Toxic Beliefs for Leaders

We have studied many organizations over the years, and it’s clear that most of them excel to whatever degree their leaders believe in the talent, possibilities, and potential of their people. That sounds like a hopeful platitude that you might find on a motivational poster somewhere, doesn’t it? Just give it some thought:  “Organizations excel to whatever degree their leaders believe in the talent, possibilities, and potential of their people.

Think about some of the businesses that you are most familiar with. You can probably think of businesses and organizations across the whole range from total “believers” in their people to very cynical companies who believe they can succeed despite the shortcomings of their people.

You can see how a company feels about its people every direction you look. Organizations that allow and promote a diversity of opinion, accept mannerly disputes, acknowledge excellence wherever it’s found (from the mailroom to the boardroom), and share information liberally generally have a higher level of person-for-person productivity than more bureaucratic organizations. The worst offenders of this theory are companies where upper management consistently underestimates their own people’s talent and capabilities.

We’ve had an opportunity to work with many different organizations, representing several different industries, and it’s been surprising to see how pervasive some of this thinking is. Here is where sales organizations are generally more progressive. They know they absolutely depend on the performance and capability or their people.

There are lots of quantitative measures available that will show us comparative per-person revenue in organizations. You can imagine the disparity between the firms where people are allowed and expected to grow in responsibility while being challenged to improve and those organizations where people are kept in categories and classifications that management has pre-determined. What is really surprising is that the organizations that are most in need of new talent and new ideas are often the ones who are most guilty of “pigeon-holing” their own people.

Another shocking and dangerous problem we see again and again is organizations who believe their organizational chart is also their intelligence and talent chart. That is to say, they really believe that the distribution of titles in their business is an accurate reflection of talent, intellect, and creativity.

We refer to these kinds of growth-crushing ideas as “toxic beliefs.” These are concepts, thought-patterns and ideas that, when adopted and absorbed at the leadership level, can wound or even kill an organization from the inside out.

Here are some toxic beliefs that exist in many organizations today. They are reflections of the leaders personal beliefs that have been slowly absorbed into the organization. Many of these beliefs are toxic enough to gradually kill a business. You will recognize some of them.

  • People will do as little work as they possibly can.
  • The status quo represents the least risk for our organization.
  • Good ideas start at the top.
  • We can cost-cut our way to growth.
  • We must keep our people feeling like their jobs are at risk.
  • The numbers are telling the whole story.
  • Full disclosure is not an option.
  • Our people value security over recognition.
  • Tenure = ability.
  • People are what they are.
  • Our managers know how to lead effectively.
  • The word diversity applies only to race and gender.
  • Our organizational chart mirrors our people’s intellectual level.
  • Our executives do not need to work on their skill sets.
  • It is easier to hire productivity that it is to develop it ourselves.
  • We talk like a democracy, but act like a dictatorship.

This is the short list. Do you recognize any of them? It’s easy for any progressive leader to see how just one or two of these beliefs, when held by a number of powerful people, could actually destroy the culture of an organization.

Where do these kinds of toxic beliefs come from? They are usually formed as a bias in the would-be leader. They take root there, and when the idea goes unchallenged for a period of time, it becomes a “truth” in the mind of that leader. Decisions are made based on the toxic belief and it become “socialized” in the organization. It’s just a given that this belief is true. Sometimes, someone new will come into an organization and identify a toxic belief immediately. This is an important part of a management consultant’s job. Often the toxic belief is so entrenched that even after it is identified and disproven, it can’t be removed. This is actually the root cause of most executive changes. A toxic belief, or set of beliefs, can only be removed by removing the leader responsible for them.

The bottom line here is that we need to be careful about which thoughts we allow to stay in our heads. If they are limiting beliefs, and if they cause us to question the capabilities of our people… they may be toxic to the growth and success of our organizations.


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