Category Archives: Tone at the Top

Can Civility Be Saved? Should It Be?

Can Civility Be Saved? Should It Be?

by Gael O’Brien (Reprinted with permission from Business Ethics Magazine 8/26/18)

An abundance of research on incivility points to the mountain we need to scale. Incivility (which includes behavior or language that is rude, disrespectful, offensive or demeaning) is on the rise. It’s also contagious – which is why it’s called “the incivility bug” – according to incivility and respect expert Christine Porath.

How does this apply to us? Well, few of us get a free pass here. In research done by psychologist Tasha Eurich and her team, as many as 90 percent of us are likely overconfident about how self-aware we actually are. This puts the kibosh on grade inflation around how well we know ourselves, our impact, how others see us or just how respectful we actually are. This “incivility bug” doesn’t just contaminate our work environments, it pollutes our leadership. It deals a blow to employee engagement, trust (on every level) and why anyone would want to be led by us or buy what we sell.

Asking the bigger question about our own leadership

These challenges inherent in being human go back to Adam, Eve and the snake. Nonetheless, the timing now seems critical to develop further our leadership capacity, challenge our own overconfidence and deepen our awareness of ourselves and how respect shows up in our impact on others. The outcome is a greater sense of personal wholeness – always helpful given the pressures of leading – as well as a more authentic, compelling leadership presence. To that end, let’s look at some resources and ideas supporting respect, self-awareness and presence. Afterward, you might even be inspired to reread psychologist Daniel Goleman’s classic on emotional intelligence “What Makes a Leader.”

Some might argue this approach is futile, going against the flow of the tone being set by the President of the United States communicating in tweets many consider bullying. For example, his encouraging a boycott of Harley-Davidson, when they pushed back against proposed tariffs. However, straw horses won’t take us where we need to go.

The bigger question is very personal — about the kind of leader your team and company need in order to achieve results, organizational purpose and mission as well as sustain crucial relationships. Leadership around civility and respect turns around organizations, creates sustainable engagement and changes lives.  Two examples: Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, led a financial and employee engagement turnaround with a conscious agenda to lead with civility. And it worked. Retired Boston Police Commissioner William Evans was honored for his “gift of empathy” during his tenure which saw a reduction in crime as well as a new vision for community policing that demonstrated respect and  earned him most Bostonians’ trust, according to a Boston Globe editorial. Evans is now Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Boston College.

Leadership Failures

When our agenda rushes past the needs and humanity in others, we get outcomes like:

  • German scientist and preeminent empathy researcher Tania Singer, who was relieved of management responsibilities of her lab and agreed to a sabbatical as a result of accusations from lab colleagues that over the years, while doing her ground-breaking empathy research, she created an environment of emotional abuse and intimidation.
  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s derisive tweet backfired. He was outraged at a diver involved in the underwater rescue of trapped Thai athletes because he’d criticized Musk’s solution.
  • CBS has begun an investigation into six sexual harassment and intimidation complaints against Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves. Moonves recently had become a prominent voice supporting Hollywood’s #MeToo movement, helping establish the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equity in the Workplace.

What to do; what not to do

In a recent podcast, “Curing the Incivility Bug,” Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said stress and technology are the top reasons people give, according to her research, to explain why they are uncivil.

Stress overload is a signal every leader needs to monitor, but everyone is different in what methods most help recalibration. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Exercises are one option. Recognizing our reactiveness and probing what is driving it can also help us slow ourselves down. If we allow stress to compound itself, it can lead to a situation Elon Musk described about himself in a recent interview with The New York Times, “Elon Musk Details ‘Excruciating’ Personal Toll of Tesla Turmoil.”

Respect pointers

As civility is also contagious, Porath had suggestions about how leaders can be more respectful in conversations with employees. Being present includes:

  • Making eye contact
  • Attentive listening (as opposed to multi-tasking on the lap top or iPhone)
  • Not interrupting whomever is speaking

Porath points out, little things (like smiling when you pass someone in the hall and saying thank you and expressing appreciation) add up. These gestures demonstrating you value others catch on and are replicated by others.

In a July-August 2018 Harvard Business Review article “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?” author Kristie Rogers cites Porath’s research that 20,000 workers worldwide ranked respect as the most important leadership behavior. However, they also said disrespect and uncivil behavior were increasing each year in their workplaces.

Rogers, an assistant professor of management at Marquette University, offers seven ideas for how managers and leaders can convey owed and earned respect in their workplace. One suggestion is establishing a base line of respect that is made clear throughout the organization; something Conant at Campbell’s and other companies have done.

