Be Who You Say You Are

Guest Blog – Ron Carucci of Navalent

Every day, organizations announce “strategic priorities” that nobody believes are possible.  Mission and vision statements are unveiled to privately rolling eyes.  “We’re going to be #1 in….” (fill in the blank) slogans are trumpeted to cynical employees who have no idea what they mean for them. And each time, leaders and their employees are forced to collude with the duplicity of these claims: We will say one thing, but we will be another.

Our research on organizational honesty revealed that when a company is not clear on who it is or strategically where it’s headed, it’s almost three times more likely that people in the organization will distort or withhold the truth.  Strategic clarity means that who you tell your employees and market place you are and what you actually do are consistent, that people in the organization are held accountable for modeling your stated values, and that the objectives you set to deliver your strategy are cascaded down through the organization so that every employee incorporates them into their job.  When these things don’t happen, the stage is set for dishonesty.  So when Avis car rental promises that “We try harder” but consistently ranks poorly in JD Powers customer satisfaction ratings, it’s a broken promise employees then feel permitted to emulate. When a leader says that she wants her team to model the company’s value of innovation by questioning the status quo, but then dismisses ideas her team offers in meetings, she signals that she doesn’t really mean it – even if her intentions were genuine.  When an employee says to a boss, “I will commit to being more accountable” after being given feedback about being unreliable, but then misses the next two deadlines, it’s an empty commitment. And when major strategic goals are set for an organization, a department, or a team, but remain disconnected from every employee’s daily responsibilities, once again, the message is that we proclaim commitments we don’t really intend to keep.

When organizations fail to do the work to actually become who they’ve said they are, it’s viewed as nothing more than sloganeering.  Worse, it normalizes duplicity as everyone now has to pretend what’s been declared is true when the evidence suggests otherwise. One major study by the Gallup organization found that only 27% of employees believe their company’s values and only 23% believe they could actually apply them to their jobs.  The implications are clear – if you say one thing but do another, your organization will underperform.

One executive I worked with, we’ll call him Alex, expressed deep concerns about a market downturn that was creating severe cost pressures. When I asked how his team was dealing with the threat, he looked puzzled.  He said, “Well, they don’t know how bad it is, because if I alarm them, they’ll panic and the best ones will bail.”  Now I was puzzled.  “But one of your core values is transparency. Why wouldn’t you engage them to rally the best ideas and strongest commitment to making sure you can weather the storm?”  His response was telling.  “Well, transparency doesn’t mean telling people everything does it?  Isn’t it better to withhold some information if sharing it would lead to chaos?”  I reminded him that the inherent promise behind the value of transparency was trust – that he would trust people with information.  Even unpleasant information.  He wasn’t trying to be deceitful. He genuinely believed he was living up to the promise of that value, and hadn’t considered the horrible consequences of what would happen when people found out how long he’d withheld the fact that they were in trouble.  He chose to share the financial challenges with his team, genuinely appealed to their sense of commitment, and together, they found ways to trim substantial costs without any job losses – solutions he would have never found on his own. It wasn’t enough for him to genuinely mean to be transparent.  It meant doing it, especially when it was hardest.

If you want our organization to see you as honest, your actions and words have to match. Like Alex, that means especially when it’s hardest to live up to what you’ve said.

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