Saturday, September 1, 2012

5 "Normal" Mistakes Leaders Make That Starve The Organization To Death

Veterans of the workplace know that there is "nothing new under the sun." Leadership and management initiatives, fads and buzzwords come and go. But the basics always hold true. Yet this does not stop leaders from regularly making the following mistakes, so often that one can think of them as "normal."

Unfortunately, the fact that dysfunctionality is normal means that brand-destructive behaviors are normal too. Breaking these rules means you can't build a good brand (image) either internally, among employees, or outside the organization. The good news is that if you're smart enough to do the right thing, you have a natural advantage compared with most of the pack.

Mistake #1: Putting PR Before Culture
Every morning leaders wake up and are confronted with a) the crisis of the day b) nagging operational problems and c) the potential or actual bad things someone is saying about them in the news - or some combination of the above. Cultural problems are below that radar, both because they're less "in your face" and because leaders tend to be surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. A better question for leaders to ask themselves when they wake up in the morning is, "How engaged are my workers today?" Let's call that a key performance indicator (KPI). The job of the communicator is to help them boost that answer to "Very high."

Mistake #2: Equating Speaking With Communicating
This may come as a shock to leaders, but for a variety of reasons, people don't really take their speech as the truth. Rather they evaluate leaders' words against a) their actions b) other information they have through the grapevine and elsewhere c) what external sources are saying. For leaders, therefore, the job of communication is not so much to say something, but to say what needs to be said, what is true, and what will provide the audience with information or guidance that only they can offer.

Mistake #3: Disconnecting Communication and Culture
Because leaders are uncomfortable with the difficult aspects of communication - i.e. that people don't listen to them as if they're godlike; that their words might be used against them; that people want them to listen as much as to talk - they tend to focus on the "slick" aspect of communication (e.g. flashy multimedia presentations) and avoid the organizational development aspect. This manifests in job descriptions that emphasize high-tech communication skills and a preference for people who are absolutely fascinated by social media. It also manifests in a preference for "enthusiasm" over "experience," because an experienced communicator can call b.s. on the underlying premise of the communication, while an "enthusiastic" one is focused on how to make letters fly off a page.

Mistake #4: Ego, Insecurity, Getting Defensive
If any leader is thin-skinned, they have good reason. No matter what anyone says and no matter how prepared one is, being a leader is a difficult and lonely job. People criticize you no matter what. There is ultimately nobody who can tell you for sure whether your decisions are good or bad. Your staff is biased, because they have a vested interest in keeping you happy. And you have enemies who want your job, or who want you to fail. Not to mention that the measure of success is not necessarily clear. Nevertheless, if the thing that drives a leader is "wanting to be liked," or "wanting people to agree with me" - consciously or unconsciously - that leader is going to communicate poorly, because people will see that he or she has shut down. In the absence of honest conversation - not just communication but listening, and interchange - the leader misses out on the important and organization-saving feedback that employees could provide them.

Mistake #5: Avoiding The Difficult Conversations
Most internal communications columns talk about the importance of executives reaching out to frontline staff, or alternatively about the relationship between employees and their supervisors as primary carriers of information. But as important are the conversations that need to happen at the highest levels, between leaders and the executives they direct. It is incumbent on the leader to set and enforce a direction for the organization fearlessly, to recognize conflict and insist that it be resolved. This is not a duty that can be outsourced to a professional, although professionals can and should be consulted to help. When leaders are aligned throughout the organization and there is "peace in the kingdom," it is much easier to filter the message down to the troops as to which way the wind is blowing.

At the end of the day, none of these behaviors are directly destructive. They're not like guns; you don't pull the trigger on one of them and destroy the brand. They are more like denying a person food and water. The person can go on for a time, subsisting on the nutrients they have stored in their bodies. But over a longer period they just can't. The prolonged lack of strategic information, opportunities for feedback, and plain and simple understanding of what's happening choke out their engagement and finally their goodwill. Until ultimately they're left to count the days till they can leave, transfer, or retire altogether.

Meanwhile the collective weight of this disengagement drags the organization down, and cracks start to occur, that ultimately can pull the organization apart.

Poor internal communication may be normal for leaders. But normal is no guarantee the organization will thrive, or even survive.