Available for Interviews: Dara Barlin
Dara Barlin is the Founder & CEO of the Center for Transforming Culture and the author of the new book, A New Kind of Power: Using Human-Centered Leadership to Drive Innovation, Equity, and Belonging in Government Institutions.
What Dara Barlin Can say in an interview on
Addressing Poor Workplace Culture and How to Fix It:
There’s a saying in many corporate settings: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The now-famous line by management guru Peter Drucker suggests that no matter how smart or compelling a company’s strategy, if trust is low and employees are feeling disengaged, those strategies won’t be successful. In fact, research suggests outcomes will be woefully diminished in terms of quality of work, productivity, innovation—and even the bottom line will suffer. So why aren’t more leaders running to address the issue by focusing on enhancing workplace culture? The answers aren’t always intuitive. Here are the five reasons leaders fail to do:
- They don’t see it. This is the most obvious of the reasons. They’ve been promoted out of the problem, so they often don’t even know there are issues making employees feel undervalued and frustrated. The biggest culprit of the issue is that most employees don’t feel safe telling their bosses when they are unhappy or upset. This is because most of us learn early in our professional careers that if our bosses are engaging in problematic behavior, we should bite our tongue. This conventional wisdom says that if we tell our bosses when we are annoyed by anything related to their leadership style, it could damage the relationship and lead to worse assignments, lost opportunities for promotion, or even put our jobs at risk. Better to just stick with gritting teeth and pushing through. But this reinforces the problem. If bosses don’t know there’s a problem, there’s no way they can fix it.
- They have reduced empathy for those below them. This isn’t a universal dig on all leaders. It is a natural human reaction to power. The more power we accrue in an organization (i.e. the higher the level of position) the less likely we are to care about those people underneath. Science suggests that the area related to empathy in the brain literally atrophies. That makes sense because empathy originated in humans as a means for collaboration. In other words, if one group of cavepeople needed tools and another needed shelter, empathy for the other perspective was what allowed sharing to take place and allyship to take hold. But in a modern organization, a boss literally doesn’t need to share (beyond salary) to get their needs met. They can just make demands of their staff and it’s done. So unless managers create systems or take explicit steps to maintain their empathy muscle, it is more likely to fade away.
- They are unclear on how to address the issues. There are myriads of leadership guides and books on management extolling the virtues of creating high-trust environments. However, in most cases where culture is toxic, bosses have no idea how to apply that information to their context. Most bosses are feeling overwhelmed themselves, and there are very few opportunities for networking or coaching that focus explicitly on how to use soft skills to foster collaborative and inspiring work environments. So instead of addressing the issues directly, it’s easier to ignore them and hope they work themselves out. And because of #1 described above, that tactic generally works.
- They uphold the stigma of seeking and valuing soft skills. Stigma exists and keeps people from learning how to address the issues. While soft skills are gaining steam in professional settings as the sine qua non of leadership qualities, it is still thought of by many as a weakness. People roll their eyes at the mention of it, make Kumbaya or “warm and fuzzy” jokes about it, and scoff at people who prioritize it. It is seen as the opposite of the powerful alpha-male attitude which is found in many top offices. Unfortunately, this creates shame-mentality which means that leaders who might otherwise choose to learn about and apply soft skills to their management style are scared to do so for fear of ridicule among peers or reduced chances for promotion. It’s easier just to ignore the issue than feel isolated by one’s community.
- They are not receptive to the idea of a culture survey. Some bosses may get defensive if you bring up the idea of a team culture survey right away. But if brought up with an action plan and in a supportive way, this could be very effective. However, if brought up in a confrontational way, or even by employees with low trust, it could be inferred that employees are out to expose and *get* the boss. That’s a terrifying concept, especially because of #4 above, and may make some bristles. However, if you bring up the concept in a way that feels honoring of all the ways they are a good boss first, and suggest a team approach—where everyone works together to create an action plan to improve the culture—that’s an easier pill to swallow and may get better results. It’s also the truth. While leaders have a major role in shaping culture, it takes a village of people willing to commit to honesty and effective communication, to build a truly high-performing team culture.
Ultimately, there are a lot of reasons why bosses don’t seek to address team culture. But there is a growing awareness that ‘workplace culture blindness’ is a contributing factor of labor shortages and has a huge negative impact on organizational success. Those willing to take the plunge into the world of soft skills and human-centered leadership can turn this trend around. It starts with a culture survey and action plan but ultimately leads to bosses and direct reports working together to create inspiring environments to work.
Interview: Dara Barlin
Dara Barlin is an international bestselling author and the CEO of the Center for Transforming Culture. She has over 20 years of experience partnering with organizations to support innovation and positive change through Human-Centered Leadership. Dara’s research has been featured in the United Nations, U.S. Congress, Women in Government, and Harvard Education Spotlight Series. She has written numerous articles on how to inspire creative solutions on global issues for the World Policy Journal, Huffington Post, and Education Week. Her Kaleidoscope Method for community engagement has been touted as “the best ever seen” by White House leaders, state legislators, and UN officials. In 2012, she led a global campaign that helped to develop trust and a common blueprint for positive change across 97 countries. Dara has a Master’s with honors in Public Policy from the London School of Economics and graduated Magna Cum Laude from Barnard College.
Barlin is the author of the new book, A New Kind of Power: Using Human-Centered Leadership to Drive Innovation, Equity, and Belonging in Government Institutions.
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