No one wants to work in a toxic culture or with dysfunctional co-workers. But ask them why it happens, and very few can name the root cause that makes people stir up trouble. Mostly, they want relief from the symptoms as soon as possible, so most tend to reach for quick, surface solutions. Band-aid securely applied; the problem usually disappears underground.

For a while, everything goes smoothly, because when dysfunction is absent, everything feels completely different. You don’t know why, but you are productive, focused and engaged. While it lasts, your work unfolds with ease and agility. You forget that human drama may surface just when you least expect it.

Here’s how it goes: Imagine yourself preparing for a great day at work. You’ve had a good night’s sleep and are ready to make real progress on an idea you’ve been curating. Your intentions are pure, your mind is sharp and you expect to have a productive day. You’re an hour into work and decide to bounce your ideas off a colleague. As soon as the conversation begins, he launches into gossip. “Did you hear about the meeting this morning?” he says. “They are behind closed doors discussing something urgent… But some of us were not invited. Were you?” he asks.

Then silence.

You notice something change inside your gut and wonder, “Hmmm, why wasn’t I invited?” A vague feeling of insecurity begins to creep into your thoughts. Your unconscious survival instincts kick in and trigger emotions that originate from unspoken fears. You can’t identify it, but a physiological change has begun inside you. Your reptilian brain is adeptly conditioned to notice threats to your self-esteem and triggers an outpouring of questions. You are aware this is an old familiar feeling – this feeling of being left out.

Your colleague is missing the internal character-strength to manage his own self-esteem fears, and he’s about to draw you into the same distraction. The question is whether you will join him.

The next moment is where you will choose one of two things. You might succumb to the threats that surface from your unconscious and act without considering the consequences. Or you will ignore the trigger, reassure your colleague and dive into the productive day you had planned.

Can you name the one thing that makes you different from your colleague?

What we are illustrating here is the single most crucial ingredient to a culture of agility – character intelligence and strength. Without it, we are destined to fall to our lowest level in moments of temptation. Character-driven leaders and people can demonstrate the character required to manage self-esteem and stop threats in their tracks before they spread into culture. This requires self-knowledge, self-awareness and self-responsibility.

Here’s the challenge: If the pervasive norms in culture are unconscious, habitual behaviors will operate from hidden fears that spread. Observable results can be seen in the form of four distorted extremes of personality. In the absence of strong character, human fear patterns spread like a contagion into team climates and culture alike. Unresolved insecurities in leaders become the extremes of their leadership. Four primary ego-insecurities contribute to and shape cultures that cannot possibly be agile. Instead, they become driven by underlying fears and are reinforced by those who gather around those collective fears. Worse, a culture like this will continue to attract those fears, continuously reinforcing it. What is needed is a way to identify it, and fast.

Here’s how you’ll know when balanced character strength is missing in your team or culture:

  1. The conflict-avoidant culture: This human pattern is shaped by people who gather around an over-tilted need for approval. The underlying fear is rejection. What you will notice is an excessive need to be nice and take care of everyone, even if they don’t perform. An excessive need to make sure everyone’s feelings are considered is present but arises from a misplaced envy of those who might use their power to take advantage. What’s often missing are the balancing character strengths of courage, which include integrity, confidence and boldness.
  2. The autocratic-dominant culture: This human pattern is shaped by people who gather around a need for power. The underlying ego-fear is vulnerability. You will notice an excessive need to be forceful under the guise of protecting the vulnerable. This fear results in an over-focus on being powerful to hide a fragile underbelly. What’s often missing are the balancing character strengths of humanity, which include trust, likability and empathy.
  3. The elite-bureaucratic culture: This human pattern is shaped by people who gather around an over-tilted need for status above others. The underlying ego-fear is inferiority. You will notice an excessive need for hierarchy designed to help them overcome feelings of inadequacy that arises as a distorted need for pride. What’s often missing are the balancing character strengths of resilience, which include openness, creativity and inspiration.
  4. The chaotic-narcissistic culture: This human pattern is shaped by people who gather around a need for freedom and attention that arises from rebellion to authority figures. The underlying fear thwarts feeling trapped in sadness or boredom that comes from previously feeling neglected. What you will notice is an excessive need for the freedom to pursue lofty ideas and delusions. The outlandish rebellion from reality is designed to help overcome feelings of being too much for others to handle or tolerate, so it is based in shame. What’s often missing are the balancing character strengths of wisdom, which includes perspective, diligence and focus.

Unfortunately, most existing go-to solutions and personality assessments do not measure or address the root cause. They beat around the bush and are close – but no cigar. With personality assessments that put you in a box and tell you what you do but not why, you are left without the development path that could help you identify and overcome hidden fears. Most assessments offer acronyms that are difficult to recall, so they are never applied in action. Most feedback processes contain either subjective projections of biases or measure competencies that tell you what you already know. You might be competent and knowledgeable but still unknowingly trigger counterproductive behaviors that arise from hidden fears.

Here’s the deal: When we merely treat symptoms, the problem inevitably surfaces again. A sustainable solution must address cause and effect in a way that is memorable, actionable and sustainable. The best way to enable these essentials is to teach learners how to operate from inner strength and give them a culture where they can thrive. In short, a culture where everyone takes personal responsibility for ensuring a culture of psychological safety. To make it memorable requires a framework and common language for character strength development. Indeed, those who have experienced a healthy workplace climate are not likely to tolerate anything less.

Reflect on these character dilemmas:

  • How do you get someone to trust you? You can’t, but you can practice being trustworthy. Then people will more often trust you.
  • How do you get someone to stop blaming and complaining? You can’t, but you can provide education about what causes people to deflect responsibility. Then hold them accountable.
  • How do you persuade others to promote you? You can’t, but you can stop nurturing thoughts about others not recognizing your potential. Just having those negative thoughts will ensure you’re not going to show up at your best.

Each of these situations has one thing in common: Healthy self-esteem can only come from leadership character. Some call it “the blind spot of our time” because of an absence of language around it. Despite being a core part of leadership training in the military, business and psychology, industry leaders have virtually ignored the topic for decades, relegating it to the philosophy and religious domains as if it was not their problem.

A universal language and framework of organizing principles that help leaders understand their journey of character strength development has been missing from our human resources training and development solutions. We can no longer use our personality as an excuse for how we show up. Character development requires a lifelong commitment to self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-responsibility. The coaching profession has arisen to solve the problem but is expensive and needs reliable measures that provide evidence for change.

Character development is crucial to our future and is the lever to solve many of the complex problems of our time. Furthermore, the modern workforce is knowledgeable and intolerant of unconscious leaders that are blind to how their ego-fears play out in extreme dynamics. Power plays, status moves, popularity contests and self-promotion are distinctly associated with outdated corporate politics. Today’s savvy workforce is educated, feedback hungry, radically honest and intolerant of poor leadership. They consume what they want to know with their devices and vote for good leadership with their feet.

Will organizational learning and development professionals notice this severe gap in knowledge and meet the challenge? All new awareness starts with education and training. Only then can we cultivate the alert sense of what lurks under the surface of a culture that is unable to operate in the flow of agility.

Until then, our lightning-fast reptilian brain will remain in charge of our destiny.

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