Self-Awareness

Which brings us back to self-awareness: our ongoing discovery process of going deeper into what makes us who we are (strengths, weaknesses, values passion etc.), how we can sabotage ourselves and what our feelings and instincts tell us. It’s triggered by our focus on development or when we are in change, challenge or crisis. New insights break through our old sense of self. In doing so, we often have to surmount the human hurdle of our not seeing what we don’t want to see; as well as what author Anais Nin wrote nearly 60 years ago (that had its origins in the Talmud). “We don’t see things as they are,” she wrote, “we see things as we are.”

In addition to Daniel Goleman’s and Tasha Eurich’s work on self-awareness, leadership development experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman address diagnosing our weaknesses. They recommend searching out “a truth teller,” a person whom you can count on to share honest feedback who sees that you really want that feedback. If that doesn’t work, they suggest hiring an executive coach or therapist.

Presence

 The net result of our work to know ourselves far better offers the reward of creating what social psychologist Amy Cuddy refers to as presence. She describes presence with six words that translate into body language in her Ted Talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are:” passionate, enthusiastic, captivating, comfortable, authentic and confident.

In “Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges,” Cuddy explains we have presence when we are able to express our true self, operating out of values etc. that make us who we are. We have it, she elaborates, when we feel personally powerful—which is a power that comes from believing in and trusting ourselves. We have it when we are fully in the present moment.

It is presence, she explains, that enables us to meet life’s inevitable challenges with equilibrium and confidence, not “raging anxiety.” It isn’t a permanent state obviously. We move in and out of it based on our self-awareness.

The ROI is worth the journey.

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics, is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University and Senior Fellow for Social Innovation at the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

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The Week in Ethics: Leaders and Culture

photo gold key in puzzle doorWe know that fostering the right culture promotes engagement, nurtures innovation and fuels both purpose and profit. The key word here is “right” culture. It is about the desire to pursue what enables people and financial results to flourish together.

According to the Fortune Magazine commentary on the Best Companies to Work For 2018 list “…it’s the companies that employees say are great workplaces that demonstrate stronger financial performance, reduced turnover, and better customer and patient satisfaction than their peers.” The commentary continues: “Caring and high-trust company cultures with a sense of purpose and clarity are consistently associated with strong revenue and stock performance.”

Great workplaces aren’t about who offers the best perks or highest salaries. The simplest thing leaders at every level can do on the road to creating a great workplace culture is sustaining an environment where employees are and feel respected, valued and supported in doing their best work.

Granted, not rocket science. Yet, it does require that a leader be self-aware, understand his or her impact on others and make it safe to share feedback about what is or isn’t working. All skills that can be developed. And when they aren’t? Well, we’ve seen in far too many recent crises, including at Google, Wells Fargo and Uber, how the absence of respect and inability to navigate conflict or hear bad news in a work environment bring repercussions.

An April 2017 Gallup report indicated there is 21 percent greater profitability from engaged business units: “Organizations have more success with engagement and improve business performance when they treat employees as stakeholders of their own and the company’s future.”

Treating employees as stakeholders means there is a level of engagement between a boss and an employee around finding synergy in what an employee needs to do his or her job well and how and why what they are doing matters (to the business and all its other stakeholders). It is a dialogue that enables work to become more meaningful, taking it from the isolated individual and team silo and connecting it to the whole.

So how do these conversations so fundamental to healthy cultures start and take hold?  They are second nature for some leaders. For those for whom it isn’t, the company’s Human Resource team should be helpful. In addition, key points in two recent leadership books, Radical Candor and Stretch, offer relevant suggestions that can  build better understanding in work relationships affecting the bottom line and engagement. (Radical Candor offers pointers on caring personally and challenging directly; Stretch provides tips on how “to untap the value in front of you.”)

Culture defines what is possible in an organization. It is human nature that with overloaded plates, leaders look for evidence that things are going well, not what isn’t. At least until a red flag is impossible to miss. However, if culture leadership isn’t a top priority and early warning signs are overlooked, untold time, energy and money may be required to fix it while other business goals are derailed.

CEOs need to ask themselves, their team, employees and Human Resources what more they can do on every level to get their culture right: to enable their people and financial results to flourish together.

Not to do so puts all other achievements at risk.

