Engagement Practice _53: Back Up Words with Actions

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Followers are more interested in

our integrity than in our

speeches about integrity, and

their antennae are sensitive and

efficient to any possible

incongruities.

One of the greatest sources of employee cynicism and disengagement is the

failure of leaders to do as they say. We have grown tired of CEOs who say

‘‘people are our most important asset,’’ but cut back training budgets without

blinking; or those who survey employees as if they intend to follow

through with corrective action, but never do; or leaders who say quality is

number one, but push employees to do the work in a third of the time it

takes to do it right; or CEOs who say that treating people right is a priority

for all managers, but fail to hold managers accountable for abusing employees.

It’s all just more fodder for Dilbert cartoons. Leaders who can’t, or

won’t, back up their good intentions with actions might as well be deliberately

driving people out of their organizations.

Words and Deeds out of Synch

A major international corporation that claimed to be committed to

work/life values drew up an excellent plan to help managers incorporate

work/life balance into the business. The company gathered its

top 80 officers to review the plan—but scheduled the meeting on a

weekend.13

Someone once compared trust to money in a bank account. If people

meet our expectations over time, we put coins in the bank and after a while

they have earned our trust. If they don’t meet our expectations, we take

coins out. When it comes to our employers, the more coins we take out,

the closer we come to closing our accounts and walking out the door for

good.

Some leaders are so externally focused that they make feel-good statements

in speeches and annual reports with no apparent awareness that what

they are saying may be inconsistent with internal realities. One company

displayed its code of conduct in its lobby, proclaiming that ‘‘trust’’ was a

driving principle, yet it searched employees’ belongings each time they

entered and exited the building.

Everyone has a story to tell about the mixed signals companies send.

What can employers do about it? Probably the best insurance is to have a

CEO who places a high value on integrity and insists on carefully selecting

executives and candidates for all positions based on character first and capabilities

second.

Some companies conduct surveys in which employees are asked to

rank a variety of cultural factors based on how strongly they desire it versus

how much they believe it exists in the organization. The larger the ‘‘gap’’

scores, the greater the discrepancy between the actual and desired culture

on those factors. Follow-up employee focus groups conducted by outside

consultants can help bring to the surface specific issues that senior leaders

need to face and reconcile. While this process may be facilitated by HR

staff, it needs to be owned by senior line managers.

Often, the mixed signals may be created by executives espousing one

thing and middle managers doing another. Some managers believe that,

because of their privileged status, they are exempt from the rules that govern

everyday life in the organization, such as having to be at work on time

or taking reasonable ‘‘lunch hours.’’

In one company, senior leaders solicited employee feedback and invited

‘‘different ideas and perspectives’’ about how projects should be com-

It’s Not Just What We Do . . . It’s What We Won’t Do

Companies earn trust points not just for the consistency of their internal

behavior, but also for the things they will and won’t do in their

interactions with the outside world. Employees at CenterBeam, Inc.

in Santa Clara, California are proud to tell these stories:

The company was trying to recruit enough talented people to

support its rapid start-up and had made an offer to a qualified candidate

when the resume of a superstar candidate came across the desk

of the hiring manager. Managers asked the CEO, Sheldon Laube, if

the offer could be rescinded so the company could hire the superstar.

Laube’s response: ‘‘No way.We made a promise to the first candidate.

If we’re going to be the kind of company that people trust, we’ve got

to keep our promises.’’

Shortly after that, the company ordered $500,000 worth of tape

drives from a distributor. Before they could unpack them they found

out that a rival distributor was offering comparable machines at a

price that could save the company almost $100,000 per year. A few

engineers wanted to refuse delivery of the more expensive tape drives,

but CenterBeam executives treated the shipment as binding.

CEO Laube has seen these decisions pay off by deepening the

commitment of CenterBeam employees: ‘‘It’s amazing how many

employees have come up to me and said, ‘It’s great to work at a

company that has integrity.’ Many employees tell me that at their old

companies, ‘people promised things that they just didn’t deliver.’ ’’14

pleted, but some project managers summarily shot down many of the new

ideas employees suggested. In these situations, multi-rater feedback from

managers, exit surveying, and regular employee surveys can help uncover

these demoralizing situations so they can be corrected.