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Evict the elephants: three leadership strategies for creating a more energizing work culture.

ASSOCIATION LEADERS SET THE TONE FOR THEIR ORGANIZATIONS. Across time, a diverse cast of staff, volunteers, and members develop unwritten expectations about how people work together. Organizational culture, formed in the crucible of institutional history, can be a powerful tool in the hands of a leader--or an anchor, slowing every effort to move forward. To create vibrant associations, leaders must develop and maintain more functional work cultures that are positive, adaptable, and effective.

But what can leaders do when deeply ingrained expectations about behavior in an association block the path of progress?

One recommendation comes from marriage and family therapists, who for decades have employed the phrase "elephants in the living room" to describe weighty issues that everybody knows about but nobody wants to talk about. By acknowledging the elephants in a family, such as addiction and anger, family members can learn to make more positive choices.

In associations, the elephants are those less-than-functional workplace behaviors, such as gossip, mediocrity, and negative politics. Left unchecked, these elephants disrupt even the best organizations. They undermine our ability to implement change and drain the joy from our workday.

Forward-thinking leaders are making the courageous choice to evict these elephants and enjoy a more positive team environment. Moving these big fellows out of the workplace takes skill, savvy, and emotional maturity. Leaders possessing these traits can apply a three-part strategy to clean out the elephants and create a more positive, energizing workplace:

1. Expect. Encourage open dialogue to create shared values about working together.

2. Engage. Involve the energy, talent, and passion of the entire organization in decision making.

3. Equip. Model and teach effective approaches for working with others.

Here are some ways to apply these strategies to deal with three of the biggest organizational elephants: toxic gossip, entrenched mediocrity, and negative politics.

Oust gossip, invite openness

When new leaders take the helm of an association, team members experience a natural sense of anxiety. Expectations change, strategies evolve, and uncertainty displaces familiar ways of working. Individuals who lack healthy communication skills sometimes act out their insecurities in nonproductive ways, such as through toxic gossip. Rather than take positive action to address their needs, gossipers waste time and energy discussing the shortcomings of others, often in hushed hallway conversations.

As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well (1998, Quill), observes: "The most important reason we gossip is to raise our status by lowering the status of others." Unfortunately, gossip undermines precious interpersonal trust among team members--trust that leaders need to move an association forward. To overcome this challenge, effective leaders encourage employees to communicate in open, constructive ways and to hold others accountable to do the same.

Dick Peterson, president of the Northeast Agriculture Technology Corporation, Ithaca, New York, is a veteran volunteer leader with the American Society for Agricultural Engineers, St. Joseph, Michigan, a professional society with 25 staff and 9,000 members in 100 countries. He is also incoming president of the New York State Agricultural Society, Albany, which has a paid staff of one and more than 600 members. Across the years, Peterson has dealt with organizational cultures in both large and small associations, experience complemented by 30 years on the for-profit side as a manager with New York State Electric and Gas, Binghamton.

In the 1980s, while serving as a member of the agricultural engineers society's Forward Planning Committee, Peterson observed members spreading gossip in an attempt to undermine proposals being considered by the board. Those rumors created a paralyzing conflict between regional associations and the national organization.

To deal with the gossipers, Peterson pulled them aside privately to ask, "What's the problem?" and "How can we solve it?" By modeling openness and a tone of consideration and giving the gossipers the benefit of the doubt, Peterson depersonalized the issues. Once the lines of communication were opened, everyone could move toward a problem-solving approach.

"Sometimes a person has a legitimate issue but needs a more constructive way to raise it," notes Peterson. By beginning your exchange in a diplomatic, nonjudgmental way, the gossiper is less likely to get defensive or sabotage the conversation. Such conversations can become teachable moments--opportunities to coach others on direct ways of expressing themselves. By engaging the gossiper in the solution, Peterson modeled a more artful approach to open communication while bolstering the individual's sense of control in solving the problem.

