Why do bad business results cause otherwise good people to turn toxic at times, with an impact that cascades downward on the rest of the organization? It’s a phenomenon known as “The Waterfall Effect,” as I describe in my new (bestselling!) book, Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization.
Think of the mass of water at the top of a waterfall, just before it plummets over the edge, turbulent and frothing. Now notice that bulk of water cascading downward with intense ferocity, each drop of water in a fast-moving freefall. Closer examination reveals that each drop of water impacts the path of the drop below it. It’s immutable, such is the downward force of gravity. After the long descent into a frenzied gathering pool, the collective body of water races downstream, eventually settling into a smoother, less agitated rhythm.
Such is the flow of organizational behavior during times of bad results. It’s when the Waterfall Effect can kick in, which says: just as every drop of water in a turbulent waterfall effects the course of other drops below it, so does every leader’s behavior effect employee’s behavior below him or her. Agitation begets agitation. It’s just gravity. It’s an unfortunate part of human nature. Eventually, things settle down further downstream, but not before the course of many individual behaviors has been altered.
Knowing that this is what happens in times of poor results helps you spot the cascade in action; the toxic behavior that hurls downward, from upper management, to you (trying to lead from the middle), to those down on the front line. Seeing it for what it is helps you to positively, not negatively, alter the path of others. Here’s what the toxic cascade might specifically look like. When things aren’t going well, those at the top feel the turbidity the most, and it shows up as finger pointing, applying more pressure unnecessarily, losing patience more quickly more often, more micromanaging, more tenseness in every meeting, and forgetting to praise but always remembering to berate and belittle, among other undesirable outcomes. Such behavior can materially affect your outlook, attitude, and actions. It can cause you to unintentionally pass on the toxicity to those below you.
But in knowing this fundamental truth, you can defy gravity.
Remember that the poor behavior you’re experiencing from those above you is just gravity, the weight of their toxic emotions and actions falling onto you, taking you off course. The leaders above you aren’t always like this. They’re likely good people at the core, but turmoil has changed them and as a result they interact differently with those below them, far more negatively than they normally would. You can refuse to let your behaviors mirror those above you and negatively affect those below you. You can better forgive the behavior of those above you and choose to see it as just gravity; they’re passing down what’s been thrust upon them. And it’s all starting from a chaotic source, the wildly churning waters from the stream that feeds into the waterfall (the bad results that have been building up).
While it may be coming fast and furious at you from above, you can avoid throwing the employees on your team into a frenzied, off-course misdirect with your words and actions. You can control the flow of actions and attitude from you on down and steer everyone into calmer, more reassuring waters.
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