Objectivity in the Workplace

By Erin Wilson Burns | October 3, 2017

One of the most important, unique contributions leaders can bring their organizations is the use of discretion to respond to pressures or opportunities that have not been anticipated by existing policies, procedures, methodologies, etc.

I recently shared seven personality traits that differentiate executive leaders from leaders at other levels in the organization and can be used to help identify and develop high-potential future executive leaders. These seven traits are: Objectivity in the WorkplaceHaving a Positive OutlookBeing EngagedInnovativeTeam Builder, Quick Learner, and Trusting. This article focuses on the first trait, being objective

One of the most important, unique contributions leaders can bring their organizations is the use of discretion to respond to pressures or opportunities that have not been anticipated by existing policies, procedures, methodologies, etc. As problem solvers and decision makers, leaders enable their groups and organizations to navigate the complexity of changing stakeholder demands and competitive environments. A leader’s ability to initiate independent actions or directions in the best interest of the organization as a whole requires objectivity.

What does being objective mean?

Leaders who are really good problem solvers and decision makers have the capacity to eliminate personal considerations from the decision space. In contrast, leaders who are concerned about the impact of decisions on themselves (or other individuals or groups they truly care about) risk allowing that concern to influence their decisions. Objectivity is not a lack of concern or care for the individuals in the organization. Instead, it allows the objective leader to weigh the facts of the situation and how different alternatives impact people in the organization without prejudice. It facilitates decisions which are both factually sound, and can be accepted by people who are affected by the decision.  

Effective leaders tend to understand and respect the social interactions that facilitate organizational life and employee engagement, and to care about enabling others to succeed. They are not, however, controlled by this orientation. They rely on analysis, logic, and fact to assess the implications of decisions and future scenarios, balancing these logical conclusions with more interpersonal considerations. They also tend to have greater cognitive capabilities than the groups they are leading—giving them insights that others around them may not see or understand.

Can a leader be too objective?

Leaders who are overly focused on objective factors (such as facts, figures, projections, and the like) in decision making are often seen by others as impersonal, or as discounting the importance of people factors. If their decisions are consistently “good” as seen by others, this may not matter. However, the risk is that those who must implement decisions may not be fully cooperative and committed. Additionally, no leader is ever smart enough to always make the right bet with the ambiguity that surrounds most business decisions. Leaders who have not built relationships of trust with their teams and with others across the organization have shorter grace periods and encounter less forgiveness or patience with their mistakes.

What happens if a leader is not objective?

Leaders who are less objective tend to be less systematic and organized in their thinking and decision making. They are more likely to be swayed by the often short-term pain they (or others they care about) may experience in making changes to existing practices that might position the group better for success in the long term. These leaders also tend to have a somewhat greater need to be supportive of and responsive to others rather than being absolutely correct in their decision making. As executive initiatives have longer-term implications and weightier impacts they depend increasingly on systemic and organized thinking and the ability to prioritize decision factors accurately according to the situation. Leaders who are less objective make decisions that are favorable for those who depend on them, but are not favorable for the organization or society as a whole. They tend to be reluctant to engage problems that have a possibility of bad outcomes for their people or struggle to give negative feedback, leaving core issues festering and unresolved.

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Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 20 years of experience in leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design and transformation consulting.

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