So it should come as no surprise that members of Congress placed second from the bottom, just above used car salesmen, in a recent Gallup poll that ranked the integrity and ethical standards of 22 professions.
These findings are a pointed reminder that leaders need to act in ways that build trust and stakeholder engagement, not erode them.
Three-quarters of all Americans, including 61 percent of Republicans, said they would accept raising tax rates on the wealthy in order to avoid large spending cuts and tax increases set to take place on Jan.1, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The "fiscal cliff" that could imminently disrupt the nation's economy is the result of a leadership pit, a morass of dysfunctional behaviors.
Businesses Brace for 'Fiscal Cliff' Impact
Specifically, the intense polarization and gridlock that have characterized national politics since 2008 has activated and strengthened five deadly leader behaviors. As recent events demonstrate, these behaviors have been reinforced to the point where our congressional decision makers are operating on a day-to-day basis that is maladaptive and dangerous to national governance and welfare.
Deadly Leadership Behaviors:
• Denial: Outright rejection of unacceptable facts or feelings. ("There is no problem.")
• Minimization: Lessoning the importance of a fact or situation. ("It doesn't matter.")
• Rationalization: Justifying an action or stand. ("Everybody's doing it.")
• Black-white thinking: All-or-nothing approach. ("We're right, they're wrong.")
• Blaming: Directing responsibility elsewhere. ("We're not the problem, they are.")
These Behaviors Are Deadly for Several Reasons
First, they become so ingrained that the smallest compromise or concession can trigger an automatic "fight or flight" reaction.
(Read More: Gridlock on 'Fiscal Cliff' Puts Senate in Focus.)
Second, they distort or limit how leaders interpret critical information. This in turn can affect their ability to make rational decisions and necessary corrective actions.
Third, they produce exactly the opposite of the desired effect, which is restoring trust. Instead, the public sees these behaviors as self-serving, which reinforces skepticism and further erodes leader credibility.
Winning Crisis Management Tactics for Congress
Recalibrate mentally. The American public is looking for true leadership, not posturing and brinksmanship. Our politicians need to abandon their dysfunctional habits of kicking-the-can-down-the-road ("denial" and "minimization") and faulting the other side ("black-and-white thinking" and "blaming").
Act like true leaders, not timid followers. In our poll-driven culture, elected officials have become opinion followers rather than leaders who are courageous independent thinkers committed to the greater good. Real leaders recognize that finding a middle ground through collaboration and compromise can be vital to heading off a crisis.
Accept that perception is reality. In other words, if our elected officials in Washington try to go under cover or avoid engagement with colleagues across the aisle, people will assume they are not on the job.
Focus on fairness. Research shows that people will accept compromise and personal sacrifice, such as an increase in their taxes or reduction in their benefits, if they perceive the decision-making process to be fair. Therefore, our elected officials should communicate issues and corrective actions to their constituencies in terms of fair process and equitable solutions.
Stand and deliver. In a crisis situation such as the looming fiscal cliff, it's often necessary to over-correct to achieve an enduring solution. Our politicians must muster the courage to tackle the core issues rather than settle for small interim solutions.
Is There a 'Plan C' for the 'Fiscal Cliff'?
The financial deficit crisis shines a harsh spotlight on the fact that there is a major leadership deficit among our elected officials in Washington. To resolve this fiscal cliff hanger before it is too late, our political leaders first need to get out of their bad-habit pit.
They can start the climb out by accepting reality: The world is not simple black-and-white, but a complex compromise of gray.
Susan Battley, PsyD, PhD, is a leadership psychologist, author and speaker. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a strategic leadership advisory firm that works with world-class CEOs and boards. Her radio program on leadership and career excellence, "Fast Focus on Success," was commended by the Clinton White House. She is a founding fellow of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard's affiliate McLean Hospital, and a past board member of the Institute of Management Consultants, New York.