The Dread of Mea Culpa

I head a business unit. And I run it ruthlessly… without compassion or mercy. I consider the wages paid to my people as fair exchange for the tough grind I subject them to. What more do they want, anyway? So, I have built a reputation for extracting the last drop of effort from my team by force of authority and threat of retribution. It gets me results, because I always find some people in my BU who need to be driven hard, some doormats who will do my bidding. Or to put a positive spin on it: some people who will “rise to the occasion” whenever I demand the moon.

Meanwhile, there is collateral damage. My juniors copy me and transmit the pressure and insensitivity down the line. The result is burnout, resentment, stress and high attrition throughout my BU. But I keep such disturbing news at the periphery of my attention, preferring to take pride in this ‘survival of the fittest’ culture that I’ve created. I think it is a small price to pay for the big gains that come my way.

My manager is alarmed by the downsides of my methods. She values the results I get, but fears the downsides. She wants me to face the truth and “see the light”, so she nominates me to a developmental intervention. It is innocuously called “New Leadership Paradigm” or something similar, so that I’m not offended.

The intervention is a shocker. It lays bare the ill effects of my deeds. Through feedback I receive, I discover that I’m not popular. Could it be that my team isn’t enjoying the challenge but barely hanging in there, hating me all the while, till they find a better job outside? I also learn alternate ways of dealing with people… compassion and respect, valuing the good in them, giving them autonomy, viewing mistakes as learning opportunities, taking a genuine interest in their lives and needs etc. Faced with all this evidence, I am now a changed man. I truly start believing in the new gospel. I see the faces of people in my team, whom I have wronged, and I want to make things okay again. I want to treat them well, as individuals with hopes and feelings and preferences. I want to earn their respect from scratch.

But there’s a problem: behaving differently would mean admitting that I was wrong all along, a mea culpa! The tough-guy image I had cultivated so carefully will crumble. What a loss of face it will be. I can see the dirty looks my people will give me … some will smirk knowingly (He’s come to his senses finally!), others will radiate hate or even pity (Poor sod, look at you now!). Should I subject myself to this? Am I not better off with the status-quo? So I shrink back into the shadows. I decide to sleep over it. Maybe I’ll unveil my new ‘compassionate avataar’ some other time.

A week or two later, I don’t feel so terrible. I’m back to my usual old ways. This is so much more comfortable. That leadership course was such a nightmare. Crisis averted!

What gives?

Here’s the sad reality: Very often, shame trumps good intentions. The threat of our old identity shattering, and the fear of embarrassment stops us from taking any real actions which are in consonance with our newfound beliefs.

In organisations, it is common for change interventions to lose steam like this. No doubt, they start promisingly, as evidenced by ‘Today, I am born-again’ comments on end-of-workshop feedback forms. But when we look for the change some months down the line, its business as usual. The story above typical, but here are some other change contexts:
– From a parochial mindset (blind hate based on region, religion, gender) to a more inclusive one
– From “Our product is great & whoever doesn’t buy is an idiot” to a more customer-centric philosophy
– From “I must win every negotiation” to a more nuanced long-term view

In each, we face the ominous prospect that the public reputation we have built (strong views, confident, hard bargainer) will crumble, if we change visibly.

Inadequate Interventions

If the change intervention stops at creating the desire for change, then it is inadequate, even irresponsible. It is akin to opening a wound and failing to stitch it up. In the ongoing example, I will end up in greater torment because I will know that my behavior is wrong; I have lost the luxury of not-knowing. I might even resort to extremes of ruthless behaviour, to mask the guilt and shame I feel (like the school-yard bully who thinks “Yeah, so I’m a bully. That’s what I will do, and do very well”). It’s probably better to not have such half-baked interventions at all.

“Lantern glass” interventions

Interventions aiming to create awareness and more responsible actions must be like lantern glasses. They must protect the tender flame of good intentions from being snuffed out. Two characteristics of such interventions are:

1. Turn shame into acceptance
A good intervention will help me view “my past bad behavior” as something to be looked at in the eye, accepted and then transcended. I must be made to see that “my past behaviour was the best I could manage at that time, with whatever awareness and capability I had. My newfound awareness is a resource, and with that, I can do better. My behaviour is fluid, responsive to new learning, and unchanging perfection is a myth”.
A skilled facilitator can do this in a variety of ways. He can spur self reflection, and I may realise that my journey has always been one of constant learning and change and growing upwards; that my recent behaviour was but a rung of this ladder, a temporary resting point; I may then be more willing to move on. He can use the learning groups’ shared stories to help the realisation that I’m not alone; that my challenge of changing my ways has been surmounted by others before me.

This shift towards self-acceptance and humility may look subtle, but it has far reaching effects. The impetus for change then comes not from guilt, shame or need for atonement, but from a space of positivity and ease. I will be more resilient when I face the ‘What will people say?’ question, more willing to persist with my change efforts.

2. Handhold people as they take baby-steps of change
And later, when I attempt to put my good intentions into practice, which is always tough, I could use a helping hand. With support, I could convert this daunting task into relatively small actionables which slowly but surely, take me in the direction of change. As I assimilate my changed beliefs into my everyday interactions, it will be useful to share updates of little successes and setbacks with a listening buddy. During moments of indecision, I could borrow courage and seek advice. This timely support may make the difference between giving up and continuing the journey to the end.

The elephant in the room

The shame about accepting a mistake is the elephant in the room that few acknowledge. Ignoring it doesn’t help because it continues to impede progress in people’s change efforts. When a change intervention fails, we often continue to deny the elephant’s existence, preferring to find safer scapegoats: “hard to break habits” or “too busy to implement change” or “something more important came up”. But for any “change of belief” intervention to run its course, the existence of shame & fear and their effects must be acknowledged and addressed.