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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Provocation

On Friday I had commented to a couple of executives that one of the goals in any employee communication is to incite the best thoughts and instincts in people. It is a fundamental HR competency that you craft any message to avoid inadvertently starting conversations that you don't intend to happen on subjects that divide people. Some examples that come to mind are one Plant Manager who tried to explain, poorly, to a group of factory workers that they were receiving market pay for their isolated area in Kentucky but said, "You're getting paid what you're worth." The anger over someone from outside that small town telling people that they weren't worth much never subsided until that Manager was replaced.

Another EVP was trying to brag on an assembly line group whose product went into a very expensive Toyota SUV. In the mid 1990's that vehicle sold for $40,000 and this group made about $6.50/hr. He said, "I bought one and recommend that you do too. You should be proud of the work that you do here." That set off an us-against-them discussion on wages and was a field day for the perpetually envious in the workforce (and every work force has them).

So if you can so easily bring out the worst in people when you're not trying, how much damage can you do when you mean to provoke?

I found it ironic that we had these discussions on Friday afternoon, and on Saturday we heard of the shootings in Arizona. Not surprisingly the shooter is young and, from my reading of his MySpace videos, disturbed. The Congresswoman who was shot had a target superimposed on her face on the Sarah Palin website. Every day people on the political spectrum from Glenn Beck to Maxine Waters make it their livelihood to provoke those who'll listen. The message is almost always the same; some variation of "they" are against you but "we" can rise up if you'll follow me. That message in the hands of the immature and/or disturbed can result in tragedy.

The idea of non-provocation is clearly biblical, from Colossians 3:21 to Ephesians 6:4. Although both of these are about parents not vexing or provoking their children, the principle is the same: those in power should not intentionally provoke those under their charge.

This goes for leaders, but remember that there are all manner of leaders. There are those who lead from position power, those who lead from the influence of their platforms, and those who lead from interpersonal influence. This last group can be anywhere in your organization.

Leaders should be careful to (1) not provoke intentionally when angered, (2) not inadvertently provoke through careless communications, and (3) discipline or remove "thought leaders" in their organizations who undercut the organization. It is the responsibility of leaders, no matter what type of leader you are or where you are in the organization, to intentionally bring out the better angels of human nature in those around you.

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