We’ve made it. A new year. It’s 2018 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 arises as we try to find that shirt / tie combination or outfit that is different enough from what we wear everyday to mark this special evening outside of the office with our work friends and executives.
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 attend, 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$hit flag. We’ve all seen it - the wink, the grin, the chuckle, even the cough into the hands to mask some sort of high-school-ish retort.
I believe that in the overwhelming majority of cases, executives mean each and every word they say to the team at the holiday party. However, sometimes they only really mean it for a slightly longer duration than the time it takes to utter them. Sometimes, they delegate carefully scripted outbursts to admins and publicists for desired effect. And sometimes, it's the open bar talking. But outside of the most diabolical actors, these messages are perpetrated mostly by modern executives who understand and appreciate the role their teams play in the successful outcomes of their business. So why the bull$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:
Executives are not consistent in word and action. 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 in the organization. This goes not just for what the executives themselves do, but also for what executives allow to happen. Leadership fix: Culture is well-defined by the worst behaviors that an organizational will tolerate, and a year's worth of bad behaviors will not be forgotten due to one well-intentioned speech.
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. Leadership fix: If it isn't about people all year long, your team will have a hard time thinking its about people when you suggest this during the holidays.
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. Leadership fix: Get out there. Ask questions. Meet people - your people - and make sure your managers do too. Be innovative, authentic, and to the extent possible, personal in your data collection.
Executives fail to share purpose. This is a cornerstone in every ivory tower. 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. Leadership fix: Focus on understanding why people believe in you and your organization. Consider the extent to which you help or hinder that belief, and whether or not you're leading people or merely managing the organization. Be passionate about purpose and about the medium through which leadership allows you to pursue that purpose.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder they laugh when you try to tell them how you feel.
If an executive has come up short in these areas, it is likely that the organization lacks a culture that promotes an experience consistent with hearing the right things, the right way, and at the right times. Correcting these with the recommended Leadership Fixes 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 do so 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 when telling your people how awesome they really are. It’s about realizing 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. What better time to start enabling that kind of experience than right now. Happy New Year.
Chris Smith is the CEO of ChangeSmith, an organizational change, culture management, and leadership development firm based in Arlington, VA. Chris consults and facilitates for clients in the belief that leaders have three important jobs: to strengthen, to protect, and to empower their people. ChangeSmith is in business to help the overwhelming majority of leaders who despite the very best intentions, damage their long-term corporate ambitions by persisting in the prioritization of operational needs at the expense of aspirational responsibilities and a remarkable people experience. ChangeSmith can help you #PracticeCulture. No executives were harmed in the delivery of this blogpost.