Seven Countermeasures to
Take When You and Your Leadership are Demonized
by Brent Filson
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
The trouble with the status quo isn't that it gets poor results. After all,
if you know you're getting poor results, you can start taking steps to turn
them into good results. 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. 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 resistence, fails. Passive resistence 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 resistence 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 seven 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
- 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
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
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
- 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 six 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
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.
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 has worked with thousands of leaders worldwide during the
past 20 years helping them achieve audacious results. Sign up for his free
leadership ezine and get a free guide, "49 Ways To Turn Action Into
Results," at www.actionleadership.com
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