Good Leaders Are Not Complicit

Dictionary.com declared “complicit” to be the word of the year in 2017 and Carina Chocano of The New York Times did a great piece that outlines why it happened.

Webster’s defines complicit as meaning “involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing.” We all know when we have done it – been involved in something where we looked the other way or worse, aided in a wrongful act or deed.

Why this can be so damaging in the workplace is that it erodes trust, hope, stability, and compassion. All the things that employees value. You can’t have a successful, productive culture when people are complicit. Years ago, I had a President of an organization convene a meeting of the senior executives, (of which I was one), and outline for us how she was going to undermine a program that the CEO wanted to roll out. We were all asked to say nothing about this meeting to anyone. I was stunned and unsure of what to do. Saying something would likely get me fired, not saying something was against everything I believed in – so I hedged. I told her directly, in front of the group, that I was uncomfortable participating in this. I asked that we might hold a meeting with all the stakeholders to discuss it. I then said I would not take the conversation outside of that room if that was still her wish – and It was. I ended up being complicit because although I refused to participate in her plans, she continued moving them forward and I said nothing to the CEO. This was the beginning of the end for me at this firm. After I left the organization, I was glad to hear that she was fired for another instance of the same behavior. Unfortunately, irreparable damage had already been done to the organization.

We are taught to “do the right thing” from a very early age. The problem is that as you get older, you realize others have different definitions of “the right thing” and pretty soon, that line is so blurred it’s wiped away. This is why we are so fed up with politicians who blatantly say one thing and do another – talking to us with hands behind their backs accepting money for doing the opposite of what they say.

Good cultures reinforce their values at every level – in thoughts, words, and deeds. No exceptions. With the strong guard rails of well-defined values, culture helps everyone in the organization know what “the right thing” is. It’s not hard, in fact, it’s easier than being complicit in someone else’s bad behavior. The organization I mentioned earlier? One of its core values was trust. It was broken in one meeting and the value cemented as meaningless with the President’s refusal to change course. Good cultures are productive, engaging, happy places to work. The others are not and require people to be complicit in some very bad behavior to get paid.

It might be easier to look the other way or be complicit when bosses, co-workers or others behave badly, but all it takes is for one of us to say “no.” with your voice or your feet. Say something or leave but don’t be complicit.

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