Cancer begins when the inner workings of one cell goes wrong. This leads to abnormal cell growth that then spreads to other cells. While cancer can be a deadly disease, early detection can dramatically improve your chances of survival.
Sadly, when leaders struggle with poor performance in their organizations, they fail to use early detection practices that would help them identify the root causes of poor performance. Often, the “cancerous behaviors” originate with senior leaders.
Let’s look at one example:
You’re sitting in a meeting where a number of important decisions will be taken. As you look around the room, you see people glancing at their phones under the table, trying to conceal the fact that they aren’t really present in the meeting.
“What’s our rule on using phones during the meeting?” you asked. Suddenly everyone looks your way.
“My salespeople need me, I’ve got to be online”, the VP of sales pleads.
“I’m not doing emails, I’m taking notes and this way I can be more efficient,” the head of manufacturing states.
“I thought we agreed that we wouldn’t use phones or computers during these meetings” you say.
“Our board members are constantly checking their phones when they are with us,” someone interjects, “why should we be any different?”
This is the cell where the cancerous behavior begins. The board members, because they are either flushed with power, suffering from a lack of presence or simply don’t exhibit the discipline they expect of others, are producing cancerous behaviors that degrade the quality of meetings throughout the organization. This behavior is not difficult to change, yet nobody in the organization wants to give the “early detection feedback” to the executive board members. It’s a behavior when viewed in isolation that appears harmless. As this behavior begins to multiple, attention, decision making and the ability to drive results, suffer.
Here are two additional examples of cancerous behaviors that destroy performance.
Someone comes to you with the idea to optimize an important process in your business. In your eagerness, you suggest additional ideas that you think this team member should consider before moving ahead. Whose idea is it now? Not the person that came to you; it has become your idea and the commitment level drops, performance suffers and your good intentions have directly impacted personal initiative and ownership of someone else’s idea.
Speed in your organization is suffering because unseen silos have developed between business functions. You, as the senior leader, recognize that people are speaking negatively about people from a different function. It’s a casual conversation around the coffee table, yet you realize when you walk away that you didn’t step in and insist that they work out their cross functional differences. In fact, you mildly laughed when people in your function were putting down people in another function. It’s now too late, but you see that it was a moment of truth that you didn’t seize. You are the cancerous cell.
Senior leaders must remember that they are the moral and performance barometer for their organization. Everything they say and do has a direct impact on their company’s performance. This is not to suggest that leaders should walk around trying to be perfect. Effective leadership is about success, not perfection. When senior leaders realize that the higher in the organization they sit, the less likely they are to get “early detection” feedback, the more sensitive and self-aware they need to become.
Here are three ways that you can catch cancerous leadership behaviors early and move your company to the high road of performance:
- Ask your direct reports (and your leadership peers), what’s the one thing that you could start doing or stop doing that would enable them to do their work more effectively? It’s a simple question and can open huge possibilities for breakthrough performance.
- Create a code of conduct or standards of excellence that your leadership team agrees to abide by. Develop attractive incentives for upholding these standards and insist on consequences when a standard is not practiced. (In an earlier life I was often late for meetings and my boss started to charge me $100 for my late arrivals. It cost me almost $500 before I got the message and now, 30 years later, you can count on me to be on time.)
- Don’t allow negative gossip to seep through the halls of your business. Remember, you are one company, segmented in different functions, to bring value to your market and customers. It’s amazing how many senior leaders will jump on the negative band wagon or passively watch these messages poison a collaborative environment. There is no place for cancerous behaviors in a high performing organization so hold yourself, and others in your leadership team to high performance behaviors, not cancerous ones.
We’ve learned that early detection practices can stop cancer. What are you doing, as a senior leader to ensure that you and your senior leadership team are behaving in ways that contribute positively to your company’s performance culture?