Doing right

Many things keep business leaders awake at night. One of the most pressing is wondering why employees don’t feel as passionate about the business they do. After all, they are well led, well managed and in permanent employment – why aren’t they giving their best?

To help change this, leaders draft guidelines in the form of vision statements. They choose values that they hope will inspire behaviours. They put these on the website, and often in posters around the workplace. So – there’s no way employees don’t know what’s expected!

But in the silence that follows, the problems start. In that silence, the experiences, beliefs and attitudes of employees begin to blank out what the company expects and replace it with behaviours that are self-protective. Like not collaborating with other departments, treating customers rudely or spreading rumours among colleagues.

At the heart of any refusal to comply with behavioural expectation lies an interesting psychological theory called Cognitive Dissonance. You see, deep down, people don’t like to be inauthentic. So, if you promote ‘Honesty’ as one of your company values but don’t permit open discussion or honest feedback, employees will feel a disconnect. If you claim to ‘Respect’ yet publicly humiliate subordinates, your actions give the lie to your values. This puts your employees in a hard place because they see hypocrisy but are not empowered to do anything about it. They become trapped in a cycle we call Learned Helplessness. As the descriptor indicates, that’s really not great for workplace productivity.

Fortunately, leaders and managers can change this situation for the better. But there’s no quick fix – no teambuilding exercise or external training course. Instead, they themselves have to do what is right by the company values day in, day out. Taking small actions aligned to the values that are promoted on the company website. For example:

  • Owning up to mistakes, so others can learn from them. (Responsibility)
  • Asking for ideas before directing solutions. (Innovation)
  • Beginning meetings with an appreciation circle, affirming the team’s appreciation for one another. (Teamwork)
  • Explaining decisions, especially ones that cause concern. (Transparency)

If this is done consistently for a few weeks, employees will begin to notice. Continue on the same course for several months, and some will begin to believe. In this way, bosses who work on authenticity open the door for employee behaviour change.

Everything I’m advocating here is designed to create a positive emotional impact in the workplace. This isn’t something many organisations are comfortable doing. Attitudes defined way back in the Industrial Era hold them back. Showing empathy is misrepresented as being weak. On the contrary, it demonstrates strength.