Gael O’Brien, March 5, 2018, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach, consultant and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

The Week in Ethics: Wells Fargo Culture Lessons 8 Months Later

After eight months of headlines, with likely more to come, Wells Fargo’s consumer fraud (affecting at the very least two million customers) echoes so many other corporate crises….what some of us did isn’t who we are. The drama playing out at the bank underscores the importance of companies regularly addressing how their values and actions align.

Wells Fargo certainly isn’t the first company in crisis where leaders have justified their efforts, defended their culture and blamed a few bad employees. Or been dropped from the list of most admired companies. Their approximately 235,000 employees and 70 million customers suggest they knew the check list of Leadership 101 as well as anyone, including: respect your customers, reinforce your code of conduct, make it safe for people to give you bad news, ask the right questions and expect answers.

And yet, it didn’t happen. Yet another company with a values statement that if followed would have avoided crisis. Touting values and ignoring them when making business decisions invites crisis.

In April 2017, Wells Fargo’s independent directors released the findings of an internal Sales Practices investigation report on the consumer fraud; it placed blame on specific leaders’ failings, organizational decentralization, sales integrity issues, and made a case for how the board was misled. The report identifies 10 corrective actions done or underway. While risk measures and having the ethics function report to the board twice a year is included, absent is the role of values in helping reshape culture.

The report pointed to culture chaos using a variety of descriptions: “culture of strong deference to management,” “sales culture,” “cowboy culture” and “insular culture” along with “company culture.”

Culture failures are hugely embarrassing. Changing leaders doesn’t ensure a culture regains health and purpose, especially if values have been passive, more marketing slogans than actually defining a culture. The report indicates that as early as 2002, there was evidence that sales goals couldn’t be met without “gaming” the system to the detriment of customers. The commercial bank unit had at least 14 years operating in conflict with the bank’s stated values which impact the spirit of the entire culture.

For years, Wells Fargo’s values statement has said: “We strive to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. This is more than just doing the right thing. We also have to do it in the right way.”

This standard now needs to move from platitude to practical application. It needs to be looked at with humility and fresh eyes –no matter how long someone has been on the board or worked at the bank.

Questions the board and leaders should ask themselves and each other include:

  • What specifically (in behaviors and actions) do we want striving for integrity and principled performance to look like in 2017 and beyond throughout the bank?
  • What does respect for customers mean at every level and how will we demonstrate accountability in delivering it?
  • How do we expect leaders to show up in ways all leaders did not before?
  • How will we re-earn employee trust and inspire them to live (with us) the bank’s values?

There is distinction between aspiring to the highest operating standards and holding employees accountable to unattainable sales goals. The report indicated: “In many instances, Community Bank leadership recognized that their plans were unattainable….” Those goals were demoralizing and incentivized unethical behavior. While striving for the highest standards of integrity and principled performance can transform an organization.

In the words of Thoreau’s Walden “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

The report likely won’t change the minds of opinion leaders angry at the harm caused to customers in their community. Short of extraordinary measures, the bank’s explanation of what it’s doing to right wrongs won’t generate quickly the trust Wells Fargo wants regained. That was evident last month at Wells Fargo’s annual Shareholders’ meeting by the “tepid” re-election of board members. The board chair’s defense “…the board took the appropriate actions with the information it had” falls short. However, a focus on the ethical implications of the report findings offer a direction to identify what integrity and principled performance will mean going forward.

Three additional lessons grow out of the Wells Fargo experience that address culture:

Wells Fargo’s report indicated direct reports and others recognized former CEO/chairman John Stumpf  disliked conflict and receiving bad news. This weakness impacts what is shared, held back and received by the board. CEOs often won’t see themselves as conflict or bad-news adverse, winning at any cost or not aligning business strategy with company values. Even when CEOs have the dual role of board chairman, (now separated at Wells Fargo) independent directors create success when they clarify leadership attributes expected, discuss areas of potential concern and ensure CEOs receive developmental support when falling short.

A board should monitor regularly, with HR facilitation, how company leadership shows up in feedback (surveys, town meetings and ethics hot line etc.) to enable a more complete picture. The Leadership Circle’s Leadership Culture Survey is one of the outside assessment tools available. It looks at the health and effectiveness of organizational leadership and measures the balance between creative and reactive leadership competencies.

Given the huge internal, reputation and financial costs of ethical failures, board members should consider recommendations in “The Ethics Officer as Agent of the Board” to leverage ethical governance capability. In addition to walking the talk themselves, they create focus when they reinforce organization accountability to live up to its stated values.

Gael O’Brien, May 21, 2017, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, Bentley University.

