“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.” ~Marian Anderson
Green building has come a long way since the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) building standard, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), took hold about a decade ago. As the market transformed and more bold standards were realized, working towards the creation of truly sustainable buildings and neighborhoods proved to be an effective way to tackle our current environmental crisis. Yet, there’s still much work left to do and many voices to be represented. Until we are able to provide a heightened level of respect within our immediate circles and organizations and begin to truly start “walking the talk”, we will surely fail in our attempt to “save the world”.
The story I am about to tell is nothing new, and it repeats itself across boardrooms and cubicles every day. Workers are unhappy, from assembly lines to classrooms and office parks to city halls. You’d be hard pressed to look for business books without running smack dab into dense offerings on leadership, organizational improvement through narrative (a la Let My People Go Surfing) and explorations of overcoming workplace politics and angst. The book that has recently resonated with me the most is “The No Asshole Rule” by Bob Sutton.
Sutton, a professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Business School, as well as a professor of Engineering there, has dealt with his fair share of assholes, as he describes in his thought-provoking book. Sutton makes a comprehensive and solid argument for how assholes cost organizations, from lost productivity to the real costs of having an asshole on board. So much so, that many highly successful organizations – like Google and Zappos – have instituted the “no asshole rule”, requiring new hires to agree by signing on the dotted line. This deliberate act often ensures that unsavory behavior is not exhibited in the first place, and sends a message that if it is, it will not be tolerated. (Sutton warns, though, that simply acting as if you have this policy but not enforcing it, is worse than not having the policy at all).
So, are you, or is someone you love, a certified asshole? Admittedly, we have all exhibited the characteristics of an asshole from time-to-time. Try as we might, we all do the best that we can with the skills that we have in order to get by in this world, but often fall short of our aspirations. And that’s totally acceptable as we yearn to better ourselves. But I’m talking about certified assholes; individuals who allow their insecurities, bullying, and abuse of power to run amok, unchecked, ultimately infecting everyone around them with their noxious gases.
Suttons’ “dirty dozen list of everyday asshole actions” includes personal insults, rude interruptions, two-faced attacks, and treating people as if they are invisible, along with other highly repugnant behavior.
Sadly, the personality exhibited by this “dirty dozen” list paints the picture of an unhappy individual working from a place of pain and fear. The pain of feeling less than, or inferior, and the fear of being rejected and unloved. It’s an incredibly sad situation, and one that deserves immediate, sincere attention. More often than not, though, these sometimes subtle behaviors are never addressed.
I would know. My former boss isn’t a certified asshole, per se, but when I take the quiz to assess whether or not she fits the description, she “passes” the test with flying colors. Almost every question on that list is something she would answer yes to, if she were able to be brutally honest with herself.
Neither she, nor the organization that continues to celebrate her talents and promote her behavior, are unable to look at this bleak situation honestly, which is too bad. Because I believe that she could learn to address her wheelbarrow full of baggage, refocus her energies onto her many talents, and remove her incredible insecurities and scorn so that, ultimately, her gifts and the gifts of her peers could take center stage. Sadly, the organization seems ever positioned to stroke her ailing ego, thus nurturing her willingness to put her work first – above all else – ensuring that the leaders continue to shine, no matter the cost. Ultimately, this has helped to diminish the input of colleagues who offer alternate solutions or challenge the leadership in any way.
I used to imagine how our relationship could have been different if my former boss weren’t always competing with me and her colleagues. How it might help solve daily problems if she was willing to truly mentor and share her knowledge and talent, rather than speak down to her subordinates and make them feel lousy most of the time. Unfortunately, her willingness to work constantly outrageous hours (while wearing it as a badge of honor, of course), along with her incredible ability to produce, has enabled the organization to turn a blind eye to the serious problems that exist with her management “style”.
If the incredibly basic needs of respect and collaboration can’t even be met at a respected, progressive non-profit working towards tranforming the built environment and beyond, how then will we traverse from our current state to an enlightened one where truly sustainable goals can be realized? How, pray tell, will the requirements of transparency that are expected of manufacturers and industry be met when a small non-profit veils its upper-level decisions and overall day-to-day operations in a thick cloud of secrecy and deception? This Machiavellian approach to “transforming” the built environment will no doubt result in a place only fit for a Prince.
Imagine a truly professional environment, where an organization helps to support the “asshole” so that she can heal herself. This path would help to begin the “detoxification” of the group, allowing it and its employees to focus on the work at hand, rather than rewarding asshole behavior with promotions, more power, and more people to manage and infect with one’s own toxicity. These progressive values, so often expressed as a base level requirement in mission based/non-profit environments, is especially important to achieve, if only for the sake of not being so ironically contradicting.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen first hand the realities on the ground, and our collective hope of reshaping business-as-usual is currently falling far short from our ideals. We must nurture and respect the input of all involved, ESPECIALLY those on the front lines doing the hard work, rather than merely giving lip service to such a thing, ever maintaining the upper echelon of our beloved top-down models. We must put to death our fear-based proclamations of propriety, recognition, and entitlement. Then, and only then, will we begin the transformation, finally shedding the cocoon that protects the outdated, inaccurate view of reality that so many collectively, desperately cling to.