The term ‘downward spiral’ seems to be all the rage. It’s understandable given what’s going on in the world these days.
I did a quick search of the Web this past week and found numerous stories where downward spiral – defined in contemporary terms as an unstoppable downward trajectory – was used to describe the state of people, companies, and even entire countries.
Perhaps it’s just because of my job and the people I work with, but the common element in all of these stories of downward spirals is – you guessed it – leadership. Or, more precisely, it’s the lack of effective, accountable leadership.
Again, while this is sometimes due to mounting external pressures, often a failure of leadership inside these organizations is the key to sustaining the spiral.
I’ve seen this time and time again with clients we’ve been brought in to help. Here are the telltale signs:
- The senior leaders believe nothing is wrong. They are rationalizing the poor results. Any attempts to give them feedback as to what is happening is met with defensiveness and outright animosity.
- The really weak leaders start finger-pointing and blaming one another for their sad state of affairs.
- Infighting becomes the new normal, and it is the way people relate and work with each other. Trust is low and everyone is out to undermine each other.
- Getting anything done seems almost impossible. Everyone is working at cross-purposes. It’s exhausting, emotionally draining, and wastes valuable energy.
- Knee-jerk, cost-cutting initiatives become rampant, leading to short-term gain with little long-term impact.
- The really talented people jump ship, preferring to join a more successful organization rather than fix their current one. Selfishly, they don’t want their personal brands tainted by a sinking ship.
- The people left behind feel abandoned and start to lose hope. They check out and now you know the end is near.
Does any of this sound familiar? Is your organization going through this now? If several of these signs are taking hold in your organization, then things may start spiraling out of control.
To me, the most effective leadership response is to try to avoid a downward spiral from taking hold in the first place.
Some truly vigilant leaders with whom I’ve worked are always focused on ensuring the organization is moving in a positive trajectory. Here are some of the key practices that these leaders put in place:
- They always keep an eye on the future and what their organization needs to do to respond to emerging threats and opportunities.
- They stay close to customers to understand their concerns and how their company is serving them.
- They are constantly tuned in to their people. They don’t rely solely on their direct reports to understand the state of their organizations; they go direct to front-line employees to get a read of their engagement and frustrations.
- They are quick to transform their workforce by finding the people with the capabilities to achieve future success. My colleague Michelle Moore refers to these people as disruptive talent.
- They also weed out the mediocre and unaccountable leaders who are resistant or unwilling to change.
- They encourage people to fail fast, to figure out what doesn’t work, and quickly reset their approach.
I believe the simple fact that if leaders approach their work with a real sense of accountability, then they are less likely to enter a downward spiral. The best way to avoid a downward spiral in your company, is to avoid one completely.
This week’s leadership gut check question asks: can you avoid a downward spiral?
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