Purpose and Safety: The Dilemma
Lead Coach and Facilitator at Choose Leadership | Working with Purpose Driven Leaders and Organisations

“Wind responsible for 51% of State’s electricity last month” trumpeted a headline in yesterday’s Irish Times. A few clicks later and I found myself on the McKinsey 5-50 blog where I saw some numbers which dampened my earlier excitement: 56% of American workers claim that their boss is mildly or highly toxic and 75% of Americans say that their “boss is the most stressful part of their workday”. The leadership coach in me sat with this one for a while: not just with the stark reality of those numbers, but with how widespread the stress of poor leadership is experienced.

These two stories highlight the fundamental tension that exists for every manager, the one between being on purpose and feeling safe.

First purpose. I imagine that for those in the energy sector who are contributing to the shift from fossil fuels to renewables like wind, there is a focus not just on profit, which is important, but also on why it is important to lessen our carbon footprint and contribute to transforming how we treat our planet vis a vis energy production. That sense of purpose contributes to the focus and innovation which enables the progress we are seeing in Ireland’s energy sector.

Purpose matters. A few years ago, a wise man, upon finding me gripped by a deep, gnawing apprehension, asked me “What’s bigger than your fear?” That question freed me. I connected to my compelling purpose: to grow leaders. I found the key that unlocked the door that my fear had closed, and I was able to move forward. Why? I had a reason to act. I was able to choose my behaviour from a place of intention rather than anxiety. I was able to create what happened next, rather than be a victim of circumstances.

Which brings us to the McKinsey findings: half of American workers experience their boss as toxic and 3 out of 4 find them to be the most stressful part of their day. Why and how did this come to be?

As we grow from youth to adulthood, we are socialised to behave a particular way. And those around us tend to celebrate our strengths. We are often praised for them: You’re a real people person – you get along with everyone. You’re clever – always very smart. You’re successful – you always get things done. So far so good, until our identity becomes based around having to be seen this way. And when something threatens this identity, we become reactive.

I expect that the bosses McKinsey speak of are reactive, in other words, they feel threatened by events in their environment, and they are triggered by them. They likely react to these events in order to preserve their sense of identity which is organised around the key strengths that they possess: their heart, their head or their will.

If a reactive boss whose identity is organised around getting results feels threatened when the expectations placed on them change, e.g. increase targets, decreased resources, doing the work of people who aren’t replaced, they may seek to control those around them and exercise power, including coercion, dominance and fear, to generate the results they desire. Why? Their identity is based on being successful and their fear drives them to control others in the hope of eliminating the threat to how they see themselves. And controlling, reactive managers are often toxic ones.

If a reactive boss whose identity is organised around being smart and rational feels threatened by events in their environment, they will distance themselves further, perhaps become overly analytical or critical, and act without empathy. Why? Because their identity is based on being seen as intellectually superior to others and they fear vulnerability. They may be seen as out of touch or arrogant or uncaring by those they lead. And this lack of a human touch is likely experienced more acutely in the time of lockdowns and pandemics. In this moment, people need a personal touch and empathy whereas the boss may be focused on trying to make sense of an uncertain, ambiguous environment and not appreciate that their people need something different from them.

Reactive behaviour is always a sign of a search for safety. And that safety always comes at the cost of creating toxicity or apathy in others. Unfortunately it also has the impact of disconnecting bosses and their teams from the sense of purpose which enables innovation. McKinsey suggest that organisations need to educate managers on the importance of workplace relationships to organisational effectiveness and sustainable performance. They also point to servant leadership and the need for greater compassion and curiosity.

We agree AND we know that more management development training alone is not the answer. The Leadership Circle‘s research demonstrates that 70%-80% of managers operate from a reactive mindset. Every manager has their own edge they need to cross over in order to move to a creative mindset, i.e. “being at choice”. The challenge for us as leadership coaches is to support each manager to find their way over that edge and in a way that allows them to connect to their compelling purpose and to their inherent strengths.

The bosses McKinsey speaks of are not toxic people. They are simply behaving in a way that is having a toxic impact. The bosses don’t seek to have a negative impact – they are actually seeking safety. Luckily, people can change their behaviour, particularly when they change their underlying assumptions about the world and their identity. And that matters. Why?

25% of life satisfaction comes from our experience of our work. Bosses just don’t affect work life, they impact your life-life.

Contact us to find out how our leadership coaching can help you or your organisation deliver on purpose.

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