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When Are Leaders Needed Most?


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Sue had worked for her client as a full-time consultant for nearly 10 years and for the most part she was happy.  She was doing interesting work with people she liked and didn’t have a lot to complain about most days.  Even when a new leadership team was brought in and she was feeling the pinch of their new direction, she continued to be focused on doing good work up until the day she was fired.  

There are far too many people who will deeply understand Sue’s shock and frustration based on their own similar, challenging and unexpected experience.However, this isn’t really Sue’s story.  It’s really about those that remained and felt the shockwaves hit the already tenuous organizational culture head on. 

Back at the office, word started to spread among the other consultants and employees about Sue’s firing.  Information and reassurances about their positions didn’t come from the top and as a result, fear and misinformation quickly spread, like a cancer from an unknown source, and moved through the rumor mill like lightning.  

Fear began to rule the day as everyone began to wait.  They were waiting for someone to acknowledge that this human being, that was more than a seat warmer for nearly a decade, had disappeared.  Unfortunately, the wait was never-ending and eventually people needed to refocus and mask their worry that they’d be tapped on the shoulder next.  That place, where they all gathered to do great work and make a difference, was now a fear factory. 

I’m not going to debate if it was “fair” the Sue was fired, but instead wonder how could she have been fired without a major blow to the organizational culture?

Communication and the Rumor Mill

On the day that Sue came in to collect her things, everyone quietly watched and wondered what was happening.  There were hushed voices whispering everywhere, but no one with authority was in the mix.  The front line was in disarray while the leadership team ignored their growing concern.  Days turned into weeks and it was as if a giant eraser had come out of the sky and inexplicably erased any trace of Sue’s presence. The team tried to pretend that it was business as usual, but the rumor mill was still going strong.  

When are Leaders Needed Most?  What if…

  • The leadership team acknowledged the fear?
  • The leadership team helped people to refocus on the mission?
  • The leadership team touched base with people to coach, mentor and support their continued success?
  • The leadership team shared that it was not the tip of an iceberg of layoffs, but a one-off unique circumstance?

Of course, none of that happened, but the rest of the story is not a huge surprise either. Sue moved on to a new position with a new company and the fear factory settled into a new status quo filled with doubt, eggshells and disengagement.

In the New Reality:

  • Morale dropped to an all-time low.
  • Top talent began to think about leaving.
  • New talent was reluctant to join the organization once the rumor mill spread into the larger community.
  • Innovation was stifled because it would mean the risk of failure, ridicule or worse, job loss.

A positive, productive and powerful organizational culture takes time and intention to build, but can be trashed in a moment.  

When Sue was fired, the status quo shifted and it’s as if the entire team shuffled three steps to the left. Ultimately, it would seem that firing Sue was a message to the rest of the team of consultants and employees: “Stay in line or it’s time to go.”  Harsh, no matter how you hear it, but this time, instead of a tough all-hands meeting, the message was sent through a game of whisper-down-the-lane with no control or appreciation for how the message landed. 

Is it too late to get back on track?  What do you think?  What advice would you give to the leadership team?

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