In addition to engaging and equipping employees, leaders have the prerogative to set clear expectations regarding workplace behaviors. When leaders encourage team members to agree on the ground rules and to hold each other accountable for those agreements, individuals will often choose better behaviors rather than face the wrath of the team. When a person continues to cause problems, even after agreeing to the team's standards, he or she probably does not buy in to the values of the organization. That kind of values conflict is difficult, if not impossible, for leaders to resolve.

Nancy Caballero, program manager for Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO), New York City, suggests that leaders tackle such situations on a case-by-case basis. "If an incident is a one-time thing, in the heat of the moment, you can overlook it. But when behavior becomes a consistent pattern, it may mean that the individual is simply not on board.


"In the case of a values conflict," she continues, "the best solution may be to simply ignore the gossiper or to encourage him or her to move on." However, when a valuable contributor needs redirection, Caballero invests energy in helping that person become more effective. "A lot of times when people are making noise, management instinctively pushes them away. We do the opposite," she says. "Almost as you would with children, you pull them closer." This lets them know that you are listening.

WIBO, which has six staff and 80 active volunteers, enables small business owners and budding entrepreneurs in underserved communities to start, operate, and build successful businesses. To help fulfill its mission, WIBO conducts a 16-week workshop, "How to Build a Growing Profitable Business," each spring and fall in seven different locations around New York City. Seventy-four percent of WIBO's unpaid faculty--business owners and executives--are graduates of its workshop, which was first launched in Harlem 38 years ago. At one point, some of WIBO's volunteer faculty were frustrated with having to fill in when their volunteer colleagues did not show up for their portion of class time, says Caballero. And rightly so. "It was an unfair burden to ask them to pick up the slack for someone else who had committed to the job but then did not give WIBO priority."

In response, the organization implemented a communication policy spelling out what to do if a volunteer had to cancel a class session. In addition to providing a structure to fall back on when things don't go as planned, the policy had the added benefit of making the formerly frustrated volunteers feel that their needs were being listened to and that action was taken to solve their concern. Ultimately, it is up to individuals to decide if they want to make the commitment to change their behavior, but it is up to leaders to set clear standards and hold people accountable for their commitments, says Caballero.

Remove mediocrity, promote passion

Through his various volunteer roles, Peterson of the Northeast Agriculture Technology Corporation has observed that noprofit organizations are sometimes slow to adapt to changing business conditions. When an organization begins to accept mediocrity in the work of staff and volunteers, lackluster organizational performance surely follows. "In the business world, change happens rapidly. Everyone expects it," says Peterson. "While some smaller not-for-profits are very agile and creative, getting a larger association moving in a new direction can be a real challenge." That challenge is particularly tough when leaders must raise the bar of professional standards for staff and volunteers in response to more demanding marketplace realities. Peterson advocates a high-involvement approach to overcoming organizational inertia.

First, leaders must create a team of their own, composed of experienced members with whom they enjoy working, explains Peterson. That core group can help win the support of detractors. Second, do not be lazy leaders. "While it seems easier to go ahead and do things yourself rather than ask other members to get involved, as soon as people get the impression that you are a 'one-man show,' you lose your support base," Peterson adds.

Unfortunately, traditional governance models that rely heavily on board members to fill committee roles often discourage staff, members, and volunteers from getting involved in finding solutions. "At the New York State Agricultural Society, we routinely succeed ourselves on the board," says Peterson. "A little more board rotation would be good. We need the expertise of long-time people along with the energy of young people with new ideas." Specifically, he advises associations to fill committee roles with staff and volunteers, with board oversight, rather than staffing committees with the same small group of board members.


