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09 Mar '13

How leaders often shut down discussion, stifle dialogue and create stagnant cultures

Posted by T.J. Addington in dialogue, robust dialogue, unhealthy leaders
Have you ever been in a staff meeting at some time in your career where you knew it was unsafe to say what you really felt? Or, where everyone knew that nothing would be said that would be considered contrary to what the leader thought? Where many positive things would be said about the ministry but no one would name the many elephants? 

Whenever I see a culture like this I know that there is a leader who has shut down discussion and stifled dialogue enough times that people will not say what really think, and everyone but the leader seems to know that.

How do leaders shut down discussion, stifle dialogue and create stagnant cultures? One of the easiest ways is simply to make  dismissive statements when suggestions are made: "that won't work," "I don't like it," "We don't do that kind of thing here, "We've never done that." Sometimes it is just body language that says something like "You have to be kidding."

Whether the idea or suggestion is a good one or not these kinds of statements from leaders send a strong message that one is better off just keeping their mouth shut. Not only are such statements pathetic in their lack of EQ but they are designed to end conversation that the leader does not want to have.

Often, leaders who display such behaviors are really saying that if the idea is not theirs it is not going to fly. In other words they are simply not willing to consider anything that does not fit their paradigms which staff quickly pick up on and choose to simply stay quiet. 

Those who continue to speak up and press into things that the senior leader does not want to hear or do quickly find that they are marginalized and sometimes even forced to move on. That sends a very powerful message the conformance and silence are the keys to survival.

Another way that leaders can do this is simply to ignore proposals that are made. In one such case I am aware of, the leader will tell subordinates that he will "think about it" or "study the proposal" and never bring it up again. It dies by deliberate neglect.

All of this creates a culture of stagnation because ideas, suggestions and different paradigms are not welcome at the leadership table. Staff must operate within a narrow band of what is acceptable and cannot be themselves in using their best thinking and creativity. It is a deeply frustrating place to be for anyone who is even a moderately healthy individual.

It also creates a culture of elephants - issues that everyone know are there but which cannot be safely addressed or even identified. What makes this so absurd and crazy is that the issues are not secret but they have to be treated as secrets, or as non-issues. As the number of issues grow that cannot be discussed, so does the dysfunction in the organization. When things do erupt out of frustration, the eruption is often unhealthy because healthy dialogue was shut down long ago. 

Unfortunately there are many examples of leaders who shut down discussion, stifle dialogue and create stagnant cultures. It is a sign of personal leadership dishealth, insecurity, dysfunction and it hurts the staff, organization and even the ability of the leader to lead well. I have vowed that I will never again work for such a leader.