This second installment in a three-part series explores the role of behavior, particularly that of leaders, in influencing an organization’s culture, Leaders’ conduct sends a powerful message about expectations, norms and acceptance. Conduct, along with communication and environment, is an observable and palpable component of employee (and other constituent) experience. The term “conduct” covers a lot of interpersonal ground – varied actions, circumstances and personalities. For this discussion, we narrow the scope of the conversation to focus on those activities and approaches specific to, or at least more prevalent for, leadership roles.
When we think about conduct, what comes to mind? When is a leader’s style or approach most visible? What should a “Culture Code of Conduct” focus on?
Be balanced and consistent.
One of the most effective ways to connect with people is simply to be consistent. Be who you are, whether that means slightly reserved or slightly energetic. The key word is “slightly.” Running hot and cold makes it difficult for people to know what to expect and creates discomfort that compromises the ability to connect. Cultivate an “out-of-body” awareness mindset that challenges you to think in the least biased way possible about how others are perceiving you.
In addition to personal interaction, try to build consistency into other aspects of your influence in people’s work. Develop a common platform and cadence for individual meetings with those you are charged with leading. Similarly, construct a standard format for your group agendas. In individual and team settings, strive to ensure that expectations among the team are aligned. Establishing these patterns in timing and format lays the basis for developing organizational habits. Over time, these habits become so ingrained as to function as artifacts that define the organization’s culture. To ensure ongoing relevance and functionality, a periodic review of adopted structures and approaches keeps things fresh.
This is tough until it becomes habit (like virtually all behaviors, if you think about it!). Why is it tough? Because leaders are sought after – by those they have vested authority in supervising, by those that supervise them, by people who observe them and find them approachable, by customers, … And in this popularity contest, the prize is multiple priorities, a significant volume of information, diverse relationships and limited capacity. The key here is to be mindful of the impact lack of follow through has, and to devote some time to thinking through how (if it is at all possible) you are going to ensure that you follow up with every person who reaches out to you that you have a commitment to. This last qualifier is important. We are not suggesting that every random salesperson who cold calls you get a call back. The point is that few things say “I don’t care,” or maybe slightly less harshly, “I don’t have time for you,” than not giving someone the basic courtesy of a reply. This requires a system, some discipline, and some dedicated time, but it can (and should, in crafting an engaging employee experience) be done.
Be thoughtful and intentional in crafting messages, especially those that you won’t be personally present to deliver.
Email is efficient, but that’s pretty much where it’s value ends. And when I say, “crafting messages,” I mean everything from the subject lines you use and the time you send it and who you copy, to what folders messages get archived in and how routinely you delete messages (not just in our inbox, but also your sent folder). Why is this important? Have you ever received an email from a colleague at, oh, maybe 3:00… AM? I’m not suggesting that you can’t do this, or even weighing in on whether you should or not. The important thing is that you acknowledge the possibility that not everyone might appreciate this. Letting people know it might happen, keeping the frequency of that to a minimum, and staying away from stressful topics (no one wants to be awoken by the ringer they forgot to set to vibrate and see an email that keeps them up for the duration of their otherwise-planned sleep time) is conduct that establishes norms – it’s okay to do under limited and clearly understood circumstances. How about sending an email to one person, and getting a reply that copies in one or more additional people? Or vice versa, sending to many and getting replies that exclude certain recipients? These aren’t catastrophic, but they are guideposts for culture. Even if the norm is to simply announce these changes – “Taking off Suzanne” or “Adding Bill and Max” – it conveys transparency and relieves the author/reader from having to analyze every message received as to who is included in the communication.
Acknowledge and address tensions and inconsistencies.
Coming full circle to our introduction around being personally consistent, recognize that there will be times when a particular course of action does not perfectly align with existing norms. If your organization subscribes to a specific set of values, be mindful of how certain actions may conflict, or be perceived to conflict, with those values. These situations often arise in instances where operational or financial challenges demand unpleasant or unpopular decisions. A natural tension may exist between certain values. For instance, if kindness and accountability are two values your organization subscribes to, laying people off or counseling an individual on performance issues may appear more in line with the latter than with the former, no matter how sensitively the message is delivered. Build consensus around how those tensions can be minimized and how the essence of the values can be balanced and honored.
Step back from the detailed narrative and think about the general theme. How leaders behave influences culture. No great revelations here, but I am hopeful that some of what was shared may not be as obvious in terms of its connection to the employee experience, and that in sharing I’ve helped uncover some elements of our conduct that have far reaching implications with respect to culture. We won’t always be perfect, but as the great Packers football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” Leading with integrity and self-awareness is fundamental to building a great employee experience and a culture that attracts and retains exceptional talent.