This article was recently featured in Forbes.
Imagine this: It’s 5:00 p.m. on a winter evening, and earlier in the day, one of your co-workers was fired. You are glued to your smartphone as a group discussion unfolds – mostly over Slack – about your colleague, who is also a close friend. Many people share opinions and comments, some quite critical. Most are off-the-cuff, out-of-context venting offered “in the spirit” of transparency, a company value. All in all, the conversation sounds more like high school gossip.
So, how does this impact the company? Has the culture become one of learning and reflection or one of fear? Is the emphasis on “transparency” creating inspired employees or empowered critics?
Driven largely by societal forces like #MeToo and #TimesUp, companies today are under increasing pressure to be transparent, inclusive, open, and equal. With social media shining a spotlight on these issues and the public demanding accountability, the business world is being put on notice that their cultural norms must better reflect society’s humanistic aspirations.
The Dilemma Of Unintended Consequences
Many corporations are responding by articulating new ideals (e.g., transparency, inclusivity) that they expect their leaders to implement and their employees to embrace. But in the absence of emotionally mature qualities like compassion and connection, these same values and behaviors can have a highly counterproductive shadow. For instance, candor and authenticity, in the hands of someone without awareness and great emotional maturity, can become a license for honest outbursts. Inclusivity, taken too far, can turn businesses into democracies. Radical transparency, in situations of inappropriate behavior, can become harmful to all parties as discretion, privacy, and due process are set aside.
Take Netflix, which has received press for its agonizingly specific 360-degree feedback and application of a “keeper” test, in which managers ask themselves if they would fight to keep certain team members. With ritualistic and regular firings of employees, this kind of extreme transparency and accountability can create an environment of fear and hyper-criticality, which undermines the very qualities the policy is seeking to promote.
Don’t get me wrong, radical transparency offers many benefits: People feel like their opinions matter. It helps build trust, and it can incentivize employees to work harder. But when placed in the hands of insecure or emotionally immature people, it can be distorted and weaponized with devastating consequences.
In an effort to find more open and honest ways of operating, many companies are writing value statements, articulating aspirational behaviors and posting them on their websites, and expecting their employees to understand how to live them. But the values that this “glass house” environment demands are not easy for most people to adopt, and in many ways, run counter to our natural tendencies to identify risk and avoid danger.
The challenge for modern leaders is to embrace transparency, appreciate multiple points of view, and communicate with authenticity and candor — all while taking full accountability for their own behavior. But this is easier said than done and requires an exceptional amount of introspection and emotional maturity.
Unfortunately, most people confuse emotional maturity with its more popular cousin, emotional intelligence (known as EI or EQ), which is often discussed as a necessary ingredient of effective leadership. A high EQ requires someone to have the ability to identify emotions in themselves and others and be able to articulate and adapt them as appropriate to a specific situation or interaction. Emotional maturity involves a level of self-awareness wherein people are not controlled by their emotions even when they are triggered. People who have a high degree of emotional maturity take accountability for their behaviors and refrain from placing blame. Emotional maturity goes beyond simply identifying emotions; it requires that you pause, question, and think before you react.
The relatively realistic scenario at the beginning of this article is a good representation of having a lack of emotional maturity because it showcases the unfiltered way that people communicate through email, text, and social media. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently shared his concerns that “Twitter tends to incentivize outrage, fast takes, short-term thinking, echo chambers, and fragmented conversation.” But is it really incentivizing that behavior? Or rather, is it a reflection of a relatively low level of emotional maturity present in corporate culture today? I would argue that it’s the latter.
The Bottom Line
Most companies still hire, promote, reward, and train with a focus on specific knowledge, hard skills and alignment between competencies and job responsibilities. This kind of development leads to more capable employees but does not enable them to become leaders who can embrace and exhibit the humanistic behavioral aspirations being demanded today.
Real change cannot occur by leveling up on skills. Rather, in order to evolve, leaders need to change the way they think, and that cannot be done by mandate. It has to be developed. In cultures that embrace candor and transparency, the difference between whether someone takes feedback defensively, as data, or as absolute truth largely depends on their awareness of their own attachments, fears, and biases, and a better understanding of how they play out in their interactions with others.
At its core, a humanistic culture requires an understanding that we all struggle with the same realities, and that to be human is to be imperfect. There is ample evidence that diversity, inclusion, and transparency are directly correlated with high-quality decision making and ultimately business performance. But this requires that companies invest heavily in the developmental maturity of their leaders so that when asked to hold inclusion and “distinct points of view” in concert, these individuals have the compassion, maturity, balance, and boundaries to do so.
Companies that enable their employees to build the emotional maturity and self-awareness required will yield massive gains, not only in the efficacy and well-being of their leaders and their teams, but also in the bottom-line business results they produce.