Leading by Example
A Q&A with Don Rheem
One of the questions we ask in our engagement survey has to do with whether Senior Leader's behavior is consistent the mission and values of their organization. Why is this question so important to determining engagement levels in a company?
Done correctly, values provide norms of behavior that align individuals to more consistent behaviors. In effect, they make the office culture more predictable and consistent - conditions the brain craves in order to feel safe and function closer to its full capacity.
For example, one of our clients, a large pharmaceutical company, has Stewardship as one of their core values. It's an interesting core value. It's not very common and it sends a clear message that employees are expected to be good stewards of the organization's resources. Employees can and do identify examples of being a good steward in an organization.
But when they see their manager or a member of the leadership team being wasteful, that behavior creates a cognitive dissonance. Maybe the leader doesn’t double checking their work and a whole run of brochures has to be tossed out, or they habitually waste time or resources on things that are frivolous. They don’t lead in ways that demonstrate Stewardship.
Employees working hard to demonstrate core values will begin to think, "Why am I trying to be a good steward at this micro level when my manager or department head is wasting things at a macro level?" Eventually, staff either comes to view core values as window dressing or begin to believe their leaders are two-faced regarding allegiance to values. This values-based dissonance undercuts leadership street cred and fosters disengagement.
Can you tell me more about the role core values play in leading by example?
One of the ways we find safety in an organization is through consistent expectations around how everyone behaves. Organizations should use core values to set behavioral parameters. Many organizations have a great list of core values, but managers don’t always act in a way that's congruent, they don't always "walk the talk". The talk is the core values. Integrity. Customer Service. Collaboration. But are people actually behaving in a way that is consistent with that on a daily basis? That’s the test of leading by example.
In the organizations where leaders are operating in a consistent and predictable way that's congruent with core values, people in that organization feel safer at a visceral level. That feeling allows people to thrive and work at a higher capacity because they can count on others to behave predictably; in ways they can trust so the brain doesn’t have to be constantly on-guard for behavioral blindsides.
If you have peer colleagues, vs leaders, not demonstrating core values, is the impact the same?
Yes and no. Yes, whenever there is a lack of predictability in the workplace it contributes to a felt sense of “I’m not safe here.” At the same time, it’s more troubling when a leader acts out of integrity than it might be for a colleague to do so. A leader’s behavior is sentinel. This is the person who should be guarding the workplace environment, leading us, setting the example and standards of behavior.
Anyone in a position of authority is auditioning for leadership in every behavior they exhibit. The definition of a leader is to lead and part of that is to set the standards every member of the team should follow. We do put a disproportionate focus on how leaders are behaving versus our colleagues on the team, and rightly so.
Here’s one other issue this will raise for the team: when leaders act in ways that are incongruent, it implies that they're less likely to hold others accountable to established standards. Employees can become more frustrated and disengaged as they come to see their leader as incapable or unwilling to promote accountability among team members, a condition that typically leads to feelings that the workplace is unfair, and good behavior is undervalued. Unaccountable managers seen as less likely to maintain the integrity of the whole team around core values and behavioral norms, and thus are more likely to see lower levels of engagement, productivity, and employee retention.
For more insights on how to lead by example and create a deeply engaged organization, watch my TEDTalk "Can Work Save Our Relationships?"
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