Among the speakers was Rachael Robertson who I was familiar with from her humourous and inspiring closing keynote Leading on the Edge at the 2015 RCSA PEARL Consultant Forum, held at Crown, Melbourne last June. In this presentation Rachael recounts what she learned about leadership from being the Australian Antarctic base leader of 19 people (15 men, 4 women) for one winter season (9 months).
Rachael’s presentation was an edited version of the June 2015 RCSA presentation. Not only was it great to hear it again, I also heard something significant that I hadn’t quite taken in the first time around: Respect Trumps Harmony.
Rachael’s basic premise is that as a leader you shouldn’t aim for harmony in the team because harmony is most likely accomplished at the expense of individual and team respect. The desire for harmony sends underground the issues that should be confronted directly, for the ultimate benefit of the team.
And Rachael should know – imagine being the leader of 19 people that you work and live with 24/7 for 9 months; people that you can’t fire or send home! As a leader in this unique environment you need to discover what works and what doesn’t work, very quickly, otherwise you are going to face a very, very long Antarctic winter (complete darkness for all, or almost all, of each day).
As I considered what Rachael was saying, I thought about the various teams that I had been part of throughout my life; at work, in my community and in sport. The best of those teams were teams where there always existed an element of constructive tension rather than team harmony.
Here’s what I have seen happen when the desire for harmony, ahead of respect, becomes the dominant driver of leadership behaviour:
- Performance becomes secondary: A necessary part of having a high performance culture is ensuring team members are held accountable for their results, responsibilities and behaviour. When accountability is inconsistent or absent (very common in environments where harmony is an active goal of the leader) the inevitable result is that mediocre or average performance becomes the norm within the team. The only time I worked in this type of environment I was astonished to be told that my team members felt one-on-one accountability meetings were ‘not good for team morale’. Needless to say the level of performance that team was generating was, by any recruitment industry standard you care to use, below average.
- Improvement is luck rather than cultural: Failure is a healthy and necessary part of a high performance culture. However failure is a word, in our corporate culture, which has its own negative context. As I learned when I was undertaking my NLP training ‘there is no failure, only feedback’. Failure is simply not accomplishing what you set out to accomplish. Being interested in the causes of that lack of accomplishment is what leads to improved performance. The high performance cultures that I have been part of, or know about (eg Hays, Recruitment Solutions, Morgan & Banks) are/were cultures in which improvement was cultural, which meant that ‘failure’ was identified, dissected and learned from, rather than ignored or demonised. In a harmonious culture ‘failure’ is rarely addressed because of the leader’s unwillingness to have the uncomfortable, but necessary, conversation about that ‘failure’.
- Gossip becomes the norm: When performance becomes secondary, the focus of each employee easily drifts from addressing what they can do to improve their results to what they dislike about their boss, their colleagues and their employer, generally. Talking negatively about a person with another person is gossip and it’s the leading cause of workplace cancer. As Rachael Robertson said in her talk ‘No triangles!’ If you have an issue to address with a person at work, then talk to that person directly.
When you put respect ahead of harmony, you are delivering the following messages about your principles as a leader:
- I will do what’s necessary to lead and develop a high performance team
- I care enough about you as a professional to be honest with you
- I care enough about you as a person to deliver this honesty in a way that leaves you feeling respected, but clear about how effectively you are doing your job
- I care enough about the team to immediately call out the behaviour of any team member who is undermining the cultural standards we have agreed to
- In my absence I expect all team members to hold each other to the same high standards
So what’s it to be: respect or team harmony?