Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Incivility and the misunderstanding of leadership

Most of my posts are organized around a question.  This one, though, has a thesis--that a particular variety of incivility is based on the misunderstanding of leadership, both on the part of the uncivil person and the person on the receiving end of the incivility.

Consider this story on NPR today.  The election season is on us bringing attack ads with it.  These ads have many characteristics--the ominous voice-over, the melodrama, and the half-true claims about one candidate or another.  But they also share a particular view of leadership--that a person in elected office somehow causes the events that happen during her/his term of service.

This view of leadership--leader as the cause of all that occurs--is blasphemous.  It is also a view that exists among the leaders as well as among the led.  So, for example, Presidents claim that they (or their administrations) have caused improving economic conditions when they improve.  And when those conditions do not improve, the President's opponents blame the president for the economic downturn.

That a leader causes something to happen is, in all but the most modest cases, not true.  Even in the case of actions tied closely to the leader--making a decision on a policy, for example,--that leader does not wholly cause something to happen.  The decision is in response to an event or an issue, the leader has received advice (usually contradictory) from others, and the outcome of the decision is rarely as clear or as simple as one might hope.

Why do we persist in the belief that leaders are causal agents?  Because it flatters the biases of leaders and the led, because it give free rein to pride rather than humility, because it suggests an explicable world, and because it allows all participants to avoid taking responsibility for the things they actually are responsible for.

A bit more on this last point: incivility is a form of rhetoric, the purpose of which is to limit concrete responses to concrete problems.  Incivility is at its core symbolic--it signals to listeners that they should behave a certain way, or draw certain conclusions on the basis of signs, not signifiers.  So incivility is closer to protest and parade than it is to deliberation or argument.

In this sort of setting, how does one take responsibility?  It is almost impossible.  The leader cannot accept responsibility, for she has been charged with all manner of things that she could not possibly have caused.  And the incivil one cannot take responsibility, for to do so is to undermine the entire thesis of the uncivil act.  After all, if the leader did not cause the whole thing, then the complainer must bear some responsibility as well.

Leaders and complainers both would do well to practice humility in the face of the temptation to be the cause of all things.  And educators would do well to work with students and colleagues on the problems of causation.  Doing so makes it possible for leaders and complainers to bear responsibility for the small things for which we truly can be responsible.  And it allows us to honestly recognize what we all know--that most occurrences are beyond the control of any person, leader or complainer.


Anonymous said...

Gary, there are lots of interesting ideas in this posting. I think your comments are mainly directed toward leadership in a public/political arena, but I’d like to share two observations with you, both of which center on organizational leadership. (Sorry for the length of this response, but I’ve thought a lot about your arguments and didn’t want to oversimplify. I've divided the comment into two segments.)

PART I: Your comment that leaders are not causal agents reminds me of Meindl’s (1987) “Romance of Leadership” perspective. Meindl argued that people have a tendency to overestimate the impact leaders have on organizational performance, and to minimize or ignore other factors such as resources, employees, the economy, or luck. Many people romanticize leaders, claimed Meindl, particularly in response to extreme results; when organizational outcomes are very good or very bad, the leader is the one who is praised or blamed. This perspective makes a lot of sense to me; sometimes leaders’ choices are so constrained that they can’t influence organizational outcomes much at all—but they are held responsible nonetheless.

On the other hand, there is plenty of research showing that leaders do matter a great deal in organizations. Stock prices rise and fall as CEOs are hired and fired (Oracle’s stock price rose sharply last week after Mark Hurd was hired, for example), and leaders make strategic decisions that can significantly impact organizational results. A leader can strongly influence an organization’s values and culture as well as the thoughts, feelings and actions of followers. In an article published in the Strategic Management Journal, Macky (2008) found that a firm’s CEO explained 29% of the variance in firm performance—far more than corporate factors (8%), and industry factors (6%). A study by Wasserman and his colleagues (2001) indicated that the choice of a new CEO had as much impact on a firm’s performance as the choice of whether to stay in the same industry or compete in a new one, and in some circumstances (e.g., when opportunities are scarce and resources are plentiful), organizational leadership is absolutely crucial.

So, although I agree that leaders are often held solely responsible for outcomes that are beyond their control, there is a lot of evidence to indicate that a leader’s behavior can greatly impact organizational results, both positively and negatively. In other words, organizational leaders often are causal agents. If I believed otherwise, I’d probably go into another line of work!

Anonymous said...

PART II: I was intrigued by the following arguments in your posting: If a leader is perceived as solely responsible for all organizational outcomes, then members of the organization don’t feel responsible for negative results. And, if a leader is viewed as the cause of all that is bad, incivility toward that leader may seem entirely appropriate. (I hope I got the gist of your arguments right.) These points make sense, and it’s obvious that leaders can’t improve organizations on their own . . . but I would argue that leaders themselves often exacerbate the problems of irresponsibility and incivility among the members of organizations.

Leaders can influence perceptions of responsibility, because through their behavior, leaders signal who is responsible for decisions and consequences. I would argue that a leader who refuses to seek advice, does not seriously consider the input he or she is given, fails to delegate meaningful tasks, and insists on making all decisions is far more likely to have followers who do not feel responsible for outcomes. The research on shared leadership in organizations seems to support this conclusion: When leadership is shared with others, responsibility for outcomes also tends to be shared. Shared leadership seems to work particularly well in complex organizations in which creativity is needed and people must work interdependently. This explains why self-leadership has been successful in organizations as diverse as W.L. Gore & Associates, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Brick Avon Academy and the Math and Science Leadership Academy (teacher-led elementary schools in Newark and Denver), and the GE jet engine facility in Durham, North Carolina. So, when leaders in these types of organizations ask others to participate meaningfully in decision making, felt responsibility is likely to be distributed more evenly throughout an organization.

Reducing incivility is a little trickier, in my view, because incivility is less a product of leadership actions than it is a reflection of cultural mores. Nevertheless, through their actions leaders do communicate the level of incivility that is acceptable. I would argue that a leader (1) who personally displays incivility, (2) who witnesses incivility without expressing disapproval, and (3) who chooses to promote, praise or otherwise reinforce those who engage in incivility is communicating that incivility is acceptable and that those who display it will be rewarded. These leadership actions create an environment in which incivility flourishes.

It does seem reasonable to assume that there is a connection between felt responsibility and incivility. The cynicism and procedural justice literatures suggest that people become cynical when they perceive that a trust has been violated, believe they do not have a voice, and feel powerless to influence organizational events. Again, leaders may be able to increase responsibility and reduce cynicism and incivility by asking members of their organizations to participate in important decisions, and by sharing responsibility (both praise and blame) for the outcome of those decisions.

So, although I agree that leaders cannot cause all events, I think it’s clear that leaders can strongly influence outcomes and the way those outcomes are achieved in organizations. I would offer two hypotheses. (1) In business organizations, when leadership is shared rather than tightly controlled at the senior management level, felt responsibility is more likely to be distributed throughout the organization. (2) When members of an organization feel responsible for outcomes, they will approach problem solving more productively, making cynicism and incivility less likely. I think there might be a paper in there somewhere.

Thanks for taking the time to write such interesting postings! This blog always provides food for thought.