Sunday, November 12, 2017

Monday Musings 294: Fickleness

Monday Musings - Fickleness

Nothing troubles team members more than fickleness in their leader. Fickleness comes camouflaged differently and so might be difficult to gauge in what form and shape it will come each time. Most leadership development journeys bypass this attribute, perhaps with the assumption that this is assumed to be present in the leader. One only wished it was true!

The dictionary meaning of the word ‘fickle’ is fascinating - “changing frequently, especially as regards ones loyalties or affections.’’. This says it all in the context of the workplace.

 We expect our leaders to be steadfast in their beliefs, although distinguishing it from being inflexible or rigid. We want them to be aware of the foundations of what positions they hold, the philosophies they espouse and hence see inconsistencies in their decisions, policies and prescriptions. This clarity or the lack of it is at the heart of a subordinate’s ability for meaningful and productive action. In a world turbocharged with flux and characterised by ambiguity enhancers, this clarity has a premium on its head – and to say that it is rarer than what we assume, is to state the obvious.

The fickleness emerges from shifts of the two dimensions mentioned in the definition above – either there is a shift in loyalties or the affections. Loyalties shift with shift in the winds, political equations or power dynamics within teams or amongst teams. The brunt of these shifts in loyalty is often borne by the last man standing. My favourite however is shift in affections – for this is the purest form of fickleness, for it emerges from the deepest recess of the individual. It is just that the leader wakes up from a different side of the bed that particular morning and voila – the sands have shifted! All reasoning and explanations happen thereafter. The fads of all kinds, the fancies that catch our attention and the whims that govern us are born out of this very affliction – that the affections have shifted. Hell hath no fury, than a boss who just had a brainwave!

The team member who is at the receiving end of this fickleness can only be pitied. He does not even know what is going on. What was till yesterday sacrilege has become the toast of the town now – and vice versa. What was old fashioned, repetitive and a shameless attempt to ape the competition has been raised to a pedestal suddenly and hailed as the next breakthrough. What was ‘paralysis by analysis’ yesterday is now a sharp insight based on deep analysis – and vice versa. Even before the team member settles into the new normal, the kettle is stirred again – and guess why; the boss just had a new brainwave!

Fickleness comes camouflaged as many things – it comes cloaked as ideation, generating multiple options, flexibility, and worst of them all – as responsiveness. All the cloaks are worthy virtues in themselves if pursued purely and honestly, but as cloaks they become ornamental, hollow and mere sloganeering. They generate only cynicism. If only we could measure the fickleness index of leaders and the impact it has on the loss of productivity of teams and individuals!!

Fickleness afflicts both at the macro and micro level. At the macro level it means a shifting strategy or strategic elements even before the previous strategic choices have had time to settle, mature and give results. It means modifying and in worst cases reversing directions and decisions that were taken with so much fanfare only recently. It is not uncommon to see the swings between expansion and consolidation, growth and cost cutting, centralisation and decentralisation, hiring and firing every few years if not every few quarters.

The fickleness at the micro is more entertaining. Let’s take the case of a presentation taken to a boss and you may meet with any of the following three responses.
1. ‘Not-sure’: you have worked through the night to make the presentation the leaders asked you for only to realise that the brief changed the next morning. The multiple briefs make it the game of perpetually shifting goal posts, all in the name of ‘continuous improvement’.
2. ‘Lets-make-it-better’: you have submitted the tenth version but it still can be made better – so what if the difference between the first version and the tenth one is only the change in the colour scheme of the slide!
3. ‘Something-is-missing’: this is the toughest one because this boss is an artist; he purses his lips, raises eyebrows, rubs his face with Socratic thoughtfulness and passes the verdict – ‘something is missing’. Never, ever make the mistake of asking ‘what’!
So what is the last word on this? There is no last word actually. I might change my verdict soon and be charged of being fickle!

(first published in People Matters, August 2017)

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