Leadership Myth #7 – Good Leaders Make People Happy

An organizational leader once said to me that they thought that they and their direct reports were a “really good team”.  Intrigued, I asked them what led them to that conclusion.  They thought for a few moments and responded, “we get along really well”.  They asked me what I thought (dangerous question).  I pondered for a few minutes (mostly to work up my courage) and said that in my considered opinion they and their direct reports were a very ineffective team.  The leader responded with some heat, “How can you say that when everyone is so happy?”.

What I had observed was:

  • the team carefully avoided dealing with topics that were likely to surface disagreements.  As a result, the team was not dealing with some critical issues that were growing into existential crises.
  • the most powerful personalities in the group were dominating discussion while others were contributing little to nothing even though they had significant expertise and experience relevant to the topic being discussed
  • if disagreements did arise, the dominant personalities would work together to shut the discussion down and move the discussion to a “safer” topic.
  • the team avoided introspection and had a habit of shifting blame to those outside of the team.  As a result the team was not learning and improving.

When I shared these observations the leader, much to their credit, asked me why I thought these things were happening.  Being a coach I answered with a question, “How important to you is it that your team get along?”  They responded to the effect that as their leader it was their job to ensure that everyone was happy.  I asked, “What if getting along is incompatible with effectiveness?”

Chris Argyris coined the term “soft Model 1” for a type of behaviour he often found in organizations.  Soft Model 1 is characterized by a veneer of “niceness” overlaying patterns of coercive emotional and social manipulation between people.  People don’t yell and threaten to get their way, that’s what he called “Hard Model 1”, but the overall effect is just as devastating to organizational learning and organizational effectiveness.

Every leader wants a team that gets along well.  But if that is your most important goal, you may be sacrificing more than you realize in your “pursuit of happiness”.  Are you struggling with this?  I know that I often have in my leadership career.  Let’s talk about it!