Being Demonized As A Leader
Most organizations abound with acolytes for the status quo. The status quo is simply the existing state of an organization. What's wrong with the status quo? A great deal. In fact, the status quo of any organization is usually wrong.
The trouble with the status quo is that it gets mediocre results but represents them as good results. And poor results are less harmful to an organization than mediocre results misrepresented as good results.
The acolytes may worship at a lot of altars: the funding of inefficient, wasteful, pet programs; the misplaced craving of the employees to bring back the "good ole days"; the people's championing a poisonous culture of unrealistic entitlements. And so on.
If you start demolishing the altars or even questioning the status quo's orthodoxy, the acolytes may very well resort to a common status quo tactic that throws most leaders off balance: They'll demonize you.
Note I don't say "criticize," I say "demonize." Surely you'll be criticized. But demonization involves an attack of another order of magnitude. It's through demonizing that the status quo pulls out all stops. Understanding this and executing the right countermeasures can be vital to the short and long term success of your leadership.
First, let's look at demonization itself. Throughout history, demonization of people, groups of people, and even nations has involved characterizing them as evil or less than human, e.g., the attitudes and practices of some whites towards Black people in the period 1865-1965, resulting in widespread lynching.
One purpose of the demonization of individuals is to divert attention from their arguments by discrediting them personally. Proving that they are Fascists, Communists, Racists, Religious Nuts or some other despised category can be particularly effective not only in undermining individuals with controversial views, but in isolating them from public support. Furthermore, the evil/subhuman traits that the demonizers try to pin on people can open the way for truly horrendous attacks.
Now let's look at how demonization plays out in a lot of organizations. The status quo usually resorts to demonization when its first line of attack, passive resistance, fails. Passive resistance is the status quo's game. It plays it first, it plays it often, and it plays it well. It plays it anytime it feels threatened. The game may be passive, but it's outcomes are anything but. What can be more relentlessly active than when you challenge walking people to run ... but they keep on walking -- and swear they are running? Yet the status quo doesn't always succeed in the passive resistance game; and that's when it may turn to demonization.
Demonization as accomplished by the organizational status quo does not engage in rational criticisms of what you are doing but an attack on who you are. There's little or no truth to what is being said. Truth has nothing to do with the impulse behind the attacks. Outright survival of the status quo at all costs is the impulse.
"He's ruining the organization."
"She's got to be replaced."
"He doesn't know what he's doing."
"She'll cause us to lose our jobs."
Clearly, if you don't deal with the demonization, it could destroy your effectiveness and even result in your being replaced.
Here are 7 countermeasures to demonization.
- Look inwardly. When you are being demonized, you must get in touch with the best of who you are. Delve into the resources of your own character: patience, understanding, courage, and persistence. They are countermeasures to demonization. You have such assets in abundance. Find them and draw them out so they can be expressed fully. In fact, being on the receiving end of demonization gives you an opportunity to clarify and strengthen those inherent resources.
- Act outwardly. Keep your leadership bearing. Be composed and considerate. The adage "Showing up is 90 percent of winning" applies here. Face the people who are demonizing you. For instance, you might walk up to a group of them who obviously are bad mouthing you to one another and enter into a pleasant conversation with them. You might show up (briefly, please) at one of their after-work haunts and have a social interaction with a few of them. You might go to their work sites or be at the employee gate and greet them in a friendly way. At those times, you don't have to say anything to defend yourself against demonization. Demonization needs illusion to survive. You are not the person the status quo is trying to make you out to be. You puncture that illusion by being with them and being genuinely interested in their concerns and being actively helpful.
However, be judicious in your interactions with them. Just as you can error when being demonized by staying away from them, you can also error by being with them too much, prompting them to think you're a pest.
- Be friendly. When we are friendly in the face of demonizing attacks, we act as a kind of voltage stabilizer for the power surges of emotions that demonization activates.
Clearly, being demonized is not pleasant; but leaders who respond by losing control, getting angry and lashing back at the people who are engaged in it are playing into the hands of the status quo, which will inevitably point out that such behavior justifies their assertions.
People respond more openly and positively to friendliness. By being friendly, we model good interactions, bringing the future into the present. We make real issues relevant factors, not the patently false issues that demonization creates.
With friendliness, we increase the chance that others who are not demonizing us will join our cause. Friendliness is fire prevention equipment against your burning bridges behind you. An opponent may seem to be your opponent today but in the future you may need him to be your partner in implementing changes.
Getting results through friendliness can take a lot less energy than getting results through coercion and intimidation. Friendliness isn't an absolute necessity in leadership. I've seen great leaders who responded to being demonized by acting out as terrific curmudgeons. It's just that unfriendly leaders have to go through a lot more trouble getting people motivated.
- Be forceful -- benevolently. Don't accept rude talk and/or insulting behavior. But in not accepting it, be forceful in a kind and moderate way. For instance, an executive told me: "At our annual sales meeting, the sales people were angry over the layoffs of many of their colleagues. Four senior executives, colleagues of mine, who had forced the layoffs, did not show up for the social events at the meeting, not wanting to face the people's anger. But I felt I had to be there. I remember a bunch of really ticked off sales people were at the bar of the hotel, drinking and just verbally ripping the senior management to pieces. I took a deep breath and went over among them. I ordered a drink and tried to have a friendly chat. A couple of them started abusing the senior executives to my face, but I wouldn't stand for it. I looked them in the eye, I spoke softly; I showed I was going to be pleasant but not put up with bad behavior or insulting talk. Of course, I didn't change their attitudes much, at least at that bar; but a few of them told me later they really respected me for just going into the lion's den."
- Get results. One of the most effective countermeasure measures against demonization is simply to get results. You're a leader. You do nothing more important than get results; and when you set the organization on track for getting more results faster, continually, you'll find that demonization will likely dry up and blow away.
- Keep a sense of humor. Make sure you do it not at the expense of others but of yourself. Self-deprecating humor can take the steam out of a lot of what demonization offers.
- Get cause leaders. This incorporates the first 6 points. If you manifest your inner strengths, take the right action, keep your leadership bearing, don't accept abusive talk or behavior, get great results, and keep yourself of humor, you likely will have people take up your cause against the demonization. Their defense is usually far better than any defense you could personally mount.
Mind you, the acolytes of the status quo are, for the most part, good, well-meaning people, people who have loved ones in their lives. Their engaging in demonization may come from a sincere intention to protect themselves and keep their loved ones secure. The fact they are good people is all the more reason for you to be friendly, open, and considerate in the face of a demonizing attack.
In most cases, you can weather being demonized -- and even become more effective in your leadership -- as long as you institute these countermeasures. In the end, you may find that at least some the people who demonize eventually become your ardent cause leaders. The flipside of demonization is acclaim.
2006 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. – and for more than 21 years has been helping leaders of top companies worldwide get audacious results. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and