It’s a common refrain among my executive clients. Life at the top would be so much easier, if only “they” would “get it.”
In fact, your employees probably _are _doing what you say. You just may be saying things you don’t intend. It’s often not your broad proclamations that give direction; it’s the little things you do that have the biggest impact.
Your actions encourage and discourage behavior
Remember when you were a front-line employee. Executives’ actions were relentlessly scrutinized. A late arrival, a smile, or a nod could introduce chaos. A CEO I worked with was looking over his marketing department’s latest campaign. He frowned at a storyboard before strolling away.
Unknown to him, the team saw the frown, scrapped the campaign, and spent the weekend reworking everything from the ground up. When he found out, he was flabbergasted. He never thought a simple frown would change the team’s direction.
Your reactions to employees and their work will send signals. Remember this! If you notice yourself frowning or smiling, nodding or shaking your head when it may send the wrong message, stop. Think about the message you may have sent, and say or do whatever it takes to make sure your audience knows your intent.
Watch your words, too. A joke may not be a joke. A consulting firm’s Managing Director smiled and quipped “Remember, if you’re not here Sunday, don’t bother coming in Monday.” He was smiling. Everyone knew he was joking. And as one team member later told me, “I felt like I had to come in Sunday. Sure, he was joking. But he’s the Managing Director. Maybe it’s not 100% a joke.”
You lead by demonstration
Of course, the Managing Director was there Sunday, thus insuring everyone would know weekend appearances are mandatory. Your actions will, by demonstration, always be the most significant way you communicate standards of behavior and priorities to your company. The Managing Director cared deeply that his people have an outside life, and said so on many occasions. But his coming in on weekends spoke louder than his words in signaling acceptable behavior.
What you don’t do also matters
What you don’t say out loud, the actions you don’t acknowledge, and the signs you don’t show send powerful messages, as well. The messages sent by omission are harder to detect. After all, theres nothing there to examine! But there are things your employees might expect that aren’t forthcoming.
If you don’t acknowledge people, it can send a message that you don’t value their contribution. Different people need different acknowledgment. For some, it’s public recognition. For others, it may simply be mentioning “Hey, you did a really great job.”
If you don’t give feedback when someone does a poor job, you send the message that their performance is fine. If someone is screwing up, they deserve to know as early as possible. Otherwise, they’ll walk away with a message that does neither of you any good.
Common courtesy is increasingly rare, and its absence communicates a subtle lack of respect or lack of individual concern. A simple “Please,” or “Thank you” with a smile and direct eye contact takes only a couple of seconds. If you don’t have time even for that, then people will (rightly!) conclude they aren’t important enough to warrant your attention.
Making decisions in isolation quickly lets people know you don’t trust them. I have worked with companies in which the senior managers are very open with their big decisions, and other companies in which “we can’t tell them that” is a common refrain. As far as I can tell, involvement signals faith that your employees have something of value to contribute. When that involvement is missing, the message of distrust is loud and clear.
Not sharing bad news sends the message that everything is fine. It’s easy to keep bad news quiet, for fear of hurting morale. But framing bad news as a reason to rally builds a team instead of breaking it down. Shared challenge is the stuff of bonding. Use it!
A Great Business Leader Knows His Impact
Matsushita, one of history’s most successful businessmen, knew the impact he had on everyone around him. As this story shows1, he even appreciated the messages conveyed by what he didn’t do.
The father of $75 billion empire, Matsushita was revered in Japan with nearly as much respect and reverence as was the Emperor. And he was just as busy.
One day, Matsushita was to eat lunch with his executives at a local Osaka restaurant (Matsushita Leadership by John Kotter). Upon his entrance, people stopped to bow and acknowledge this great man. Matsushita honored the welcome and sat at a table selected by the manager.
Matsushita ate only half of his meal. He asked for the chef, who appeared in an instant, shaken and upset. The Great One nodded and spoke: “I felt that if you saw I had only eaten half of my meal, you would think I did not like the food or its preparation. Nothing could be less true. The food and your preparation of it were excellent. I am just old and can not eat as much as I used to. I wanted you to know that and to thank you personally.”
Concrete next steps
If you find yourself under the magnifying glass, here are ways of mastering the situation.
Don’t get caught off guard. Schedule five minutes at the end of the day to review your day, note who you came in contact with, and simply ask yourself what messages you sent.
Use the magnifying glass deliberately. At the start of the week, choose a message you want to communicate by example. Spend a moment or two identifying exactly where you can send the message, and how you have to behave to send it. Then do it.
Check for messages of omission. During your daily review, ask yourself who you didn’t contact, but who might have expected it (you may not know who at first, but over time, you’ll learn). What message does the lack of contact send? What message will rumors of what you did do send to those who didn’t see/talk to you?
Review company systems. To make sure you’re sending the same message as your company, review the systems once a year or so. Review your compensation plan: what does it communicate about company goals? What behavior does it encourage? Discourage? Review your decision making and feedback processes. Ask yourself if you’re omitting anyone or anything in those areas.