However, association leaders should not be surprised to encounter some resistance when asking staff, volunteers, and members to get off the sidelines and take responsibility for problem solving. In truth, most of us become uncomfortable when someone tells us that we have to meet higher expectations. University of Rochester researcher Edward L. Deci has studied cognitive evaluation theory, the process by which people instinctively weigh the costs and benefits of taking action. In Psychological Bulletin, he wrote, "CET asserts that [people's] underlying intrinsic motivations are the psychological needs for autonomy and competence...." Initiatives to raise standards of excellence erode workers' sense of competence and autonomy and their sense of security in their roles. But leaders can take steps to rebuild team members' sense of competence and autonomy and to make raising the bar much more palatable.

For example, according to Caballero, the logistics and overall flow of the graduation events associated with the WIBO workshops needed improvement. To stimulate some fresh ideas, she asked the staff and volunteers organizing the ceremony to view the stage from the perspective of the audience. By inviting team members to look at things differently--with an openness to trying new approaches--Caballero earned the commitment of the team to making positive changes in the graduation program without calling into question their competence.

Now WIBO makes employee involvement a core expectation. To demonstrate trust in the team, WIBO engages staff in developing and executing the organization's strategic plan. That action sends a strong message that leadership believes in the team's ability to both identify opportunities to improve results and offer workable solutions. "People are expected to contribute ideas. They are expected to look at their jobs and make recommendations about how they can do them better," notes Caballero. During the annual goal-setting process at WIBO, all staff are expected to list what they think should be accomplished within their areas as well as for the organization as a whole.

One outcome of this has been the creation of a volunteer advisory council to create and refine the goals for the workshop and for volunteer contributions. Caballero comments, "So far, the change in attitude has been more enthusiasm for the workshop and more participation from volunteers sharing more of their time. By having higher expectations for the workshop, the volunteers increase their performance based on our example."

Asking staff to take a more active role also stimulated cultural change at WIBO. "It was difficult at first, but once the process was under way, people were happier," says Caballero. As a result, the strategic plan has become their plan, not leadership's plan. Along with a sense of ownership has followed a greater commitment to making the strategic plan happen, as evidenced by WIBO's results. "Our workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs are getting progressively better. Our volunteers have higher standards and the entrepreneurs we serve are getting great material," says Caballero. Since the volunteer-led workshops were launched in 1966, more than 9,000 individuals have graduated, and WIBO estimates that about half of those individuals are operating successful businesses today.

Nix negativity, cultivate constructive debate

Politics are part of the job for those who invest countless hours leading nonprofit boards. Leaders get things done by influencing others; building support; and focusing the association's energy, attention, and resources on the mission. Each of those responsibilities is political in nature. But when politics degenerate into negative politics, organizational unity and collective effort unravel in a morass of competing constituencies and agendas. As Peterson notes, "When vocal subgroups try to change the tenor of the organization to meet their specific needs, factions begin to form. Rather than listening to each other, the sides reinforce and more deeply entrench their positions. Debate becomes nonconstructive."

Peterson has seen these partisan battles form along a number of lines. In large national associations, for example, natural rivalries often develop between powerful regional chapters and the national headquarters. Other disputes arise about investing in new projects, adapting the mission to changing member needs, or changing the wording of the association name itself.

Effective leaders work through good-faith differences of opinion about the direction of an association by fostering open dialogue. But, as Peterson notes, leaders must really listen. "It takes honest engagement, not just lip service. Consider issues honestly, and address them if possible." To put that good intention into action, the American Society of Agricultural Engineers invests heavily in surveys to take the pulse of the membership and in communication to keep people informed about the decision-making process. "When people feel heard, they are far more willing to sign on and support the decisions of the national leadership," notes Peterson.

Sheree Parris Nudd is vice president of Washington Adventist Hospital, Takoma Park, Maryland, a 300-bed hospital staffed by 1,900 full-time and part-time employees, 700 volunteers, and a medical staff of 730. She overcomes negative politics by bringing people together to jointly solve problems and modeling the behavior she wants to see in others.

