Thursday, September 17, 2015

Corruption Rarely Begins As Corruption And Other Lessons

I have a friend who just completed his 24 months as a resident of TROSA in Durham, a best practice treatment center for substance abuse.

Now he is a post grad for a month or two before he walks the stage in their next quarterly graduation ceremony.  As is true for many graduates, the program has had a profound impact on the life of this individual.

I’ve known about TROSA and been friends with its founder from its inception, but I’ve observed even more about why the program has been so successful as I have participated in some events over the past two years.

It takes two years, not just to kick bad habits, but to drill down to the triggers behind them, and most of all, to inculcate values and coping mechanisms including not just work ethic but how to work with others.

These include techniques for conflict resolution and emotional control.  One that is particularly important in the program is zero tolerance for failing to disclose something that is awry, even if you weren’t involved, even if was for a good reason.

TROSA understands that corruption rarely begins as corruption.

It may even be a means to a good end as United Airlines executives recently learned the hard way.

As Dr. Dan Ariely who also calls Durham home, along with his colleagues including Harvard’s Dr. Francesca Gino have shown, “simply seeing another person cheat can lead us to cheat, even if we care about being honest.”

TROSA understands that even omission of acknowledgment is contagious and leads to a slippery slope.

The organization is famous for its entrepreneurial approach.  It’s is too bad one of them isn’t offering workforce and leadership training to businesses and agencies on accountability and the importance of speaking up.

But as Dr. Gino notes in a Harvard Business Review post this week, “Behavior can be contagious even when it’s simply described in a story.”

Stories of people, especially low-level employees, who uphold organizational values is a particularly effective means of “onboarding” new hires especially when it comes to orientations regarding ethics.

In my former life, I saw otherwise good people in each of the communities I represented who always seemed to be dogged by stories of corruption.

What they had in common was the way they made decisions, usually based on “who was asking” for something rather than a strategy of fairness and consistency.

I never felt this shadow on their reputation was deserved but the behaviors that brought it about often made it difficult to work with them as strategic partners because they were always asking me to subtly cross the line.

They never saw themselves that way.

But really, none of us do.

As Dr. Gino wrote in here excellent book entitled, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, we all have “a rose-colored view of who we are and what we do, and we aim to behave in ways that are consistent with our self-image as capable, competent, helpful, and honest individuals.”

The book deals with forces from within, forces from our relationships and forces from the outside, “factors that characterize the context in which we operate and make decisions.

It’s a good book, as is Ariely’s entitled, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.

I always found myself considered a pariah by the “who’s asking” types who would in each of the communities I represented, ultimately make it their objective to recruit as many others around me to their way of thinking, hoping that the isolation would make me give in, or at the very least get me fired.

While holding firm to strategic decision-making about what was best for these communities, I always made doubly certain that our organization gave them every service we were capable of giving while remaining authentic.

But I also owe becoming a better and better leader over the years to these people.  Just because they were wrong doesn’t make them stupid or wrong about everything.

I became the CEO of a destination marketing organization at a very young age, twenty-six, so until the day I retired I viewed myself as a work in progress.

Trying to be rigidly authentic or true to yourself can, if you are not careful, also keep you from evolving.

This all made more sense to me looking back as I read an article a few months ago by Dr. Herminia Ibarra, formerly of Harvard, now professor of organizational behavior at Instead, The Business School for the World, entitled The Authenticity Paradox.

The reputation I earned over four decades was all about change.  I may have led three DMOs but they literally evolved weekly - if not daily - so in essence I led about 1,700 different organizations.

My personal “authenticity paradox” was learning that building consensus for ideas and values among stakeholders in a community can feel, well, more than a bit slimy and political but it can still be data-driven and strategic.

During my career I was intrigued when I was frequently credited with grit, resilience and perseverance so when I come across research into those traits, I try to read carefully.

Based on recent research at The Ohio State University, grit and perseverance in the face of repeated obstacles and even failure arise when an individual is able to generalize from successful past success while still learning from failures.

People who can learn to do this stand out from those who have the appearance of grit but are betrayed by perpetually needing to self aggrandize, making them particularly vulnerable to “who’s asking” decision makers.

The latter may have learned grit but their perseverance masks an otherwise negative self-image, thus the self aggrandizement.

Researchers have found that losing is actually good for us.  People who self aggrandize are put off or threatened by participating in “post mortems” after a projects, something which I adapted from EST training or a Ken Blanchard seminar in the early 1980s.

During post mortems, some people literally can’t or won’t shift gears from “what worked” to “what didn’t work,” no matter how safe and blameless you make them.

Often this is because they have issues with accountability or accepting responsibility but it can also be because they have never learned the values of introspection and curiosity which research by the authors of The Innovator’s DNA found are indicative of a rare blend of humility and confidence.

Possibly this is due to the stories they were told as children, which in the words of Seth Godin, “matter far more than we imagine.”

Values imprint by observation or patterning from birth to age 7, then from modeling or identification until age 13, including making our own value decisions, then from socialization with peers until we’re age 20.

People who can’t admit, let alone learn from failure or even admit “what didn’t work” in an otherwise successful transaction were probably told stories along the way that led them to believe that success came from fixed states, making them vulnerable to “who’s asking.”

Learning from failure and even success, on the other hand, are investments in continuing and never ending improvement rather than chalking it up to fixed states.

The difference is between looking good and actually being good, the essence of authenticity.

These are things TROSA understands – teaches and applies – so beautifully.

New values can be learned after the age of 20 but it is very hard and usually occurs with a significant emotional crisis such as facing up to addiction.

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