Preventing Leadership CTDs

Think that companies only suffer cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs) to their workers' backs, arms, and shoulders? Arguably, most professionals think of CTDs as physical problems — usually, strains and sprains. We explain in our injury-prevention work these ergonomic issues are like metal fatigue, akin to repetitively bending a piece of steel. One or a few creases may seem insignificant, but multiple bends can weaken, then eventually break, even the strongest superalloy. In the same vein, straw-that- broke-the-camel's-back leadership problems can contribute to organizational breakdown.

In a high-demand business world, it's easy to focus predominantly on avoiding big problems. My colleague (and Harvard Law graduate) Craig Lewis contends that by the time an issue gets to an Executive, it is by definition extremely difficult to resolve. Leaders put their energies into making right decision-point moves, avoiding public relations debacles, and coming across as charismatic and sure.

But, consequently it's easy for executives not to see those little things that accumulate into larger problems. Like weeds that become deeply rooted and crowd out healthy plants, these issues can take over a company's culture, resulting in dysfunctional performance, communications, and morale.

Experience consistently reveals that the strongest sustaining leadership focuses on recognizing, then avoiding or rooting out problems before they become firmly entrenched or unravel existing company strength. The best leaders are willing and able to first look at then adjust themselves, rather than just demanding that others change. They develop in themselves and staff the ability to see and head off-budding problems early. We've seen dramatic injury-reduction improvements from people learning to make very small adjustments in their judgment, position, and alignment. With that in mind, here are small actions to watch that can otherwise build into Cumulative Leadership Trauma Disorders at all levels of leadership.

Focusing solely on "big, important" issues at the exclusion of perceiving trends. In his strategy guide, A Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi adjured generals to "Pay attention even to trifles." Perceiving and avoiding small problems can avert larger, even life-threatening ones. Adept leaders fine-tune their trend vision, scanning for molehills before they burgeon into mountainous problems. They also play offense, looking for opportunities for new interventions (e.g., workers' interest in sports season can open the door to better-received safety training).

Drifting disconnection from line staff. In his article, "Up the Staircase to Productivity Burnout," renowned industrial psychologist Frederick Herzberg wrote that one of the biggest problems leaders drift into is separation from front-line staff. Instead, master leaders allocate time to check employee perspective, morale, concerns, and safety orientation directly, not just relying on others' passing on their interpretation of critical intelligence.

Refusing to accept negative feedback. This can emanate from varying mindsets — either from a misplaced, Pollyanna "Aren't we doing great!" desire or from "If you criticize, you're disloyal. Go elsewhere." The former results in clueless ignorance of company realities, the latter in shoot-the-messenger repression. Either message stymies accruing strategic intelligence. Yet a third mindset listens to but then downplays bad news, sweeping it under the carpet. This can result in lumpy carpets, obstacles that trip up company moves. Best leaders take a Quality Management view of communications. They elicit, not wait for, feedback that can help improve performance. This might entail seeking out those who are expressively unhappy--not to shut them down, but to hear them out (and, if done honestly, siphon off some steam). Go well beyond "honesty is the best policy, especially when it's done onto someone else."

Displaying lack of concern. Talking only about what's good for the business, rather than what benefits workers. This is exemplified by the executive who solely speaks about Safety return on investment statistics. Though oft en unintentional, these communications typically backfire.

Similarly, "Let them eat cake" communication signals lack of concern, exemplified by staunch proclamations of "Anyone who has an injury is stupid." I've heard this too many times, and it always results in pushback.

Strong leaders persuade and align staffby first understanding their concerns, then speaking in terms of worker interests. Best leaders reduce rather than fuel fears.

Empty delegating. Asking people to take on tasks without giving them the resources--or trust--to see it through. Or expecting they read your mind, doing it your way, while still wanting them to feel "ownership." It doesn't work that way.

Wise leaders provide safety committees, for one, with the guidelines, training, and budget to accomplish projects that can make significant improvements. Such leaders understand that, once delegated, others will put their own mark on the project, unlikely not the same as if the leader had done it herself.

Not showing up. Low-level leaders' talk and actions are alarmingly at odds. People know in time-famished climes that we all vote with our feet. Best leaders show up, even for a short period, to kick off conferences, lend support to new safety training, and personally recognize internal heroes.

Not taking action. Just promising, not committing, delaying making time-urgent decisions. This passively but effectively blocks others' further movement, so they either twiddle their thumbs in a waiting game or just give up trying to foster improvements. Even with a full plate, adept leaders realize there are windows in which they must decide and act to keep momentum flowing.

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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