September 29, 2008

Good morning, team,

I’ve long wanted to write about a problem that I have most recently seen far too much of: cronyism.  First, a definition from Wikipedia:

“Cronyism is partiality to long-standing friends, especially by appointing them to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications. Hence, cronyism is contrary in practice and principle to meritocracy. Cronyism exists when the appointer and the beneficiary are in social contact; often, the appointer is inadequate to hold his or her own job or position of authority, and for this reason appoints individuals who will not try to weaken him or her, or express contrary views. Politically, cronyism is derogatory. The word crony first appeared in 18th century London, believed by many to be derived from the Greek word chronios, meaning long-term; however, crony appears in the 1811 edition of Grose’s Vulgar Tongue with a decidedly non-collegiate definition, placing it firmly in the cant of the underworld. A less likely source is the Irish language term ‘comh-roghna,’ which translates to close pals, or mutual friends.”

Abraham Lincoln is a good example of a president who didn’t rely on his cronies. When he chose his cabinet members, he intentionally picked men who were affiliated with the other political party, men who had criticized him vehemently and worked hard to prevent him from becoming president. But Lincoln understood the dangers of cronyism and the benefits of having many different viewpoints at the table to help him make the most informed decisions.

In contrast, the Bush administration demonstrated a clear case of cronyism when Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense and he and Dick Cheney, old friends for many years, were in complete agreement about how the U.S. should involve itself in Iraq. When Colin Powell began to disagree with them, he was soon ejected from his position as Secretary of State (we were told that he resigned). As we now know, President Bush did not benefit from hearing only the Rumsfeld-Cheney viewpoint. If cronysim in the White House hadn’t been so widespread, Secretary Powell’s views might have been considered more seriously.

The consequenses of cronyism can be devastating. Consider the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the head of FEMA, Michael Brown (a close friend of President Bush’s), suddenly found himself responsible for thousands of lives and didn’t have a clue what to do in a disaster of such magnitude. As Bush said, “Heck of a job, Brownie,” which has now become a common phrase used by people when they detect cronyism.

Cronyism is like putting on blinders. It inhibits you from seeing any other way to deal with a situation and allows you to stay attached to your own ideas of how things should get done.

Your challenge this week is to take an in-depth look at whether cronyism has crept into your work situation. Are you working closely with others whom you trust because of years of friendship, even though they may not be qualified to do the job? Are people being promoted in your organization because of their skills or is it because of their similarity in thought and ideas to the person who promoted them? Are you surrounding yourself with people who parrot your ideas and are too afraid to tell you what they really think?

If you’re in a position of power, try talking about cronyism with your teammates.  Let people know that you are not in favor of promotions that are made due to friendship. Encourage your co-workers to tell you what they really think, not just what they think you want to hear. Spend some time each week listening to the views of people in your organization whom you disagree with. Find out why they hold this view and keep your mind open enough to consider that they might have a better idea or a more accurate viewpoint.

As a staff member, if you see cronyism at work, try finding a diplomatic way of pointing it out. Maybe you do this by asking the cronies if they’ve considered other ways to approach a situation. Try offering your viewpoint to the team as a way of broadening the perspective, rather than keeping it narrow.

Whatever you do, try to summon the courage to stand up for what you think is a healthier way for people to work together as a team. Cronyism limits all of us and our ability to surround ourselves with fresh, new thoughts and the qualified people who can mean the difference between success and failure.

* The coach will be on vacation for the next two weeks.  Your next challenge will be published October 20, 2008.

Have a great week!


Kathleen Doyle-White
Pathfinders Coaching
(503) 296-9249

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