Infallibility: A dangerous role to play

Hamlet and YorickAt times the world of business can be likened to a stage show where the script is written and the actors are expected to dutifully play the role they are hired to play.   While there is some room for creative license the broad boundaries within which the roles must be played are dictated.  To deviate outside of these expectations is to risk being cast aside and replaced by someone willing to more closely follow the Director’s orders.

Often based on tradition or outdated beliefs about what it means to behave professionally and succeed in business, some expectations add little value and in fact undermine our ability to get the best from people at work.   Just some of the many examples I observe include the expectations that people:

  • Be seen to be investing long hours working hard – rather than focusing on whether or not they get the job done and how efficiently they are able to do that.
  • Comply with highly regulated patterns of working that include inflexible start, break and finish times.
  • Rigidly conform to conservative dress codes that stifle authenticity and honest self-expression.  Personal pride and respectable standards should always be reflected in the way we dress at work, but I’m yet to hear one good reason men should have to wear neck ties or why business suits need to be the norm

Suit and tieAmong the most dangerous expectations placed on people in business is that of infallibility.  In many organisations, success is in part defined by our ability to be strong, unwavering in our reliability, and firm in our dependability. It’s alarming how often I meet people who are desperately struggling to maintain a façade of strength, hiding the stress, anxiety, confusion, exhaustion, fear and insecurity they are really feeling. The ability to ‘ hold it together’ and cope with unrelenting stress and pressure are often seen by these people and the leaders they work for, as the traits that enable their success.

Desperate to cling to control and protect their credibility some people retreat, building defensive walls between themselves and other people. Petrified of allowing anyone to see the extent to which they are struggling they often fail to get the help they need.  And so begins a ticking time bomb that all too often leads to serious and at times fatal health problems.  If my experiences are a reflection of the broader community, there are people in businesses everywhere who desperately want to cry but are too scared to.  So they drink alcohol, take drugs or have affairs instead.

Drinking at work 2Recently my colleague Tom shared an article with me that looked at the growing prevalence of drug and alcohol problems among business professionals.   The article reported John Ryan, chief executive of Lucid as saying “The rhythm of work is intensifying and there is no doubt some people use chemicals, for example alcohol and anti-anxiety prescription drugs, which are incredibly widely prescribed throughout Australia, to calm down after a stressful day and others are using them to prolong their productivity”.

Creating a workplace culture that makes it OK for people to be open and honest about how they feel, is the starting point to combating this growing problem.  Only then can we expect people to put their hand up when they are struggling and to ask for the help they need.  We need to create environments in which people are not only encouraged, but also expected to ask for the support they need in order to cope with the demands of their role.

Recharge the batteryCompassion, trust and respect are all necessary if we are to support people to find more solid ground and get through when things get tough at work. Allow for imperfection and give people reasonable time to move past disappointment, to get over frustrations, to work through emotional baggage.  Give people the time off they need to recharge their battery and balance their work and home life.  Give people time to ‘get it together’ while maintaining your faith in them and their ability to succeed.

See humanity in business and accept that people are not perfect and they are not always strong.  Lead with compassion and support people to grow and learn through their experiences at work.  When things go wrong help them to see the lessons and move on with optimism and wisdom.   Guide people to becoming the best possible version of themselves by embracing and learning from their experiences.  Allow them to be fallible and encourage people to accept and appreciate that they are.


2 thoughts on “Infallibility: A dangerous role to play

  1. Great post. You’re absolutely right. I see this problem in the military as well. As leaders we know perfectly well that we don’t have all the answers, but we feel compelled to play the part of the “infallible” leader for the sake of the “people”. When you’re talking bombs and bullets, that’s the sort of thing that gets people killed.

    • Thanks for your comment James! It’s an important reminder that at times effective leadership really can be a matter of life and death. I sincerely hope our senior military leaders understand that challenge and are doing everything in their power to support the men and women leading out troops!

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