I had an interesting conversation this week with a colleague of mine from Procter and Gamble. We were discussing how hard it is for organizations to make good decisions. Often times, information is filtered from below (either because people are advocating for a particular viewpoint, or they would like to hide information that does not reflect well upon them or their department.)
Consider a case in which we do an initial test market and some of the data is unclear or conflicting . . . so rather than share all the data in the interest of transparency, we often will filter it, presenting what best supports our desired outcome. Of course, the filtered data may be misleading and may bias others to make the wrong decision. Oops.
We talked on about why people have a tendency to filter information in such a way. Our conclusion was that we as leaders send strong messages by what we pay attention to and what we choose to recognize. Our people quickly interpret these things and the conclusions they draw become broadly embraced. These conclusions become the unwritten arbiters of how they expect us to behave.
We, as leaders, need to be cognizant of the fact that our actions and words (even our subtle signals like body language) are being scrutinized closely by our employees. If we aren’t careful, we can send out unintended signals.
Here is one case in point. In one company (not P&G), there was a major new project to launch an appliance product. There were two important new technical innovations associated with this launch. One had to do with a new painting system that had never been tried, and the other had to do with a new type of drive system that was expected to be cheaper, quieter and more reliable. As the project went on, the paint system failed in all of its performance requirements. The problems seemed to be compounding, and the launch date was threatened. The team responsible for the paint process dug in, and put forth an amazing 11th hour effort that ultimately solved the problems and the launch deadline was met.
Management was so thrilled by the accomplishment and the successful ultimate product launch, that they felt it appropriate to recognize the paint system team for their herculean effort. I am sure the paint folks appreciated the recognition, but what about the drive system team? Their part of the project was completed the first time, and without a single technical “glitch”. They were on time, and under budget, and yet did not merit even an honorable mention. We can all, I think, relate to what that felt like.
My point here is not that the paint team was not worthy of praise. They were. It is not that the drive team did their job only because they were anticipating recognition. They weren’t. My point is simply that by our actions as leaders, we send countless signals and micro-messages about what we think, value, and appreciate. In fact, by our very actions, we are defining our organizational culture.
People pay a lot of attention to:
- Who we hire, and fire . . . or not.
- Who we promote, demote . . . or not
- Who we reward and recognize . . . or not
- And how we act in the case that something does not go right.
These are the things that define our culture, and WILL drive employee actions – for better or worse.
A great book that explores the topic of sending unintended messages was written by Stephen Young, called Micro-Messaging: Why Great Leadership is Beyond Words. So, should you sweat the small stuff?
“Absolutely”, says Stephen Young, “especially when it comes to those critical behaviors that can make or break performance. The reason is simple: no matter what you think you’re saying, your words, gestures, and tone of voice can actually communicate something entirely different. Too often, negative micro-messages undermine morale, business opportunities, and ultimately your organization.”
Micro-messaging examines the nuanced behaviors that we all blindly use and react to in our dealings with others. Yet as Young points out, these micro-messages can reveal a lot about our own-and our superiors’ biases and preconceived notions. Learning how to constructively address these behaviors can bring about positive change.