Our firm was engaged by the CEO of a large professional services firm to assess why his leadership team was not “working as a team” and what he could do to improve group communications. I observed leadership team meetings as well as one-on-one meetings, and I interviewed everyone, including the CEO, individually.
The assessment revealed that the strongest factor influencing communication dysfunction was not the ways in which team members communicated with each other, but the ways in which the CEO communicated with each of them individually and with the team collectively. More specifically: the way the CEO BIRGed and CORFed during team and one-on-one meetings.
BIRGing and CORFing. Sounds like something one does after a night of avoiding good judgment, doesn’t it? As unappealing as the terms are from an aurally aesthetic perspective, these social psychology terms help us understand everything from the behavior of sports fanatics to the communication patterns of effective leaders.
BIRGing – Basking In Reflected Glory – refers to the ways in which we feel more energized, successful and happy when we associate ourselves (and our identities) with people who are winning: successful people who are shining in the spotlight as victorious, heroic and deserving of glory. Our association with these successful people allows us to indirectly shine through their success, and the more intense our association with these successful people, the more intensely we shine. Think about the parades thrown for the Super Bowl winners, the World Series winners, the NCAA Champions. The sports fanatics who associate intensely with their chosen teams bask in the glory of their team’s win, and they actually feel more energized, successful and happy because of this association. The team’s win becomes “our win” in the lingo of the fan.
So, what happens when “our” team does not win, when there is no glory with which to associate? We begin CORFing – Cutting Off Reflected Failure. When there is no celebration or parade, we slowly speak of “our” team in terms of what “they” did wrong. We move from “we” to “they” because we don’t like to lose. ”We” win, but “they” lose. We disassociate our identities very quickly with individuals, teams and anyone not successful, victorious or heroic because associating with loss makes us feel… well, like losers.
The evidence of BIRGing and CORFing are manifestly evident in sports, in politics and in other arenas where winners and losers are unambiguously articulated. We understand the mad rush to don our favorite team’s gear when they are doing well or why supporters of the losing political candidate don’t particularly feel like talking about politics for a few days (or weeks) after an election. That said, BIRGing and CORFing behaviors are not limited to arenas where winning and losing are notably public. We BIRG and CORF constantly (and often unconsciously!) in our workplaces.
Back to the CEO seeking the roots of dysfunction in his teams’s communication patterns. Totally unconsciously, the CEO consistently used “we” when he spoke to the heads of the departments performing well – winning. But he said “you” when speaking to the heads of departments not performing well – failing. Thought the CEO did not, the leaders noticed the difference in language and they responded accordingly. Leaders of the departments who were not doing well, became more and more defensive in meetings while the leaders of the departments that were doing well felt great in the embrace of “we.” This difference created great distance between the CEO and the leaders, who naturally became defensive in reaction to the BIRGing and CORFing.
When we shared our findings with the CEO, he initially refused to believe that he differentiated between leaders with a “we” and a “you,” but as we worked through the data, he realized that he associated himself with leaders based on his perception of how successful they were. We worked through the “chicken and egg” dilemma of what came first – his association or the success, and he eventually realized that neither the chicken nor the egg mattered. As a leader, he was aligning with perceived success instead of leading his team collectively, and that was not who he wanted to be as a leader or how he wanted to lead his team.
Michael Jordan (yes, we are back to sports!) once said that talent wins games, but teams win championships. I shared this quote with the CEO to help him understand how BIRGing and CORFing may win some games, but unless all components of his team felt like a “we” to him, his team would never win championships.
The CEO agreed to take ownership of his perceptions and language before he asked his leadership team to change their behaviors. He told me that although he understood my findings in theory, it was the quote from Michael Jordan that helped him understand how he needed to change as a leader.
As proud as I was of the work we did in the comprehensive assessment, I was equally happy to BIRG in Jordan’s wisdom!