I bet you share my belief that the vast majority of people who work for you are motivated, smart, committed and principled. However you may also find that on occasion they do not carry out the work in the way you expect, or with the priorities that you have laid out, or they seem to make decisions that are at odds with company or group direction. If this is the case, you might want to consider whether your employees have the clarity that they need from you and others in leadership positions. Often people are bombarded with too many and potentially conflicting messages, such that decision-making and prioritization are extremely difficult.
Lets start to explore these issues with the simple concept of walk the talk. To me, this catchphrase means that ones actions should be completely consistent with what one says. An extremely simple example of this is in the safety arena. When you are on a safety tour in your office or plant, you need to be conscious of the fact that you are being observed by others all the time. If there are safety rules, it is crucial that you follow them. You need to wear the safety equipment that is called for, and if you see something unsafe during your tour you need to call it out right away. If you see a tripping hazard you cant simply walk around it; you need to remove it or call for help to do so if needed. You also need to carry out the activity in a manner that shows that you take it seriously. People will know if you are going through the motions – and that will give them the tacit nod that they can do the same.
This is true, of course, outside the safety arena as well. If a system or set of rules exists, then you need to support and follow the system, else it is doomed to failure. Of course if you have a bad system, then you need to change it. But living with and circumventing a poor system will demonstrate to people that systems and rules may not matter, and your company will suffer the consequences of this down the road. Be on the lookout, too, for unnecessary systems; they simply complicate things and can result in audit issues and inefficiency.
The concept of consistency in your messaging goes beyond merely following rules and systems that are in place. Your actions also need to be consistent with the core values and strategies that are in place, and with the company or industry environment in which you are working.
For example, if your company is under serious budgetary pressures, beware of any actions you take that signal otherwise. People will be watching carefully for inconsistencies here, which could include seemingly lavish entertaining, headcount increases, use of contract help, cosmetic refurbishing of facilities, and the like. On the other hand, if your company has instilled a strong value proposition of customer intimacy and service, then at all levels there must be availability of personnel ready to visit the customer as needed, and customer complaints must be taken seriously and acted upon with alacrity.
If you take an action that you feel might be misinterpreted by others, take it upon yourself to explain it. Even in an environment of budget pressures, for example, you might have to take on contract help; your explanation might be that the contractor has specialized skills that we temporarily need, and I have reduced expenditure in another area to offset this. This may or may not satisfy your team, but it will help them explain it down the line, and it reinforces that the budgetary pressures are at the forefront of your mind.
Prioritization is an area where clarity can make the difference between success and failure. This is especially true when external events take place and people may no longer feel grounded in their understanding of priorities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which inflicted some damage to the plant in New Jersey where I was working, I had to quickly make clear that the previous plant budget was no longer binding, and that safe and fast return to normal operations was the priority. Furthermore, it was also reinforced that safe was more important than fast. What resulted was good decision-making, a safe and successful outcome, and a no surprises overrun of the original budget.
Another area prone to mixed messages is that of follow-through on problem solving. If you have asked for input from your team on barriers and problems, you need to be receptive to those that come forward – and you need to fix some of them. I say some rather than all, since you probably will find that some of the problems can be fixed by your team themselves and dont need your intervention, and others may not be worth the effort. However, I have found that if you do expend some effort to remove barriers for your team, they will be extremely appreciative and your efforts will be returned several times over. If you dont take on any of the problems or barriers, you will find that no one brings them forward any more. Be especially keen to fix problems or issues that are personally important to your team members and their career aspirations or job satisfaction.
A particularly thorny area to deal with is that of inconsistencies between departments. Perhaps you have made priorities, values and plans completely clear to your team or department, but they perceive stark differences with other teams or parts of the company. The situation and your action accordingly may fall into one of these categories:
The perceived difference results from lack of understanding, in which case you need to gather some information and explain why the perception is not correct.
The perceived difference may be accurate but is not sufficiently important to deal with. Your job here is to defuse any tension associated with the issue and move on.
The perceived difference is both accurate and important, and your role is to engage the other department leader and see how it can be worked out.
In this last case, you may not be completely successful, but perhaps you can achieve some improvement in the situation or at least a heightened understanding. And you will be better positioned to explain to your team that you tried.
Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (908) 400-5210.