“The fish stinks from the head.”
This ancient proverb speaks to the role of leadership in creating a dysfunctional and untrustworthy organization. If the employee is disorderly, it is because the manager/leader is so.
Each of us, as employees and members of society, have a little “stink” in us – that is the human condition. But enlightened people own their tendency to manipulate and misrepresent, get to the root of why they do it, and then try to do something about it.
I didn’t learn this lesson until mid-career after I had made a ton of relational mistakes, not only in my personal life, but also in my business life. While it is so obvious to me now, back then I did not realize that everyone was watching how I behaved and then patterning their behavior by the examples I set. Even my kids were doing it.
People who have integrated this thinking into their lives lead some of the most successful companies around the world. They know that if a customer is going to trust their company, they themselves must be trustworthy. This same dynamic applies to non-profits. Donors will trust the trustworthy non-profit. And by “trustworthy,” I mean that the daily practice of the leaders IN the non-profit is one that builds trust.
Here are some signs that a non-profit is untrustworthy:
- Facts are manipulated. There is a great deal of energy expended to gain advantage in the public eye, to watchdog agencies, to employees and to donors. This is all done with a stated rationale that it will “help the cause.” Truth-telling is difficult to find in an organization like this. There is a lot of fact manipulation as relates overhead ratios. Jeff and I have talked quite a bit about this one.
- Lack of consistency in application of policy. A certain “rule” is touted as “how we do things,” but is changed to help a friend of the CEO or the Board Chair or someone else in power escape a bad situation they face. Or a designated donation is accepted for a non-budgeted, non-priority item because a powerful donor insists on doing the work. Or a CEO spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a useless re-model of the offices while cutting pay to lower level employees due to “budget constraints.” You know the routine.
- Withholding information. People who need specific facts to operate effectively are not given the information but expected to perform. There is a culture of secrecy and “need to know.”
- Philosophical or religious bias. A great deal of philosophical or religious values are lifted up as guiding principles, especially related to the just and fair treatment of people, but violated every day in practice. I’ve seen so much of this it makes me sick – a leader waxing eloquently about how we “must respect and care for our good employees,” but then turning around and hurting them.
- The organization does not tolerate and encourage mistakes – We all know that mistakes are the true path to success. Every leader, every manager, every person that has tried anything knows that nothing is accomplished in life without multiple attempts to figure out the best path. The ratio of mistakes to final success is enormous. The ratio of new product ideas to final launch of a new product is about 1,200:1. It takes 1,200 “failures” to get to success. But sadly, in many non-profits, the leaders and managers either do not know this or do not allow it. So employees are punished for mistakes. There is a culture of fear in the organization.
- There is a cost vs. an opportunity orientation – it is about protection vs. possibility. I know of one instance where the leader of a $6 million dollar organization eliminated one copy machine in order to save money. One – not several – just one. And he did it in a department that heavily uses copy machines. This is the same man that will spend over $300,000 on a pet project which has very little to do with advancing his cause. This is also the same man who fills his employees with fear on spending money and enjoys a reputation of being the “cost-cutter.” But as you look at this person’s track record, he has not accomplished anything of significance in his career. He has simply cut, cut, cut everywhere he goes. Contrast this to a colleague of his who runs the same organization in another state which has doubled in size, offered many more programs, and has actually done a lot of good in building his organization and helping people.
- New ideas and new initiatives are not encouraged. Similar to #6 above, very little that is new or innovative percolates up. There is an orientation to maintain the status quo.
- Bureaucracy is everywhere. This is where there is a 400 page employee handbook, a finance director who drives everything, even though it is none of her business, a legal department that runs with so much fear and process that you can’t get anything done. Everything is about rules vs. possibility and progress.
- High employee turnover – This is a clear sign that an organization is untrustworthy. Employees, sensing the incongruity and lack of integrity, flee right out the front door.
When you look at this list and contemplate the effect this kind of environment has on an employee, it is truly depressing. I felt down when I finished writing it. And the sad thing is that there are way too many organizations out there that are just like this.
What is the common denominator in an organization like this? It is fear and control. The leader and the string of managers below him or her is operating out of fear. They then control everything and everyone to try to reduce the fear they feel.
I think you will see how an organization like this cannot engender trust with its donors. It just will not happen. The stink at the top will ooze through the organization out into the marketplace.
What can be done in this situation? Let me offer a few suggestions:
- First, purpose to be a person of integrity and congruity. This is back to the self-trust topic I addressed in an earlier blog. If you have not read it, go back and take a look. Often, there is not too much you can do up-line, but you can do something about yourself. Start there.
- Sponsor trust building in your sphere of influence. Spread the word around your department and with your manager. Encourage your manager to talk about this up-line. Put it all in the context of being a better organization for “ourselves and our donors.” You might hand out this series on trust to others to get them reading and talking about it. Just increasing awareness will start to cause change.
- Look for ways to build trust with donors. This may be about how you report back to them, how you treat them, and/or what you choose to share with them.
- When a situation comes up that tears down trust, be bold to build trust up. This will take a little courage on your part, but you can do it. If someone is trying to modify the truth or an unjust situation is about to happen, speak up. But do it gently and with kindness. Talk constantly about how building trust with your donors will help the organization’s economy. Money talks. So bringing up this point will get people’s attention.
- If it becomes too much to bear and things aren’t changing, then leave the organization. I know that sounds harsh, but a good person like you has no business being in an organization like this.
So far, on this journey of trust, we have talked about how trust starts with you, then moves to your key relationships, and from there out to your donors. You can now see how all of this is connected and why it is so important to get things right.
And I assure you, this really does work. When I started to behave in a more trustworthy manner, those around me reacted in kind. It has truly been an amazing thing to watch.