Treachery, Trust, And Courage: How To Avoid Organizational Hell

We’ll become better leaders by visiting hell.

Not literally, of course. But let’s journey there alongside the medieval poet Dante. He’ll remind us how a heavenly virtue can supercharge teams, and how a hellish vice could destroy your organization.

Many of us know just enough about Dante’s Inferno for a cocktail party bluff. Dante descends through nine circles of hell, each ghastly ring housing a particular species of sinner: the gluttons in circle three, for example, and the greedy in circle four.

And who populates hell’s lowest circle? Maybe tyrants who launched slaughter-filled wars of conquest? Nope. The nadir of the hellish heap are the treacherous, those who betrayed their kin, country, or, worst of all, God (Think Judas Iscariot).

Were medieval Dante to return, he would find that we modern corporate animals perpetrate our own sorts of treacheries. Every large organization, for example, suffers at least a few back-stabbers who badmouth or undermine colleagues, or who take credit for others’ ideas, or who play office politics by fomenting tribal rivalries that pit work teams against each other. Such soul-deadening behavior has hellish organizational consequences: productivity erodes, employees become alienated and unhappy, and so on.

In contrast, when leaders can engender high levels of trust and team loyalty, productivity soars, as the research makes clear. Hence, trust building is not a “nice to do” for touchy-feely managers but a key priority for any leader who cares about productivity and results.

The building blocks of trust are straightforward: be transparent and honest, communicate clearly and often, treat others consistently and equitably. But maintaining a commitment to trust-building takes guts: It’s far easier to babble empty corporate-speak and hide in one’s office than to engage team members frankly about the convulsions that roil most organizations nowadays, like strategy reversals, “rightsizing” initiatives, or the uncertainty caused by disruptive competitors.

And even the leader committed to fostering trust and loyalty soon realizes that not all loyalty is good. As we journey alongside Dante into the very lowest circles of corporate hell, we shudder to find corrupted “loyalty” figuring into the very worst malfeasance: the financial and accounting chicanery that decimated both Enron and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, for example, or the fraud and outright thievery that doomed Tyco, or the gross negligence manifested in peddling toxic mortgage derivatives that wrecked the global economy.

All these and many more disasters were enabled by a malevolent form of trust and loyalty. Individuals knew or suspected that something was not quite right yet kept their mouths shut. Once the kingpins of these frauds realized that colleagues wouldn’t blow the whistle, they became emboldened to double down on their villainy.

The colleagues who chose not to “betray” their scoundrel bosses were presumably motivated by a go-along-to-get-ahead loyalty. But by their complicit silence, they betrayed something far more profound: the values and moral principles that undergird every reputable company, values like truth telling, and the commitment to serve stakeholders rather than rip them off. Jamie Dimon, the Chairman & CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co, once put it this way: “Loyalty should be to the principles for which someone stands and to the institution: Loyalty to an individual frequently is another form of cronyism.”

Medieval Dante knew nothing of accounting shenanigans, but, as it turns out, Dante understood the dilemma facing every employee who becomes aware that fraud or malfeasance may be unfolding within the organization. Dante’s Divine Comedy concerns the struggle between good and evil, and Dante’s journey through hell is a quest for the courage to do good when sorely tempted toward evil.

Courage, deep courage, is exactly what’s needed whenever an anguished colleague faces that horrific choice: “Should I keep my mouth shut and go along with this? Or do I speak up, risking my work relationships and perhaps my career?”

If the ninth circle of corporate hell houses the traitors who engineer corporate malfeasance, then corporate paradise surely includes those who find the courage to speak up when something feels wrong. Managers and boards should do everything they can to find, nurture, and support employees who manifest such heavenly integrity.


via Forbes – Leadership

April 20, 2021 at 06:05PM

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