We’ve all seen those inspirational posters that started to appear on office walls in the 90’s. We’ve heard the inspiring mottos, lovingly lambasted in films like Men in Black; “The best of the best!” I’m sure that many businesses across the western world have spent millions on agonising over the latest buzzwords, management speak and the slogans. Just imagine how much time and money has been expended morphing these stated goals to keep up with the latest trends. Businesses may start with pushing for “Customer Satisfaction” then move to “Total Customer Satisfaction”, before reaching the point of aiming for “Customer Delight”.
Organisations have taken these beautifully created phrases and words and adorned the walls of numerous offices. All of these have been designed to with the intention of modifying employees’ behaviour, as we all know when we read the mere act of reading the pronouncement of “strategy and values” will instantly change deep seated attitudes. Writing “Trust” or “Collaboration” in big letters on a poster will not change opinions towards each other and especially the organisations leaders.
Talking a Good Game
Regardless of the near obsessive focus on the words some may have, a very large problem exists: there is rarely any correlation between the words agonised over and displayed on walls and the behaviour of the organisations leaders. I don’t think I’ve heard of a company that hasn’t espoused or valued “integrity”, “respect for employees”, “quality”, “customer satisfaction”, “innovation” and so on. As, in essence, all businesses are striving for the same behavioural objectives, these slogans lose meaning with employees and customers.
Enrol is a good example. Before their very well publicised collapse in 2011, they had created a very professionally produced show-reel on Enron’s ethics and integrity. This highlighted their philanthropic activities and community work; the character of the Executive team were of particular note. Clearly Enron had spent a considerable sum on “packaging” the messages and marketing these values. In the end it didn’t have any bearing on what was to follow. As you will be away many on the top executives subsequently ended up in prison or indicted.
In a study by Business Week in 2006, involving more than 11,000 managers across 8 large organisations in the USA, looked at the impact of leadership development programs in changing and shaping leaders’ behaviour. Each of the eight businesses espoused different values through very different words describing their ideal leadership behaviours.
The study discovered that the different words or phrasing made absolutely no difference in determining the behaviour of the leaders. One of the business in the study have spent thousands of hours crafting the precise words to best express its view on how their leaders should act, this appears to have been in vain. The first draft, if grammatically correct may have been just as valuable as the final polished version. The study found the deciding factor as to the effectiveness of any initiative was how seriously the participants took the feedback and training. Those who made a personal commitment to improvement and followed up with their fellow attendees became more effective. The Leaders who dutifully attended sessions, listened but took no immediate action or made no personal commitment were found to develop at the same level as those that had not attended the presentations or workshops.
Actions Speak Loudest
The businesses that that are the most successful at living up to their espoused values and produce ethical employees, including leaders, realise that the key to success – or failure- is always the people, not the words that are in the corporate literature. Rather than expending time feverously revamping the slogans and behaviour posters to find the precise words to capture the desired leadership conduct. Businesses that ensure that leaders get (and act upon) feedback from employees and customers, those who actually observe the leadership behaviours, see tangible results.
The preoccupation of modifying performance appraisal forms and scoring mechanisms was found by the study to provide little value at the higher levels of the organisation. It suggested that business leaders should focus their energy on providing coaching and learning from employees removing perceived barriers.
Ultimately, leaders’ actions will be more powerful message to employees about values and the competence of the leadership than the words used. If the actions of the leadership are clear and purposeful, the words that emblazon the walls of the offices will be of very little importance regardless of how ‘prefect’ they may be. Conversely, if the leadership actions are at odds with the wonderfully crafted words displayed the walls of the offices they will look more ridiculous.