By Marcia Young, April. 13, 2009, HRD Press Newsletter
This week we met up with Bob Phillips, co-author of Absolute Honesty (Amacom, 2003), and successful human resources executive and consultant.
In your book, Absolute Honesty, you mention The Kumbaya Syndrome. What is that, and how is it affecting the workplace today?
The Kumbaya Syndrome is a passivity that allows "nice" behavior to supersede honest communication. I think we are seeing more of it, not less. Unfortunately, people are doing anything to keep their jobs. They have developed the foxhole mentality. I address that by talking about what their work environment is like. I suggest that they can be like a stone in the river creating a ripple effect of honest communication. I ask people to focus on where they can make a change, not where they cannot make an impact.
How do you suggest that organizations encourage disagreement while trying to bolster morale (especially in the current economic climate)? Aren’t these two at odds with each other?
It is critical for managers and supervisors to build an environment that allows people to speak up and disagree--Help employees understand that we are attacking a problem, not each other. We often agree in a meeting, but afterward, we see what I call lipotage, which is lip service during a meeting that turns to sabotage after the meeting. I try to help managers understand that if people are able to express their opinions, they will not participate in this kind of sabotage. As leaders, we want to provide an environment for participants to speak up and disagree, but be committed to a course of action upon leaving the room.
Power struggles amongst equal partners can so often end in a deadlock, stifling development and ideas, leaving all players frustrated. Can you give me some constructive advice as to how employees can successfully harness the energy in power clashes to reach a positive outcome?
This is quite common. The key here is to return the focus on the problem and away from a power struggle. One party has to give a little and approach the mountain in a new way. Anytime we have defensiveness or fear (of retribution, for example), we have the enemy of honesty. And that stifles positive communication.
You mention the importance of creating a platform of integrity. Can you give me some examples of how a leader can convey this priority to the organization? How have other companies profited from a commitment to integrity?
I believe that in today’s world, when faced with tough ethical decisions, we spend 90% of our time in a gray area—there usually isn't a clear solution. With an organizational platform that is based in integrity, decisions are made more easily, because the players can refer back to the organizational credo to make the decision. Take Johnson and Johnson, for example. It cost them 100 million dollars to take Tylenol off the shelf during the Tylenol scare. One look at the company credo and the appropriate action became clear. In the long run, the company profited from its decision.
In an environment that lacks leadership, the employees are often like ships in a harbor that keep bumping into each other, unable to move forward on large or small initiatives, and spending more time on infighting than anything else. What advice can you give those ships?
In the end, it is individuals that drive honesty and integrity in an organization. You have to start with yourself—are honest with yourself. Think about what your guiding principles are, what you would risk your job for, and have a clear understanding of where your line is in the sand that you won’t step over. This helps people realign people with their inner focus, which, in turn, drives their outer focus.
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