We were in a meeting a few weeks ago with a CEO who was describing a major rift in her executive leadership team.
In that conversation, she explained how there was a breakdown in the working relationship between two subgroups of her team, and went on to say that one of the members could sometimes have a sharp edge, which “was probably the issue.” She asked us if we would work with the members of her team to help them fix their working relationships.
As we explored what led up to the rift, it got clear that without realizing it the CEO herself had caused the rift in her team and not her sharp-edged employee.
When we brought her this data, she was bewildered and confused. Without realizing it (and certainly without any malice), she was the cause of the rift. We discovered that a recent decision she had made was interpreted by one part of her team to mean that they weren’t as valuable to her as the other members of the team.
She asked us, “What could I have possibly done to convey this?”
She had given some members of her team the opportunity to attend an upcoming industry conference and never mentioned it to the others. She looked at us blankly and said, “That’s it?”
Yes, that was it. You see, people care deeply about fairness. So, it mattered a great deal that some members of her team got something more—without justification or explanation—than the other members of the team.
In the June 3rd, 2017 New York Times, there was a great essay by Nicholas Kristof describing just this issue.
In “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Fairness,” he describes research that showed that monkeys who were offered cucumbers for their behavior were perfectly happy with those cucumbers until they saw other monkeys get grapes—which they apparently love more—at which point the cucumbers were no longer desirable, and in fact, would get thrown back at the researcher in disgust. As Kristof writes, “Inequality drives all primates nuts.”
So as a leader in society, your organization, your community, and your family, you must make it a priority to pay attention to and address inequality.
One of the researchers that Kristof interviewed, Keith Payne, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is quoted as saying, “When the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings… [it] divides us… eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all unhappy.”
With a little work, we were able to get our CEO client’s team realigned and things are proceeding well again. She got a new lesson in leadership: a realization that that she must pay attention to inequalities in order to be a strong, successful, and effective leader moving forward.
This week, spend some time noticing your reaction to inequalities in your life. Let us know what you see.
Your Coaches and Allies at Carpenter Smith Consulting