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What Leaders Won't Do
Jul, 10,2013
Founder of The Table Group
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In the course of my career, I’ve always been amazed at what leaders will do for their organizations. So many founders and CEOs will spend countless late nights in the office, endure long and grueling business trips, even sacrifice their own financial resources, all to increase the likelihood, even slightly, that their enterprises will succeed. Sadly, these efforts often come at the expense of their health, their families and their sanity.

But the one thing that amazes me more than what leaders will do for their enterprises, is what they so often won’t do – endure emotional discomfort at work.

Though this may sound innocuous or obvious, there is nothing trivial about it. In fact, this determination to avoid emotional discomfort is the single most costly and surprising phenomenon I’ve witnessed in business during my career. And seen in its proper context, it’s pretty ridiculous. Let me explain by using an analogy.

Imagine that someone spilled a large cup of coffee in the lobby of a corporation’s building. The CEO certainly wouldn’t be expected to clean it up, and understandably so, given the value of his or her time and likely skill set. Asking a janitor to do the job would make more sense, and certainly wouldn’t provoke a complaint from that janitor who knows what his job entails.

But when a political or interpersonal mess occurs in an organization, there is no one more suited to clean it up quickly and efficiently, and eliminate the possibility of collateral damage, than the leader. Few would debate this. And yet, unlike the custodian, many leaders complain about having to do this part of their job, and in all too many cases they stand back and wait for the problem to go away, or for someone else to deal with it.

Why does this happen? Part of it has to do with the natural fear of conflict and accountability that I cover in some depth in my books The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage. But I think some of it is related to a subtle, perhaps even subconscious, sense of entitlement among leaders.

Consider the most egregious example I’ve ever seen.

After a few mergers and acquisitions, the CEO of a large company had two direct reports on his leadership team with the same title. Neither was sure which of them was responsible for what their title indicated, though one of those executives was feeling particularly left out of the decision-making that he had been accustomed to before. For weeks he tried to schedule a meeting with the CEO – his boss – to clarify the situation, but he was turned away by the executive assistant again and again. Finally, he found himself sitting next to the CEO on a flight, determined, if not a little wary, of finally learning the fate of his career.

What happened is almost too strange to believe, but I promise I’m not making it up. The CEO put on headphones, closed his eyes, and spent the entire trip in silence, all to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with one of his direct reports, who eventually just left the organization.

Okay, I admit that this is a particularly preposterous example. But it is indicative of similar behaviors I’ve seen among many reasonable men and women, most of whom work close to the top of those organizations. Why do senior executives tend to avoid uncomfortable situations and conversations more than others? That’s where entitlement seems to come into play.

My sense is that, in addition to simply not enjoying conflict, senior executives often feel that they’ve earned the right to avoid the unpleasant parts of their work, the kind that they had to deal with earlier in their career. They’ve paid their dues on their way up the ladder, and are more than happy to delegate or abdicate parts of their jobs that they don’t enjoy, one of which is almost always having difficult, messy and emotional conversations.

In fact, I’m convinced that if you were to explain to aspiring executives that their job requires them to constantly address messy, uncomfortable interpersonal situations, many would opt out of that career path. Which would actually be a good thing.

The best organizations are the ones where leaders are expected to seek out – yes, seek out! – discomfort at work. They find opportunities to enter the danger whenever they can, realizing that by doing so, they’ll accomplish three productive things. First, they’ll set an example for others to do the same. Second, they’ll improve their own level of “comfort with discomfort.” And most importantly, they’ll reduce the shelf life and impact of problems in their organizations.

Someday, perhaps the majority of leaders will come to realize that embracing discomfort is one of the key indicators of successful organizations. They’ll be too embarrassed to even consider letting a messy situation fester, knowing that it would be a simple matter of negligence to do so. Until then, for those organizations that teach their leaders to embrace discomfort, it remains an opportunity for differentiation and advantage.