How to Stop Choosing the Wrong People to Lead
If you are on LinkedIn, your feed has been filled with an unprecedented amount of role changes, both wanted and unwanted. While this may have upsides, such as some moving into better-fitting jobs, I have a concern. Will excitement for new roles overshadow and drown out the underlying reason for this groundswell of unhappiness? Are we simply shuffling the problem around? And what’s more, what is the real problem?
At the core, a big catalyst for this uptick in job movement is bad bosses.
Do We All Have Bad Bosses?
As the saying goes, people do not leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.
Research from the Harvard Business Review tells us that American companies spend $15 billion each year on leadership development. Yet, bad bosses persist. A study done by the American Psychological Association found that 75 percent of Americans say their boss is the most stressful part of their workday. Despite sizable investment in leadership training, the large-scale reorganization of managers and leaders has not addressed the issue of inadequate leadership. It has simply reshuffled them throughout the workforce card deck.
We can no longer ignore root causes and reach for a short-term salve. We need a steadfast focus on recruiting managers and elevating leaders who can create psychological safety for teams. Research emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, highlighting that it leads to increased employee engagement, creativity and overall well-being. Think of psychological safety as the WD-40 that both primes and turns the gears of innovation.
To be fair, it can be quite challenging to create the conditions for diverse teams to genuinely feel safe. Our lack of appreciation for those who contribute to safe environments leads to the elevation of the wrong leadership traits time and time again. I would bet money that you have never overheard a comment like this in the workplace:
“Wow, Maria created a safe space in that Zoom meeting. Did you see how everyone contributed to the redesign of the campaign? Different ideas were shared, and we even challenged each other, but we kept it respectful. Let’s talk about promoting Maria because we definitely need more of that!”
An inclusive and safe work environment does not just happen. It takes intention and effort and is often championed by those not currently at the top of the hierarchy.
The Archetypal ‘Great Man’ Is Not Set Up to Create Safety
Take a moment to consider how you define a leader. Typically, we see images of people, typically male, who are bold and speak up, communicate persuasively and convince others that their ideas provide value, all while exuding executive presence.
These traits are influenced by the “Great Man” theory in leadership. This archetype dates back to Greek and Roman times and gained significant popularity in the 20th century. It maintains a strong hold in our leadership gestalt. Men, like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, fit the Great Man persona. Such leaders seemingly have the natural talent to emerge on the scene, problem-solve and inspire.
This old-school model of a leader discourages honest dialogue, team problem-solving and healthy disagreement. It turns workers into passive receivers of information rather than active contributors. When this happens, our work lacks meaning. As a sector, we are craving change.
Change starts with acknowledging gaps in our ability to identify who is really enabling workplace success.
Recognize the Importance of Psychological Safety
“The synergy of a group is as important, if not more important, than the talent of the individuals.” - Rick Rubin
The nonprofit sector, in particular, has a unique opportunity to redefine effective leadership. By centering psychological safety, we can create environments that foster innovation, collaboration and trust. We can start with three acknowledgments:
- Psychological safety is not a soft skill or a secondary consideration. It's a foundational element of successful teams and organizations.
- Leaders who create psychologically safe environments enable their teams to take risks, speak up and collaborate effectively. Quite honestly, it’s not an easy role and you’d be hard-pressed to find it in half of your staff.
- We can measure psychological safety.
Strategies to Foster Psychological Safety
Challenge your nonprofit with these action steps.
Assessment. Conduct regular pulse checks to identify who is creating psychologically safe environments within your organization. Look for patterns and strategies that can be replicated across teams.
Adapt hiring. When hiring team manager roles, require that at least one reference check is from an individual who the candidate supervised. Craft questions around their ability to create psychologically safe environments.
Promote the right leaders. Look for those within your organization who are already creating psychologically safe spaces. Focus on promoting those with this track record.
Redefining ‘Leadership Material’
The modern nonprofit leader is not a solitary figure who leads from the front. They are a facilitator, a weaver, a listener and a coach. They understand the charge to create the conditions for their team in order to solve the world’s most challenging social problems.
The Great Resignation has laid bare the shortcomings of our traditional leadership models. As we navigate this new landscape, we must be willing to challenge our assumptions. In the nonprofit sector, where the stakes are high and the challenges are endlessly complex, the need for psychologically safe environments is more critical than ever.
The time for change is now, and the opportunity is ours to seize.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: Is It Possible to Work With an Arrogant Nonprofit Leader?
Michelle Flores Vryn, CFRE, is a nonprofit executive based in Austin, Texas. With 15-plus years of experience in the field, she has dedicated her career to fostering social change through innovative leadership and community-centered fundraising. Her insights into psychological safety and leadership have been informed by her extensive work in nonprofit fundraising and her passion for creating real social impact.