Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fallen Heroes

Image from Shutterstock

It was 2001. I’d gone out on my own a few years before but still did some work through a large training organisation. I confess to being somewhat star struck by the account executive with whom I partnered. She was stylish, confident, resilient, and successful. When I grew up I told myself - I was in my 30s - I wanted to be just like her.

So that particular day, I got a call from a former client of mine from the Bank I’d left to establish Brash Consulting. He “couldn’t promise anything” because they were speaking to other providers too but I’d been highly recommended for design and delivery of a large scale roll-out of Employee Relations training for a major Australian airline. A dream gig doing M.A.D (Make a Difference) work. We made an appointment to meet.
An hour later my “hero” called with the most exciting news. Her RTO had just been invited to pitch for, you guessed it, a large scale ER roll out with an airline and when I was I free to meet them?

I told her I’d already been approached. She sat on the other end of the line silent for what seemed like ages.
To her credit she regrouped quickly to proclaim: “Oh, Leanne. That’s great! When we go in together we’ll have two chances out of three instead of one. Besides, they would surely prefer to go with a big training organisation than a boutique consultancy.”

What was I thinking in that moment? Not necessarily. And the financial implications were hard to ignore as with her I’d be working for less than half the fee charged and I really believed I had as good a chance as aforementioned RTO to win the business. I told her that politely and said I’d need to think about it overnight.
She sounded shocked, but again regrouped quickly to say: "Well, I can’t believe this. To me it’s a no-brainer, but sure. You think about it."

And then came the knife in my heart as she continued: "But of course, if, say, another opportunity came up another time, I’d have to remember that when we had a great chance to work together, you chose not to work with me….."

What did I tell her the next day? That we’d go in together.

Whenever I’ve told that story on the platform, audiences have been shocked!

For those of you who do know me and the work I do, there is no doubt I would do it differently now.

I’d be far less vulnerable to the mother-daughter-disapproval ritual. I would have backed myself, said “No” nicely, and assertively called out the passive-aggressive thinly-veiled threat.

Months later, half way through the roll-out of the 53 workshops I would ultimately run for Ansett (of course it was!) she invited me to pre-Christmas lunch. It was tortuous. I realised the relationship could never recover. The woman I had looked up to, even idolised was a fallen hero.

Some people told me they felt the same way when Wayne "King" Carey cheated on his then wife and even more deeply when he became the subject of domestic violence and assault allegations. I know that Carey has worked hard to rebuild his life and his reputation but for some does the disappointment or the damage ever go away?

A member of my team told me how awestruck she had been by the inspirational wellness blogger, Belle Gibson, until Belle told the Women's Weekly that she'd never had brain cancer so didn’t cure herself and her hapless publisher, her family and the charities she had purportedly raised money for, paid the price.
Having recently dipped back into the fascinating Watergate saga via the phenomenal podcast “Slow Burn” I was struck by how long Richard Nixon supporters stuck by him as John Dean turned, as evidence mounted and Oval Office tapes were released. Deep into 1974, over two years after the infamous break-in on 17 June 1972, one heard a multiplicity of rationalisations from “The President wasn’t involved” to “Everybody does it” to “Remember Chappaquiddick and Teddy Kennedy?"

Neuroscience tells us we need vast amounts of contrary evidence before we’re prepared to shift our position and even then we may move slightly and we may move late.

The human brain doesn’t need to be logical, but it needs to be right.

What are everyday workplace examples in which we give people the benefit of the doubt when there isn’t any? When we rationalise other's behaviour? Or keep saying Yes when we want to say No? Or lose respect for failing to act? Or even become "dazzled" in the shadow of someone else's aura and have others accuse us of denial?

Here are a few.

The employee who’s chronically late and never counselled but brings energy and humour to the place when 
they’re there!

The abrasive worker who is tolerated because they tell people they’re stressed (and might be).

The blaming and shaming boss who continues to wreak havoc because, until and if anyone complains in writing, why bother? (Even with a sneaking suspicion that staff are too scared to complain).

The person with a representative role e.g. social club secretary or footy tipping coordinator, WHS rep or union delegate who spends much of their time not attending to core duties or using their positional power inappropriately.

The friend or family member of someone senior who gets all the opportunities precisely because they’ve got friends in high places. 

The educator with a poor reputation as a lecturer but students say nothing because they’re an easy marker.

The person who engages in unethical practices but brings in significant revenue via questionable means likely 
contrary to the organisation’s stated values.

How might we ensure we’re seeing the picture fully and clearly? That we’re not sitting in denial or delusion?
  • The good old “front page of the paper test”. Would the situation if it was spelt out in public cause us any discomfort or the brand any damage? Think the current ABC crisis!
  • Routinely ask ourselves: Is there something unique here that could be clouding my judgment and making it hard to be objective?
  • Where do other fair-minded and reasonable people sit on this issue? With me or far from it?
  •  If I “subbed out” this person (for whom I have empathy/affection/admiration) and “subbed in” someone else altogether, would I still feel the same way or differently?
  • Is this behaviour analogous or equivalent to other situations we’ve been forced to confront before? What did we do? What is our current 'custom and practice'?
  • What are our stated values and unwritten ground rules? Does this person or their behaviour violate them?
  • Is the justification given for any bad action an explanation or an excuse?
  • Even if I’m prepared to be lenient, generous, compassionate or accommodating in this instance, what are the to-be-anticipated and the potential unintended consequences of my action/inaction? What message do I send? What precedent do I set? (Note, these are not always negative).

Finally, is there a way to metaphorically “have our cake and eat it too"? In our examples, might we show empathy and understanding yet still stand up for great culture, abide by laws and rules and pay homage to values?

A few weeks ago allegations surfaced about an AFL Football player testing positive for illicit drugs. His club came out with a well-rounded and well-delivered message. It said clearly and unequivocally that:
  • the Club would provide all manner of support to their young player knowing that ASADA needed to do its job and that the player could potentially face a ban of several years
  • that the Club respected ASADA’s policies; and
  • there was no widespread problem at the Club.  

We may want heroes, but what we need are role models. To forgive is divine and we must remind ourselves that no-one is perfect, and even more, that humans are exquisitely fallible, but leaders must remember we get the culture we deserve and the behaviour we’re prepared to tolerate. 

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