.

I am confident my friend will emerge from his Mid-life crisis with a renewed sense of purpose and a larger idea of what his contribution is in the lives of those around him. My confidence comes from my own experience wrestling with the same kinds of issues.  I have good friends with whom I can share my experience in intimate detail. Further, I have begun to reassess how I relate to others at the various places I work – I am committed to building intimate relationships (read honest, vulnerable, loving and safe) in every environment.  I see the profoundly positive impact this commitment has on others across every generation and on me. How about you?  Will you lead your organization to be a safe place?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Kegan. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Harvard: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 248.

[4] Jerome Kagan and Ernest Havemann, ed.s.  Psychology: An Introduction 4th ed.  (San Diego: Harcout Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1980), 505.

[5] Clinton, J. Robert.  The Making of a Leader.  Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988.

[6] Kram, Kathy E.  Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. New York: University Press of America, 1988.