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I heard a business leader speak this week who said a habit that he prizes most in his team members is the tendency to “defend the absent.” This struck me as such an honorable and uncommon emphasis in today’s responsibility-dodging culture.

This man, a top executive in News Corp’s Queensland operations, emphasized personal accountability. He quoted legendary Rugby coach, Wayne Bennett, who said, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” We are to demand of ourselves commitment to success and acceptance of the responsibility of failure. A person of integrity owns up to a failure instead of conveniently blaming the absent.

Nobody likes to be called to task on a shortcoming or a failure. It is unpleasant business, especially compared to the thrill of revelling in victory. How easy it is to avoid the discomfort of failure by shifting the blame to someone who is not present. “I did my bit; it must have been her.” The subsequent maligning of an absent team member can be brutal, especially when everyone present joins the melee. The result is a communal purging of the guilt and discomfort over failure; the present preserve their precious self-esteems in tact, albeit with a  bitter aftertaste of disloyalty. The toll has been exacted on the character of the absent person .

Before long, the absent person will be called to account and may have to bear the guilt alone. The group’s treachery will come to light. The familiar camaraderie, the old synergy are but lengthening shadows and what remains is the shifting terrain of duplicity. The unfortunate thing is, the damage that is done to the part is reaped by the whole: trust crumbles across the board. A sense of safety is eroded, perhaps irreparably.

Rather than denigrating, a person of integrity defends the absent. Instead of adding to negative speculation, she stands up for the absent person’s performance, reiterating their value to the team, their strengths and successes. This is, after all, how we all would hope we would be treated if we are absent. It is nothing less than “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.” When it happens, an implicit trust in an organisation and team is reinforced. Defending the absent allows an entire team to feel safe and supported. When people feel valued and defended, they will give 100% commitment and will take ownership.

Smart leaders model accountability and integrity, never speaking ill of a person who is not present and who cannot defend themselves, but rather waiting for an opportunity to speak directly with the person. And if teams move into a blaming mode, smart leaders will redirect the energy back to personal responsibility.

A habit of defending the absent is an important facet of the person of integrity.

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