Additional Wells Fargo columns: Where Wells Fargo Goes From Here (December 2016) and Wells Fargo’s Next Move? 10 Suggestions (September 2016)

The Week in Ethics: Wells Fargo’s Next Move? 10 Suggestions

Update: See my 12/10/16 Business Ethics column on Where Wells Fargo Goes From Here .

Update: In October 2016 Timothy Sloan replaced Chairman/CEO John Stumpf, becoming CEO and President. The chairman role was split and given to independent lead director Stephen Sanger.

Update: September 27, 2016: Wells Fargo Independent directors issued a statement  they will lead an investigation into “the bank’s retail sales practices and related matters” with the Board’s HR Committee and independent counsel. Chairman/CEO John Stumpf to forfeit $41 million unvested equity awards and “will forgo salary during the investigation.” The U.S. House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on bank’s “unauthorized customer accounts” on 12/29/16.

How will Wells Fargo resolve the ethical and culture issues it faces? And, how will it move beyond a poor showing at the Senate Banking Committee hearing and start to rebuild trust? First some background. Then 10 suggestions.

The best thing a CEO with strong convictions about the “rightness” of his/her own position can do when embroiled in a crisis is to spend time with trusted sources (inside or outside their company) who see things very differently. Being open to these viewpoints and questions iphone-pictures2-222and multiple perspectives raised make it harder for  CEOs to stay wedded to their position. However, once a CEO is under fire the temptation to stick with like-minded people can increase. What’s lost then is stimulation to think deeply about different aspects of an issue to gain new insights and awareness that enable developing alternatives legitimately aligned with values. Being stuck in “rightness” can lead to error blindness, a term popularized by Kathryn Schulz  who points out, “Trusting too much in feeling you are on the right side of anything is dangerous.”

It can lead to decisions that put a CEO on the defensive in front of a U.S. Senate hearing, as John Stumpf Chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo experienced September 20, 2016 testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Affairs.

Stumpf was questioned about the bank’s unauthorized accounts and allegations of a pressure-cooker sales culture which became public in 2013 (Los Angeles Times story) and continued. Wells Fargo has fired 5,300 employees, paid a fine, faces an investigation into its sales practices by New York and California federal prosecutors and can anticipate an upcoming hearing by the U.S. House Financial Services Committee in addition to follow up from the Senate Banking Committee. Earlier this month The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed a consent order outlining findings of the bank’s “improper sales practices”from 2011 to 2016.

A few days before the Senate hearing Stumpf, in an interview, disputed Wells Fargo has a culture problem. He maintained that stance with Senate committee members, while indicating changes the Bank planned to make. However, the bipartisan committee was united in criticism that Stumpf, the Board and senior leadership hadn’t gone far enough, fast enough and weren’t showing accountability. From the Republican Committee chair to Democratic challengers, Senators didn’t buy that the bank’s culture isn’t an issue.

Where does this leave Wells Fargo? Anyone who has been through corporate crises — as I and many others have — knows that criticism from outsiders is hard to take. However, there are huge pitfalls if Mr. Stumpf stays locked in the “rightness”of his position (in spite of his 30 plus years service at Wells Fargo, presiding over several of its acquisitions and knowing his industry and company better than outsiders).

His performance at the Senate hearing this week indicates his time has been spent with legal and public relations teams and like-minded insiders. Getting out of a crisis, turning around a culture and re-earning political and public trust, doesn’t happen by working harder with the same mindset. (The much touted definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

I’ve limited myself to 10 suggestions for Wells Fargo to support the start of a turnaround:

