An Executive Director of a non-profit with a large staff presented herself to me as “the one that says ‘no’ to everyone,” accepting that others would not like her because of that. She didn’t conceive of her role as the one making things possible for everyone. I didn’t see any evidence in our conversation that she could envision a collaborative relationship with the staff, where they decide together what makes sense and is doable within the budget.
One day I walked into a room to have a mediation with two high level executives. As soon as I was in the room, it became apparent that they had been told by the CEO to schedule this meeting with me and had no idea about its purpose. They themselves had long resolved the issue that the mediation was supposed to be about. They shrugged their shoulders when we all found out what had happened. When I invited them to ask the CEO about this, to give her the feedback, to tell her why it didn’t work for them, they were incredulous. Why would they want to do that? It wasn’t so important, they both agreed, and, besides, she is the boss, and she gets to decide. It was their job to do what the boss wants. While I hear this comment at all levels in the organizations I serve, I was particularly surprised to hear it at the top level of an organization, from people who are in positions of primary leadership. Even there, they do not feel comfortable standing up to their boss.
Last week I canceled a class I had scheduled called “Hearing and Saying ‘no’ in the Workplace” because only 3 people had signed up. Almost to the one, the people in positions of leadership I have worked with, speak of collaboration and yet are committed to the fundamental principle that they get to decide. The practice and goal of collaborative leadership is rarely embraced. I have had no difficulty over the years in getting leaders to recognize, in the abstract, that getting people to do things because the leader has power, not because the person understands the purpose of what’s being asked and is on board with it, backfires. This understanding notwithstanding, almost all the leaders I have worked with expect, either explicitly or implicitly, that they have final decision making power, and that the people that report to them are expected to go along with their decisions.
As I am writing this piece, however, I am discouraged and perplexed. If the people at the top are ultimately reluctant to collaborate with the people with less power, and those with less power, even at the highest levels within an organization, are reluctant to speak up, to challenge their bosses, or to speak up in a group for what matters to them in the face of disagreement, how will the day ever come when enough of us operate collaboratively in the service of practical, material needs such as producing goods or services that all of us depend on?