How to handle leadership issues when you don’t have authority

August 24, 2014 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership, Nonjudgment, Visualization

What do you do when you see ineffective or counterproductive leadership of a group you’re in and you’re not one of the leaders?

Do you just let it happen? Do you act? Do you talk to the leader?

Usually I don’t step in if I’m not in a position of authority and no one asked me to act. Rarely I step in. In 2008, I spoke up on a mailing list for Columbia Business School’s alumni club when things seemed polarized, divisive, and moving toward desperate actions, which I posted here. The administration emailed me to thank me for that email.

Recently I saw something similar happening with another online community I’m a part of and I spoke up again. I got many emails thanking me for what I wrote, so I’m posting it below since people told me others could learn from it. I’m making it anonymous since the details of what group and what individuals are irrelevant. It’s an email everyone in the group can read, addressed to the person in position of authority.

I’m using letters for people’s names. The relevant background: B wrote provocative emails. The person with authority, S, asked people to share their thoughts on censorship. No consensus developed, but many members expressed wanting no censorship. After that process, S said he asked B to stop posting for a month, citing personal requests from other community members, who claimed fear from B’s emails. Personally I saw nothing remotely fearful from B’s emails. The following is my response:


The email [you wrote] surprised me.

The following email was difficult to write. I hope I misunderstand things and will be happy to say I’ve misinterpreted things if demonstrated. In the meantime, I have found openness, accountability, and responsibility among the most effective tools to improve personal and group performance, so I’m acting on them. Also, you asked us to share publicly.

You asked people not to let others’ communication affect their composure.

Yet you refer to ideas as poisonous, fearful, and unsafe, rewarding people who suggested B’s email provoked fear and going farther — in other words, doing the opposite of “If you let B’s posts affect your composure, then you are handing the keys of your well being over to him. WHY would you do that, ever? Take what actions you feel appropriate including ‘delete’ and respond but don’t let him determine the emotional domain you occupy. As A reminded us.”Let it go.””

You asked people to share their thoughts on policy. You wrote “I entirely agree with the philosophy expressed that there be no censorship of the board.  […] If you feel deeply concerned with anything that you see, please speak up. As mentioned above you can do so on the board, privately to the person concerned or privately to me”.

I saw a significant group voice asking for no censorship but the free flow of ideas.

Then, as an authority asking someone to stop posting, you censored someone who followed your request. (Following this definition: Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication or other information which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other such entities.)

You rewarded the behavior you suggested people not do — to use back-channel fear-mongering tactics to appeal to authority — to undermine the group’s discussion.

You say B “dominated” the board. “Dominated” how? If you meant in number of posts, I found this claim not credible enough that I tallied the posts in the two months ending August 17 (please check my numbers), which I graphed and attached. B did have the most posts, but at 9.8% (40 out of 409 posts), hardly close to a dominant amount. Many, even most, of his posts people liked. At most a few of his posts were provocative, but you asked people to share their thoughts.

Two months of posts

Did you mean dominated by number of ideas? By type of idea? Well, one person called him a dick (M jokingly called himself a dick and you followed up in the same spirit, but no one insulted someone else until that person cursed at B, who held his composure). People committed what they accused him of… insulting, ranting, condescending, telling him what to do, etc.

No one else was held accountable for behavior comparable to his or even called out.

In related matters, some suggested criticism of you was uncalled for, which I read as coercing people away from sharing ideas. Why would any member of this community not be open to criticism, especially constructive criticism, which I saw B doing? What happens to communities and leaders where its leaders become insulated from criticism?

Even if B wrote things that deserved reproach, if the group hadn’t just strongly voiced that people could delete messages they didn’t like, if you yourself had not just requested people to write what they wanted, then still I can’t see how anyone but themselves are responsible for what they wrote. B’s few provocative emails and their ideas could not “dominate” anything. If topics he raised led to emails from many that collectively dominated the board, then why not hold all who participated accountable?

You seem to say you’re punishing him for one thing, but apparently for unspoken rules arbitrarily not enforced on others doing similar things. Occam’s Razor, to me, suggests he is being censored for not following group cohesion, which comes at the expense of requested individual expression of ideas. This promotes groupthink, which anyone can see in this board.

Please show me what I’m misunderstanding so I don’t have to conclude this group’s leadership says one thing but does another, enforces unspoken rules, enforces rules arbitrarily, uses authority to undermine group discussion, and rewards the opposite behavior than [this community] teaches. I’m not promoting B’s content, much of which I don’t care for any more than anyone else, but at least I recognize he didn’t try to silence anyone or go around processes you set up. I’m constructively criticizing what appears to me as leadership behavior promoting those things. I say constructively despite my directness because you asked people to respond to the board.

You wrote you want people to “Don’t keep jamming my in-box.” What else do you expect when you reward that behavior? Can I silence anyone I want simply by emailing you that they caused me fear? Because that’s what happened here. Personally I fear the silencing of ideas more than sharing them. To stop people jamming your in-box, I would recommend responding to people who lose their composure and ask you to use your authority to sidestep group discussion by suggesting they follow your instruction not to give away those keys. More importantly, if someone with authority sets up a process but then abandons it, group members will feel motivated to get their way the next time. Some will act on that motivation.

In my last email to the group, I wrote (and received several supportive emails in response, none negatively critical)

[This community’s] talk: We want diversity of thought, no censorship, all ideas welcome. Peace and love.

[This community’s] action: If we disagree with you we insult, judge, tell you to stop, call you unhealthy, and more. Holier-than-thou, self-righteous. Long diatribes putting down long diatribes. Animosity and passive aggression.

I see no mystery where that behavior of saying one thing and doing another comes from. The group is being led that way. I expect some people reading this post are thinking of how to silence my voice, thinking of what emotion to claim I evoked. I hope instead that they are looking inside to find ways to learn from a post that challenges them.

Lessons I learned from [this community] apply to this situation beyond not giving away the keys to your well-being. [One of its key lessons] doesn’t say quit when you don’t like a boss or working environment. Nor to insult, censor, or go to the boss when you feel bad about colleagues. As I read it it suggests taking responsibility for envisioning possibilities. Why, then, are people quitting the board and complaining instead of applying the lessons of the exercise to a similar case? Because the group’s leader is rewarding them using fear-mongering back-channels to censor people.

I envision a community where people let others share what they want, where authority is not used arbitrarily, where people learn from challenge and diversity, especially diversity of ideas, including ideas they don’t like. I don’t like sending emails like this, but I see the alternative continuing a trend counter to the group’s stated (if not practiced) goals. It’s much easier not to write anything and let the other group discussion continue. But I’d know that someone was silenced for sharing ideas with the public message that anyone else could be too, and the fear-mongering would have been rewarded without criticism.

If people are leaving the group because they don’t like it, have they given up on [this community]’s lessons? Is the group not that robust? I believe discussion like this email helps improve the damaged robustness and I think calling ideas fearful, poisonous, and unsafe is fearful, poisonous, and unsafe. Do I suggest you should be censored because I fear those ideas? No, the best solution I’ve found to an idea I don’t like is another idea, combined with understanding, empathy, and compassion.



I tried to avoid imposing my values on others in the email above. My first draft had anger and indignation, which I found counterproductive. After that draft I tried to understand why I felt that way. As I did, those feelings subsided, allowing me to act not on those emotions, but to focus on what I thought would improve the situation.

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