  1. The board should appoint a new chairman — an independent director — separating the role from the CEO for many reasons including signaling stronger board governance.
  2. The board should immediately decide about claw backs related to compensation of former head of community banking Carrie Tolstedt, Stumpf and any others. As part of re-earning trust, all their actions should be transparent and well communicated.
  3. The board should direct Stumpf and his team to meet with Wells Fargo’s ethics and compliance teams and risk officers to discuss/evaluate ethics, compliance and risk operations for strengths, weaknesses and safeguards to better integrate sales and all business strategies with corporate values and prepare a report for the board.
  4. The compliance and ethics leaders (and C-suite leader to whom they ultimately report) should initiate meetings with leaders of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative and the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics to address best practices, implementation challenges and examples where ethics and compliance leaders weigh in on business strategy discussions in sales and all areas.
  5. The board and senior management should identify outside experts to discuss how to  realign authentically culture around values. A place to start is the nearby Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
  6. Stumpf and his management team should become acquainted with Margaret Wheatley’s concept of self seal (the rightness of one’s position), Kathryn Schulz’ TED Talk (error blindness) and Margaret Heffernan’s  Willful Blindness for starters. These are lenses that encourage conscious and unconscious unethical behavior.
  7.  A cross-functional team of senior leaders with ethics and compliance leaders should review the company’s five primary values; for each, identify five or six specific expected behaviors to be incorporated into company policy and discussed in ethics training and performance reviews. Currently, the values are too abstract.
  8. Under the value “Ethics” the company says “We strive to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. “This should become a business objective with Board and CEO focus to keep this commitment at the center of the turnaround’s activities.
  9. At the upcoming House Financial Services Committee hearing, Stumpf and those testifying can start rebuilding trust by being fully prepared to answer questions directly and completely, having with them information relevant to committee questions. Stumpf should also make himself available to Senate Banking Committee leadership to make sure information provided since that hearing addressed open questions.
  10. Trust is a relationship where “integrity” and “principled performance” are realities, not marketing slogans. In relationships with employees, customers, customers affected by unethical actions, employees pressured by aggressive sales tactics, Wells Fargo leaders have to admit what went wrong and make systemic changes. A start is to amend the vision statement that says “We want to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially” and add “in ways that build lasting relationships of trust and integrity.”

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, September 22, 2016

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist  for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine where her September column is “One man’s Leadership Toward a Goal: ‘The Great Mission of Business Ethics.'”

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The Week in Ethics: Is Ethical Leadership Contagious?

If you were trying to foster ethical leadership in your organization, could anything make it “contagious?”

For starters, labeling it as “ethical leadership” might not take you as far as you’d like. How often do people say they are on board, “get it” and don’t need more?  While they might be willing to read about or take courses in strategic or global leadership, for example, many equate ethical leadership with what they learned growing up; if they need to spend more time talking about it, it might look like they are deficient in Golden Rule 101.

That’s the problem with blinders leaders, high potentials and any of us can have about our own ethical development — why it can suddenly be hard to give voice to values (because we’ve never thought about a potential conflict that suddenly surfaces) or why decisions are made weighing only legal and financial consequences (without noticing the potential for unintended ethical consequences) or why we need to be right.

When we talk about ethics and leadership in organizations, we need to translate it into values and behaviors we want visible in the culture that in turn build off a company’s values. While we say that ethical leadership encompasses the highest personal and organizational standards that vagueness creates an abstraction where everyone “gets it”  in theory, and can overlook it in practice.

Our language sets up creating the norm of what the organization stands for — and the behaviors supporting that — which then demystifies and brings the type of leadership we want to see and cultivate into day-to-day reality. If those qualities are talked about in examples and stories when the CEO meets with the board, direct reports and others; if they are linked to business success, reinforced in informal and formal mentoring programs, meaningfully incorporated into performance reviews, and play a role in why people get recognized, promoted or let go: the norm can be imitated and then owned.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is increasingly being reinforced in organizations as a way to develop leaders and help them succeed. (See Daniel Goleman’s What Makes a Leader.) Reinforcing EQ reinforces attributes important in ethical leadership so it is a win-win.

Some resources for thinking about how ideas can take hold in a culture include Contagious: Why Things Catch On by  Jonah Berger (video above) and the books that fueled his thinking: Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the Heath brothersMade to Stick.

Applying that to what could make ethical leadership contagious involves first looking at what  natural advantages exist in your culture to tap into to help ideas take hold. Then, what ideas might offer perceived value. For example, creating a special leadership forum site with links to good articles, blogs, book reviews and news stories fosters leadership development that reinforces the norm you want, with triggers to keep the subject top of mind, while saving leaders’/potential leaders’ time in finding useful information they can apply and share with others. Launch it with a sense of exclusivity: perhaps needing a password. Enlist the support of admired leaders in the organization to make reference in meetings to an article on the site they liked, and find other ways to have the site talked about and positioned as a place high potentials go for useful leadership tips. Who wouldn’t want to be considered “high potential”?

How do the values and attributes of ethical leadership become contagious in organizations?

They are modeled by the board, CEO and other leaders. They are talked about and interrelated with business and personal success. They are mentored and cultivated, enmeshed in the culture’s stories and allied with how people feel/see they can make a difference. They are linked to reducing stress. They are connected to what stakeholders’ value, attached to what it takes to belong and reinforced throughout the organization.

Gael O’Brien July 24, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. Gael is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her November 6, 2013 column looks at whether loyalty is owed when a boss acts as a good leader.