Behavior Unbecoming of a Leader


One of the most important roles of a leader is to serve as a role model for others in the organization. In this article, Naomi Karten describes a situation in which a CIO forgot this responsibility, almost taking action that would have undermined his efforts to reverse the IT organization’s plunging morale.

Morale in the IT organization had been poor for way too long. After several attempts to address the problem failed, the CIO (whom I'll call Brad) decided to try something new. He invited IT employees to volunteer to be on a team of non-managers that would evaluate the morale problem from their perspective and recommend improvements. Brad and his senior management team committed to take the recommendations seriously and act on them.

Over a period of weeks, the volunteer team members reviewed the problems they and their coworkers had been experiencing and assembled a comprehensive list of recommendations. The senior management team reviewed the recommendations and developed a plan for addressing them. Then, Brad called a meeting of the entire IT organization to present the plan.

As people arrived for the presentation, he gave them each a feedback form and asked them to jot down their reactions to the plans he'd be describing.

So far, so good.

Back in his office, Brad looked through the feedback forms. Among them was one form filled with nasty, pointed comments about him and the IT managers. The form was, of course, unsigned.

Things then took a nearly disastrous turn.

Don't Go Away Mad, Just Go Away
Despite being an astute, level-headed executive, Brad blew up. And, in his blown-up state, his first impulse was to send an email message to all IT employees saying that the person who had submitted the highly negative feedback was no longer welcome in the company and should pack up and leave. I learned that he was contemplating sending the email when one of the senior managers called me in a panic.

Just imagine: If he had sent that email, he would have damaged his reputation, fed the already overactive grapevine, undermined the efforts of the volunteer team, and sent morale plunging even further. (He also would have wiped out the results of my work as a consultant supporting the volunteer team.)

Meanwhile, the person whose feedback triggered this irrational response probably wouldn't even have known that he or she was its intended recipient. And, no doubt, several others who had sent mildly negative feedback might have thought the email was directed at them.

No one craves negative feedback. Still, is this any way for a leader to respond—especially given that he had only recently been promoted into the CIO position based on his reputation as a trusted leader?

The senior management team practically had to sit on Brad to prevent him from sending the email. (As an outsider, I wasn't invited to participate in the sit-on.) Fortunately, they succeeded.

The CIO as Role Model
One of the most important responsibilities of a leader is to serve as a role model. Leaders who invite feedback and then suggest by word or deed that only positive feedback is welcome fail as role models. They also guarantee that critical feedback—the kind they really ought to hear, and preferably sooner rather than later—will be withheld.

The right response in this kind of situation is to take the high road. I suggested to one of the senior managers that a role-model CIO might respond by sending out the following email message:

At our meeting on the ninth, we invited your feedback. Thanks to all of you who responded. Some of it was positive and some wasn't, but all of it was helpful. However, some of the feedback left us wanting to know more. If those of you who submitted unsigned feedback would contact me, I would like to meet with you so I can better understand your concerns. You will be helping me make this the kind of organization you want it to be.

For those of you who have not yet submitted feedback, it's not too late. Simply send me an email message or jot your comments on a sheet of paper, and let me know your reactions—positive or negative—to the plan I presented.

I want to make this an organization in which people feel comfortable letting me know their grievances and dissatisfactions. We have a long way to go, but I'm convinced this goal is attainable.

I was hoping Brad would send out a message along these lines. He didn't, but at least he also didn't send out his first choice of response. His senior management team keeps a close eye on him these days.

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