"To get the ball rolling, I have been known to say, 'OK, let's talk about the elephant in the room' as a way to broach formerly taboo topics, such as interdepartmental conflict and abrasive team-member behaviors." Sometimes all it takes to diffuse negative politics is one leader with the guts to break the ice and get the dialogue rolling, Nudd observes. Common examples of negative politics in organizations include withholding key information that could be helpful to a co-worker, using body language that discounts others in a meeting, and saying one thing in the presence of a team member but saying something different behind the scenes.

Often, employees simply require some concerted coaching and attention to become comfortable communicating in more constructive ways. When coaching a young supervisor for whom English was a second language, Nudd first instructed the supervisor to observe her while she conducted several performance-improvement meetings. "Then we let her guide the meetings while I observed," says Nudd. "After a couple of times working through the process, she was ready to lead those discussions on her own, with some role-playing beforehand to get comfortable with the words."

Nudd recalls another situation: "A supervisor at a rehabilitation center was poisoning the atmosphere with misinformation, which the supervisor attributed to me." To correct the situation, Nudd organized small meetings and role-played telephone conversations with the employees to show how easy it is to misinterpret and misunderstand someone's words. "As we spoke openly with one another, it immediately and visibly reduced the tension," she says. The lesson? When a leader is open to direct, nondefensive dialogue, employees are less likely to pay attention to hearsay from unreliable sources. Nudd also routinely sets aside "no agenda" time in her staff meetings and asks open-ended questions to encourage employees to talk about their concerns. She helps team members practice how to give and receive feedback. "By practicing the words, they learn to be more comfortable and less self-conscious when the time comes to deal with real conflict," Nudd concludes.

Workshop in Business Opportunities's Caballero believes that moving from negative politics to positive discussion begins in the heart of the leader. Soon after joining WIBO, Caballero wasn't connecting well with a key volunteer, who rejected her efforts to communicate by phone or e-mail. "Finally, when I met with him in person, we discovered a completely new and better interaction. He was not in favor of automated technology and helped me see how a personal interaction could be so much more of a rich and real experience. After that meeting, we got along fine," says Caballero, who believes an attitude of trust and respect for others allows for a spirit of collaboration.

Keep the elephants away

Creating lasting change begins with a leadership mind-set that believes in the potential of all team members to be responsible, professional performers. By setting clear expectations, engaging and involving the team, and equipping people to become responsible, association leaders transform the cultures of their organizations. Leaders maintain this momentum by consistently modeling positive alternatives to negative habits. When the whole team agrees to hold each other accountable for new behaviors, they make the changes stick.

To lead this type of cultural change requires guts, skill, and tenacity. As leaders, we have limited time and energy. We can either invest that energy in repeatedly cleaning up the messes that organizational elephants leave behind or in strategies to keep the elephants away. Has the time come for you to face down the elephants in your association? Expect, engage, and equip your team to clean out the elephants and keep them out for good.

RELATED ARTICLE: Recommended Reading

To fine-tune your leadership communication skills, the following resources provide practical approaches to help leaders expect, engage, and equip others to be their best.

* Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, et al (2000, Penguin Putnam)

* The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work, by Peter Block (1991, Jossey-Bass)

* Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, by Stephen C. Lundin, et al (2000, Hyperion)

* Free to Lead: 5 Keys to Getting It Done Without Doing It All, by Gene C. Mage (2004, Making It Work Publications)

* A Journey Into the Heroic Environment: A Personal Guide for Creating a Work Environment Built on Shared Values, by Rob Lebow (1997, Prima Lifestyles)

* The Leadership Challenge, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner (2003, Jossey-Bass)

* Managing for High Performance, by Gene C. Mage (2002, Making It Work Publications)

* Successful Manager's Handbook: Development Suggestions for Today's Managers, by Susan H. Gebelein (2001, Epredix, Inc.)

* Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships, by Ken Blanchard, et al (2002, Free Press)

Gene C. Mage, an author, speaker, and leadership development expert, is president of Making It Work, Horseheads, New York. The consulting firm equips leaders with the communication skills to create more effective work teams. E-mail:
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Author:Mage, Gene C.
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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