Dave Marks’ father enrolled him in boxing lessons so “real boxers had a real person to hit instead of a punching bag.”
Dr. Marks wrote a short and helpful blog three years ago on conflict management [see here]. Despite the crazy dad, Dave’s thoughts are helpful for understanding the toxic work environment…or really, any conflict.
He used the boxing analogy to explain that he loved the corner of the ring that he went to when the 90-second round was finished. It was “safe” there. It was where he got to go when done getting pummeled. But the great value of Marks’ blog is in pointing out the underlying causes of how we react in conflictual relationships.
The go-to “corners” of the ring in conflict, as explained by Marks, are “relationships” and “personal needs.” He asks which we value most? The answer will determine in which corner we seek safety when the going gets tough…and, in my analysis, will determine the toxicity of the environment.
As applied to leadership, those who seek to meet only their own perceived needs or only relationships will be toxic or useless. They will either be abusive or so passive they do not lead.
The one who is focused on relationships to the exclusion of their personal needs (or the needs of the organization) will be run over by those he (or she) is charged with leading. It may be that the organization needs a particular project to be completed. If the leader is bending to every personal request of his subordinates, the job fails to be accomplished. Marks notes that he will likely withdraw to save the relationship from conflict.
The leader becomes ineffectual.
However, a leader who is intently focused on his own needs (or the organization’s) and could give a hoot about his relationships with his subordinates, is likely to be authoritarian, abusive, easily angered, and controlling. If his relationships mean nothing, it is his own perceived needs that need satisfying. He must control and manipulate others in order to get what he desires.
He will be toxic.
Each of these ineffectual leadership qualities can – and usually do, according to management researchers – create chaos in the workplace.[see blog]
Marks nails it on the head in suggesting that a true balance of valuing relationships and valuing personal / organizational needs will provide a safe corner in conflict…as designated on his chart in the upper right corner (“resolve”).
The one who balances these two extremes will have a resolve to bring order out of the chaos of conflict. They will work with the person they are leading and in so doing, will make the goal of their work clear and attainable. The leader will not fear the response of the subordinate but know clearly where they need to go.
The subordinate will know they are valued and will seek to fulfill the mission of the leader (or organization).
Both Christian and non-Christian researchers have come to variations of this conclusion. The ground-breaking work of Edwin Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve” provides a glimpse into the toxic environments developed by those who are so focused on their own emotional needs, they run roughshod over their co-workers or subordinates.
These leaders often become so self-focused they place their own goals over everthing else and will manipulate and abuse anyone who stands in the way.
On the other hand, he also takes to task those who are part of the “herd.” These are the ones who are so concerned about relationships that they create emotional dependency or allow toxic individuals (who do not care about relationships), whether leader or subordinate, to rule the roost.
As I have written before, Herrington, Creech, and Taylor have taken Friedman’s research and noted the biblical connections. They point to Jesus Christ as the ultimate “self-differentiated” one as he stays connected in relationships and yet gets the job done. He relates perfectly, knowing the needs of those he engages, and yet always knows his mission and goals.
Lessons from the Boxing Ring
It is the perfect balance we all seek in our Christian leadership.
Ronald Enroth, an authority on cults, writes,
Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members. In my opinion, the leaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority. In all totalitarian environments, dependency is necessary for subjugation.
We need to take the warning Enroth lays before us. These cultish leaders focus on their own needs and manipulate the relationships. They do not truly care about relationships and their subordinates have allowed themselves to become dependent on their authority. I have seen it in mission organizations, churches, and politics.
We need to remain engaged in relationships and recognize our own needs and the needs of our organizations. When a leader refuses to seek that balance, the organization is headed the wrong way.
It will not go well for the mission of the organization nor for the subordinates.