We’ve made it. A new year. It’s 2019 and the first day back to work after the holidays. The new year brings opportunity - new beginnings, new challenges, new behaviors. But before these happened, we partied. In the lead-up and into the holidays, our schedules are littered with festive holiday events. Sure, it’s fun, but there is usually some trepidation as well. The subtlest Costanzian fear of personal and professional worlds crossed as we socialize outside of the office with our work friends.
Our executives descend upon these events and make us feel the love, if only ever so
briefly. “You guys are all so awesome!” I hear this message in some way, shape, or form at every holiday event I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended more than my share. Whether it’s you’re awesome, or we could not have done this without you, or our people are the most important thing about this business, somebody in attendance will invariably, inevitably raise the bull$hit flag. We’ve all seen it - the wink, the grin, the chuckle, even the cough into the hands to mask some sort of high-school-ish retort.
I believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases, executives mean each and every word they are say to the team at the holiday party. However, sometimes they only really mean it for a slightly longer duration than the time it takes to utter them. Sometimes, these are carefully scripted outbursts, crafted by admins and publicists for desired effect. And sometimes, they’re just another side-effect of an open bar. But mostly, modern executives do understand and appreciate the role their teams play in the successful outcomes of their business. So why the bull$hit flag?
Here are four reasons why executives get flagged, even when they are trying to do the right things and are authentic in appreciation for their people:
(Most) executives are consistent enough. If executives model behaviors that aren’t consistent with appreciation for the people, then sharing that message once a year, or even more frequently, is at best misguided and at worst comedic when people find themselves comparing it to what they actually see taking place.
(Most) executives fail to share purpose. This is one of the bricks that builds ivory towers. The bigger the team, the more layers there are in the organization. It is the responsibility of executives to ensure that each layer is both equipped and prepared to successfully deliver a message of purpose. If executives fail to find the time to deliver real purpose language to next level managers, then people can find themselves having a very different experience than what the executives intend.
(Most) executives measure the wrong things. What gets measured is what gets done. If executives only focus on (i.e., measure) operational outcomes, people start to understand that behaviors that enable trust, build camaraderie, promote accountability, and encourage growth are less valuable than results-driven activities in their organization.
(Too many) executives don’t listen. This isn’t to say that they won’t listen, but managing upwards is difficult - really difficult - even when leaders ask people to do so. Some executives simply don’t push hard enough to promote a culture where people can feel confident managing upward. And the bigger the organization, the bigger the responsibility of the executives to make sure it happens effectively at all levels. When people are having a less then ideal experience, they often lack the will to push that message onto the leaders, even when there might be a commitment from executives to change the experience for the better.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder they laugh when you try to tell them how you feel. Correcting these four observations can help to break down the disconnects between executive leaders and their valued people, and enable a better experience. As more executives prioritize the aspirational behaviors that promote a remarkable professional experience for people and in a better balance with the promotion of operational business outcomes, then reactions at the holiday party would be more genuine and more consistent with the leader’s real purpose for the organization.
This isn’t just about enjoying work more, or about being more sincere, intentional, and authentic when telling your people how awesome they really are. It's also about not doing it only once a year. Like Tony DiCicco, 1999 World Cup Champion and former Head Coach of the United States Women's National Team, said about developing people - 'catch them being good.' My advice... catch them as often as you possibly can. This is an investment that it will pay itself back many, many times over. It’s about engineering a better experience for people and for the leaders who enable those people, and about the long-term positive impacts that such aspirational cultures will have on your business. When your operations are in balance with your aspirations, everybody wins.