Does Your Organization Walk Its Talk?
by Adele Sommers
Businesses often overlook many critical opportunities to be sure their talk and actions are congruent. If the management says one thing but does another, it’s sending mixed signals, and will likely experience mixed results. Mixed messages communicate to people that they can’t trust what they hear, so they are unlikely to put forth their best effort. Casualties in these situations include motivation and morale.
It’s not difficult to imagine why leading by example and setting clear expectations are important to an organization. You might be wondering, though, “Why should managing consequences be so important? Is that really such a big deal?”
This article explores the reasons why they matter, and reveals four crucial keys to aligning consequences with expectations. But first, let’s look at an enlightening story that can help us expose the answers.
Alert: You will be asked to step in and analyze the situation after everyone else runs out of ideas!
The Story Background
In this sequence of events, ABC Company’s Publications Department decides it wants to improve its customer service to the other departments in the company.
The organization as a whole strongly endorses the idea of teamwork. So naturally, the department manager assumes that a team approach to achieving this goal is the ideal means by which to do it.
The department soon establishes its new customer service team. The team then embarks on its mission and sets to work.
Yet after the team convenes several times, it stops meeting regularly and halts production on its team proposals. Why?
Management believes that perhaps the team has not received enough training. The manager asks the Training Department to intervene.
The Training Department researches the situation and discovers that the team has already received plenty of training. The team members seem to be up to speed on meeting protocols, brainstorming, and problem-solving techniques.
So, what else could be the team’s problem?
Confusing Rewards and Penalties?
You are assigned to investigate by speaking directly with the team members. After holding a few key conversations, you can confirm that the team’s skills and methods do not appear to be lacking. In fact, the team already has evaluated several types of customer service improvements.
What you finally discover after probing a bit further, however, is that some team members are being penalized for working toward the goals of the team, while others are being rewarded for working against the goals of the team.
These mixed signals seem to be emanating from management, yet are so subtle that no one can easily spot them. They become evident only after you put the pieces of the puzzle together.
What is happening? You ultimately learn that the team had initially received a charter to meet on company time. However, once the team had started meeting, some members began hearing perplexing warnings from their supervisors, such as, “Just because you’ve been given a charter to meet doesn’t mean you can let your workload slip!”
While not intended as such, those caveats sound like threats. The members feel very torn between their team projects and their workloads. The lukewarm, or even slightly negative, signals about team meetings come across like punishments.
Next, you learn that some of the supervisors are inadvertently rewarding the members who are having to miss meetings because of urgent work requests. Those members are receiving praise and thanks for putting out fires.
Meanwhile, the rest of the members feel guilty for attending team meetings!
Finally, you determine that the team is receiving little management support after submitting customer-service-improvement ideas.
With several levels of decision-makers, and a lengthy coordination process needed to approve even the simplest procedural change, most team members are feeling too discouraged to continue.
The bureaucracy alone is daunting!
You ultimately come to the conclusion that these symptoms reveal a critical need at ABC Company: To align expectations and consequences in the enterprise. You believe that if leaders pay close attention to these crucial interrelationships, they will send clearer signals about the actions they supposedly encourage or discourage.
You recognize that if managers transmit confusing messages, give muddled or inconsistent responses, or simply ignore what people are doing when they should be paying attention to them, any goal they’re striving for will begin to unravel, or never get off the ground.
One of the insights you’re aiming to send back to management is that even mildly confusing messages can discourage people from putting forth their best efforts. That’s why “walking the talk” means the organization will want to ensure that:
- No one discourages people from doing what does need to be done (and that people have been given clear guidelines and authority for doing it), and that...
- It also encourages the behaviors, actions, and attitudes it does want to see, and rewards people accordingly!
As you’ve observed, these situations don’t always reveal themselves in black and white. Any misalignments can appear in shades of gray, where they are difficult to detect.
That’s where vigilance, awareness, and looking at a situation from all angles come into play.
How to Be Sure Your Organization Walks Its Talk
Here is your final recommendation: To determine whether the organization’s expectations and consequences are congruent, leaders must earnestly consider the following questions. If all of the answers are “yes,” everyone can take credit — but also must remain alert for future inconsistencies.
Do we consistently recognize (for example, do we acknowledge or reward) the desirable things people do? Do we also avoid penalizing or punishing people in subtle ways for doing what we’ve asked them to do?
Do we consistently discourage the undesirable things people do?
Do we consistently pay attention to things we should be monitoring?
Do we make the work rewarding? That is, do we offer incentives that will motivate people to do the work well? (Although there is much more to the recipe for motivation, if consequences are not aligned, all of the incentives in the world cannot correct the resulting imbalances!)
In conclusion, aligning consequences with expectations is easier said than done. But by becoming aware of and applying these cause-and-effect relationships, you’ll encourage the very best results from your colleagues and staff. By focusing on the link between expectations and outcomes, you will ensure that people aren’t receiving unclear signals about what to do — and how, when, or where to do it!
Copyright 2021 Adele Sommers