When I was a newly minted consultant (circa 1990), I was introduced to W. Edwards Deming’s transformational views on leadership. If you’ve forgotten (or never knew), Dr. Deming is considered the master of Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) and has influenced thousands of businesses around the world. My back-then boss, Tony, often repeated Deming’s assertion that 94% of problems [in organizations] are caused by the systems, not the people implementing them. I knew this was ground truth the moment I heard it. While it’s easy to blame people for causing problems, usually they’re playing out symptoms of larger, deeper issues. What are those, and why should you care?
Another truism often ascribed to Deming is "Every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it does." Put these together, and they suggest rather strongly that as the leader, you are getting exactly the results you’ve designed your organization to produce.
Wow. Stop and think about this for a minute. IF THIS IS TRUE – What in your company needs your attention this month? Not sure? List the results you can see, and the ones others tell you they see (include the tangible, measurable ones and the intangibles, and both positive and negative). You may have to face up to some ground truth yourself.
Leaders Set the Tone
Shocking or not, you are responsible for whatever is being produced. For today, let’s narrow your scope – look especially closely at the leadership culture of your organization. To be blunt, you should assume you’re getting exactly what your systems are set up to produce. So if there’s low trust in your leaders or complaints about poor management, combative salespeople and product team members, ask yourself: how have these come to prevail? Specifically, how are you (and your leaders) rewarding such unwanted behaviors?
For example, if your organization rewards internal competition (say, between two design teams, or two product teams), whether intentional or unintentional, you’ll likely get internal infighting, competing for resources, and silos. If people bring you problems and you tell them what to do, or how to go about solving the problem, you may be breeding a "follower" culture rather than an accountable one - which will suboptimize results in many companies.
Behaviors Drive Culture - Period
This is especially true about behaviors you permit, meaning you allow them to happen without consequences. Think of this from an employee perspective: if you tolerate "bad" behavior from one or two individuals, everyone can clearly see that these behaviors are acceptable, even if you say they aren’t. You’ve just created a cultural slippery slope.
Take a minute right now to reflect on your culture. How do your leaders treat one another? Talk about each other, or others in the organization? Then imagine how leaders in your organization behave when "no one is watching." You’ll have to impute it from stories, gossip, back channel conversations, or maybe from exit interviews.
What signals are being sent about what’s expected in your company? How do these shape the way employees work together to deliver results? Ultimately, you’re asking yourself whether or not your culture is helping your org reach its goals.
Three Behaviors to Nip in the Bud
Wondering what to look for? Here are three behaviors you can extinguish with clear leadership norms:
Blaming is never helpful. It triggers defensiveness involuntarily, as the amygdala fires out chemicals that drive fight, flight or freeze. Further – when leaders blame others, they are intrinsically avoiding accountability. [See paragraph 1 - Deming’s 94% – the leaders are responsible for the systems. That’s their job.] Instead, praise what’s been done well – a good decision process, even if the outcomes aren’t ideal, for example. And then build a safe learning zone, reflecting on what happened and what we could do better "next time."
Fueling interpersonal conflict is an altogether too popular workplace pastime. Gossiping, besides wasting time, spreads emotional drama like wildfire. What helps? First, don’t tolerate gossiping leaders. Call it out, and ask what conversation needs to be had instead.
3. Workplace Rudeness.
Over the last decade, workplace rudeness (and incivility in general) has been on the rise, and it’s been exacerbated by the increase in remote work over the last two years. What you may not know is that even in 2016, more than 60% of employees reported having been treated rudely by colleagues at least monthly. Tolerating incivility is extremely costly to organizations, but it’s especially hard to identify, since "60% of the time bad behavior flows top-down." For example, 80% of employees reported they lost work time worrying about the incident, and 63% lost time avoiding the offender. Just imagine how this adds up!
Where to Start
What can you do starting today? Here are a few initial (small) steps you can take:
- Observe. Watch and listen to your team with a fresh ear. Take a few days to think about what behaviors you’re tolerating, and why.
- Analyze. What patterns do you notice, especially in whom, and why.
- Inquire. Share your observations with your executive team. Invite them to join you in thinking about what messages you (as a team) are sending with your behaviors.
- Prioritize. Choose (ideally as a team) the one or two most important changes you’d like to make, starting with yourselves, right away. Define the specific behavior changes you will all make.
- Evaluate. Periodically review what changes you’re noticing – thinking specifically about the results you’re seeing in how the organization is behaving, aka the impact your changes are having on the people and the culture.
As always, the buck stops with you – whatever results you’re seeing your organization produce, you (and your leadership teams) are the responsible parties.
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