The use of actual red flags to warn others of looming danger traces back some 400 years that we know of. Seventeenth-century warships flew red flags to indicate they were preparing for imminent military engagement. In some rail systems, before the introduction of colored lights, red semaphores were used to signal trains to stop. That there are many other examples of red flag warnings probably accounts for the use of the term red flag to mean a general indicator of trouble ahead.
A catalog of red flags for workplace collaborations could provide a handy checklist for determining when it might be time to intervene, or shut it down, or perhaps, move on to some other less fraught engagement. In that spirit I offer a list of red flags in three groups. This Part I emphasizes red flags associated with toxic conflict and voluntary turnover. In the next post, I'll describe red flags associated with communication, and in the post after that, red flags associated with abuse of power.
- Toxic conflict
- Creative conflict in collaborative work is essential to achieving high-quality outcomes. Creative conflict ensures that we test all ideas and account for all relevant viewpoints.
- Toxic conflict is something else. In toxic conflict, the participants employ abusive personal attacks and threats, and abuse their political power in their efforts to resolve their differences. Although the group does reach a joint decision regarding the issue at hand, that decision is not based on the merits of the question. Instead, the decision is based on the relative political power of the contenders, and on their willingness and ability to devise tactics that destroy their opponents' careers, or failing that, to curtail their abilities to respond effectively.
- If toxic conflict is repeated often enough, or if it occurs in the context of important decisions, it can cause the group to reach decisions that compromise its eventual success.
- Capable people finding other things to do
- Top contributors and leaders generally have alternatives. They need not remain in any position unless they want to. Because they do move on voluntarily when they learn of opportunities elsewhere, losing capable people occasionally isn't necessarily a red flag. It's the price of hiring capable people.
- But an elevated An elevated frequency of capable
people moving on to more appealing
assignments can indicate serious troublefrequency of capable people moving on can indicate serious trouble. Another related indicator can be the inability of the organization to successfully recruit people with required levels of capability. Regard these phenomena as potential indicators that capable people are assessing the organization's health as questionable.
- Leadership team volatility
- In addition to the loss of capable people described above, there is a special factor associated with the exit of people from leadership positions. Organizational leaders are often aware of conditions that threaten organizational health — conditions that others might not be aware of. In some cases, it is the leader himself or herself who has brought about those conditions.
- This privileged insight can cause leaders to make investment decisions that are supposedly prohibited by law. And some investment decisions are legal but revealing, such as a decision not to exercise options to purchase shares in the company. But these matters are usually well cloaked, and although they might indeed be red flags, they're invisible to most people.
- In any case, elevated incidence of sudden exits of persons in leadership roles can indicate trouble ahead — or trouble that has already arrived, but which hasn't yet been recognized.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 5: Red Flags: III
- Early signs of troubles in collaborations include toxic conflict, elevated turnover and anti-patterns in communication. But among the very earliest red flags are abuses of power. They're more significant than other red flags because abuses of power can convert any collaboration into a morass of destructive politics. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
- And on August 12: Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
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