The “One Thing” Dilemma

Everybody has a program to increase quality, productivity, employee engagement and the like. (Gamification [believe it or not – using games to get employees engaged], Town Halls, Appreciative Inquiry, Lean Manufacturing, PIPs, Value-Based PIP, TQM, Six Sigma, etc., etc.). Most of these efforts fail. They fail not because they are wrong or because they are bad programs. Many contain lots of useful ideas and, if taken seriously and implemented well, will produce good results for the organization. Every such program includes some sort of leadership training in which the company’s managers are exhorted to be champions and role models. They are reminded that such programs don’t work without senior management support. The managers often sally forth and say all the right things. They spend money on the program.

In fact, there are hundreds of powerful approaches to improving the performance of organizations.  Any one of these ideas will deliver on its promise if executed thoroughly and well.  Disturbingly, most are not being executed well or thoroughly.  Many companies are spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to implement parts of these processes.  In almost every case, the one thing that is not being done is changing the behavior of managers in ways that will reduce fear in their organizations.  Ironically, that is the one thing that must be done to achieve success.  Without it, the rest is a waste of time and money.  In some cases, the implementation of new processes is being done in ways that increase fear rather than reduce it (Those who don’t “tow the company line” are the first to be laid off.).  This is particularly dangerous because early positive results that are artifacts of force mask the disintegration of the process.  The more power the leaders use, the more likely it is that people will hide problems and hold back information and energy when you need it most.

A friend of mine decided that she needed to lose weight and trim up.  She joined a health club, bought several pairs of athletic shoes and a new aerobics outfit. She bought fitness tapes and books on diet and exercise.  She joined a health food cooperative.  She took a motivational class where she visualized a slimmer self and set reasonable, achievable goals for herself.  The one thing she did not do was exercise.  She did go on a crash diet that lasted about five weeks.  She lost about 15 pounds.  Unfortunately, you probably know the rest of the story.  She quickly regained the 15 pounds and added four or five more for good measure.  She is very disappointed.  She is considering a new diet. I hope it works but she will have to change some really fundamental habits to make it happen. She will have to exercise regularly and keep exercising for a long time.

managers leadership training companyThe managers of a small electronics company undertook a new Performance Improvement Program.  All the executives attended an offsite teambuilding workshop.  All of the company’s managers participated in a leadership training workshop. They created a vision statement.  They organized the workforce into teams.  They trained everyone in problem solving and teamwork.  They implemented a new incentive system to reward good ideas.  They trained all the appropriate personnel in the technical aspects of the program. They put up posters, charts and graphs.  They set goals and communicated the results.  The one thing they did not do was change their own behavior.  After about eight months, productivity was up.  Defects and costs were down.  Unfortunately, you probably know the rest of the story.  The improvements stopped.  Employees stopped offering suggestions and morale took a nosedive.  A few months later, productivity was back to its old level.  Defects and costs were higher than ever.  They had a layoff.  Everyone was very disappointed. The managers are considering a new program.  It won’t work unless the leaders learn new skills and learn to use those skills every day.

It’s not that the team building and training activities are bad or not important parts of the process.  They are!  In fact, these kinds of activities can do much to help you achieve the momentum you need to move the organization in the direction of superior performance.  But, without fundamental changes in the behavior of the leaders of the organization, desirable results will not be sustainable.

Indeed, a disturbing irony is that without such fundamental behavior changes on the part of the organization’s leaders, the rest of the activities may do more harm than good.  People learn from experiences.  They do not, however, always learn what you hope they will learn.  The more often this pattern is repeated, the more adept people become at avoiding any real commitment to the effort.  Rather than learn the skills they need to improve performance, they learn the skills they need to stay out of trouble by appearing to go along with the program. In addition, your initiatives lose credibility and powerful ideas are discredited.  (“Teams don’t work.  We tried that last year.”)  Each time a program fails, the probability that the next program will be sabotaged increases.  And, the likelihood of being able to detect the efforts at sabotage (intentional or unintentional) declines. People become suspicious. They withhold information. They are less likely to believe what their managers tell them.  Uncertainty almost always leads to more anxiety and fear. They become cynical. As the level of fear increases (trust decreases), the accuracy of communication decreases at an alarming rate.  The more suspicious we are of the motives of others, the more likely we are to attribute negative or dishonest meanings to their messages regardless of the words. After a while, it no longer matters what the managers say, no one believes it. Under these conditions, traditional leadership training just won’t do the trick.

Leadership training must focus squarely on the skills and behaviors of those in leadership roles. The more times your company has tried to change the culture or engage its employees or improve productivity or quality, the more important this becomes. The participants in the leadership training need to understand that they can’t talk their way out of this. They need to make fundamental changes in their behavior that they can sustain over the long haul. While trust can be destroyed quickly, the “learning curve” for restoring trust is a long, gradual, painstaking one. And, the more times, trust has been broken, the longer it takes to get it back (if ever). One of the ironies of this process is that even well-meaning leaders get thrown in with the “bad guys.” The fact that one individual is an honest, straightforward, open-minded, skillful leader, does not exempt him or her from the suspicion of team members (“All managers are alike.”).

To avoid this trap, the company must:

•    Clearly identify the business need for organizational change. Don’t start a program just because everyone else is doing it or to increase your ranking on the “Best Companies to Work For” list. Do it because your business needs it. Be clear.
•    Communicate that need to all of your employees. Don’t mince words. Tell people the real reasons for making changes. Don’t contaminate the process with “touchy-feely” jargon.
•    Create a system for identifying what the employees need in order to accomplish the business needs. This system needs to be rigorous. The leaders need to learn how to listen and they need a structured way to get regular feedback from their teams.
•    Respond clearly to every need identified. No leader should be allowed to ignore any request. Every issue should be treated as a serious item. The answer can be either yes or no, but there should never be an ambiguous, or evasive response.
•    Conduct the kind of leadership training that focuses on fundamental behavior change. Managers should be taught fundamental communication skills that make them better listeners, more forthright and constructive confronters, and competent conflict mediators.
•    Hold leaders accountable. Every leader should be held to a very high standard in her or his use of these skills on a day-to-day basis. This should be measured and included on the regular performance review.
•    Follow up. Follow up. Follow up. Don’t let up. Sustain the effort until you are confident that the new processes and skills are an integral part of the culture.
•    Follow up. I know I am repeating myself. But it’s important.

So, do the surveys, conduct the training, create the vision, do all of the fun things that go along with change programs of all sorts. There is some pretty good stuff out there. But, make darn sure that you and your colleagues get on that treadmill every single day.


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