The Privilege of Leadership and The Golden Rule

by Susan Valentine

I recently had the opportunity to work on an interesting project. While there, I observed the attitudes and behaviors of the people in supervisory roles, and its impact on the work environment and employees. It was astounding. It was a “wake-up call” for me. Warning: this is a cautionary tale.

During my tenure, I began to understand what a “toxic environment” meant… and wondered if this one actually qualified as “hostile”. I had stumbled into an environment that was ruled by clocking in and out, approved breaks and bathroom stops, and reprimands for one-minute overages. Cameras were mounted on the ceilings following your every move. Feedback had no positivity or coaching, but rather curt sound bites of wrongdoing. Not only would supervisors not respond to “good morning”, but they would actually turn the other way. These same supervisors would huddle and chat but discourage any chatting amongst the worker bees even when not “on the clock”. The list of issues goes on and on.

All that mattered to the company were numbers and accuracy. I normally would value such goals, but here automatons were the cherished commodity. People who entered with zest and energy, creativity and motivation, eager to increase their own productivity were quickly stripped of life, disempowered, and de-incentivized. I watched colleagues suffer this diminishing effect. I suffered it myself. At first, I began thinking I might set up a meeting with HR or even the head of the project or division to discuss my observations and/or suggestions for improvement, or call a meeting of supervisors. But, the reality that I was a “little guy” made it hard to imagine conveying “the truth” -- wouldn’t it be seen as “making waves”?

You can tell by now that this was not an environment that I was going to adapt to with any ease, if at all. I kept saying to myself “but I like the actual work and am good at it,” thinking it would somehow matter, and win out over the environment and the supervisors. Didn’t someone higher up realize that the turnover was due to the treatment of people and the almost hostile work environment? Didn’t they care?

What did I learn? What were the critical reminders?

  • Losing one’s voice in the workplace because of the workplace is a travesty;
  • Being silenced, or becoming silent in order to survive in an environment, does not encourage productivity or health and well-being;
  • People who are responsible for organizations that perpetuate this “squashing” have no business being in business;
  • Environments that breed and praise “gotcha” supervisors are toxic;
  • The “low man on the totem pole” is still a human being and often one of the key ingredients to reaching project success;
  • Common decency should never be replaced by a caste system of communication.

The most important lesson, though, is to remember that being a leader is a privilege. We have the responsibility to be aware of the kind of work environment we oversee. We have the responsibility of establishing healthy work environments and ensuring that employees are treated fairly and with respect. How we behave impacts how our line management behaves.

Observing our staff in action, listening to their views, insisting that management teams know that it is not just the bottom line that contributes to your evaluation of them, etc. can go a long way to ensuring employees are being treated with respect.

Bottom Line:The environment within which employees work, albeit as crisp and orderly as it needs to be, must also be respectful and fair.

Susan Valentine is an individual and organizational change consultant specializing in organizational assessment, strategic planning, change management, and life planning. She has served as an executive in leading international research and assessment and nonprofit community development organizations and as a Board member of local and national community and educational agencies.

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