By Dan Prosser
Did you know that the world where we all work, in general, is a vast network of interrelated conversations? And your organization is a microcosm of that network. What this means is that the conversations that take place between team members are incredibly important.
Words are far more powerful than most people realize. Unbelievable outcomes happen when a person says how something is going to be and then takes the actions to make it happen. Changing his or her language and perspective changes what’s possible in the future.
But suppose you, as a leader of an organization, are declaring bold possibilities full of fire and optimism, but employees are engaging in other kinds of conversations? Perhaps bitter complaints, criticisms, or cynical rants full of anger. All of these conversations create a sense of unconscious disconnection in the workplace and create disempowerment among the workforce.
In my research with leaders of organizations across the country during the past five years, I’ve learned that the conversations in nearly 90 percent of organizations are limiting, and they undermine and sabotage an organization’s performance. Leaders are unaware of most of these conversations. Yet they go viral throughout an organization, kill morale, prevent engagement, and impair productivity.
These conversations are symptoms of what I call an “execution virus.” These viruses can be deadly, with my conversations with leaders showing that only 13 percent of organizations succeed in overcoming them. Here are 10 performance-killing conversations employees may be having in the workplace without a leader’s knowledge.
This is why employees don’t—or, more likely, can’t—execute your strategy. All your organization needs is one of these execution viruses to ensure that it’s among the 87 percent of organizations that fail to execute strategy.
1. It’s not our strategy. If this persistent conversation is being repeated—albeit in the background—throughout your organization, employees feel that they have no say in the direction of the organization, and therefore, they disconnect themselves from its future. You do all the planning and demand a certain result; they do all the work, and you get all the reward. Be honest: Would you be motivated if you were in their shoes?
The key to eradicating this execution virus is to invite employees to the strategy table. Ask them for their insights and opinions regarding the path your work group is on and how they see themselves fulfilling their roles. Don’t just talk about engagement and empowerment. Allow people to contribute, ask questions, and even disagree with you. This gives them a way to invest in what they’re working toward and gives real meaning to their work.
2. They don’t appreciate us. So many leaders believe that if they acknowledge someone, it will come back to haunt them. Perhaps the employee will take advantage of the comment when the time comes to review his or her performance and salary. So leaders think: They get a paycheck, and that ought to be enough acknowledgment and appreciation.
Nevertheless, employees may still feel exploited. And from there, it’s a short step to becoming actively resentful of management for not recognizing their contribution to the success of the organization.
No matter what level of skills a leader has achieved, I’ve rarely found an organizational leader who is totally, authentically (meaning from the heart) comfortable acknowledging or expressing appreciation for an employee in front of others. So here’s some tough love: Get over yourself. It can cost you big time not to have that conversation. It costs you nothing to appreciate and acknowledge the contribution of others.
3. They’re always making excuses. Employees learn from their leaders. When leaders use ready-made excuses, point the finger of blame at peers or other team members, or cite circumstances beyond their control as reasons for failing to deliver, employees will find their own excuses for not doing what they said they would do. This produces a culture in which strategies, plans, and intentions disappear soon after they are agreed to, and teams quickly fall back into business-as-usual behavior.
No one holds management accountable. Honestly—how comfortable would you be calling your own supervisor on the carpet? You’ll have to attack this execution virus starting with you. No more excuses. It’s time to become publicly accountable for your own results—the good and the bad. You’ll find that employees are much more willing to follow a fallible leader with integrity than a “perfect” leader who constantly passes the buck.
4. Did you hear what (Team Member A) said about (Team Member B)? Gossip and stories that degrade others in the organization create a toxic workplace environment. If your employees are experiencing the scorn of another employee, or if management knowingly tolerates gossip about others, then you have employees who will give just enough effort to get by.
How do you know if a conversation is gossip? If what is being said about another person can’t be said to that person’s face, it’s absolutely gossip. Wherever there are secrets or anything that cannot be discussed at any level of an organization, you will find a dysfunctional organization that’s unable to focus on what matters. There is no alignment with what is important, because people feel bullied.
5. What mission statement . . . and why should I care? Have an unannounced conversation with members of your teams and ask them to tell you the mission or vision statement of the organization. If you’re lucky, maybe 5 percent will be able to give you a credible answer. As for the rest, you might have difficulty getting them to understand the relevance of the mission, much less motivating them to implement it with any sense of urgency.
How can people implement actions or execute a strategy when they can’t understand the relevance of the vision or mission as it relates to their jobs? Most teams don’t spend a great deal of time focusing on an organizational mission and its relevance to them.
As a result, the significance of their role as an employee contributor isn’t well understood. For employees to be effective, they must understand where they fit and how their jobs impact overall contribution to the desired outcome.
6. They treat us like crap. If there’s mistreatment, rudeness, and nastiness toward employees, leaders will surely take action to stop it, because they know that no company can execute its strategy with that going on, right? Apparently not.
In a 2011 study that spanned 14 years, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson found that 98 percent of employees surveyed reported experiencing rude or uncivil behavior either toward them or toward another in their presence. Their findings were reported in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Price of Incivility” (see https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-price-of-incivility).
Uncivil behavior hits squarely at the bottom line, because those who are on the receiving end nearly always report responding in a negative way. Employees who feel that they’re being treated badly will put forth the bare minimum of effort.
Their negative attitude will be all too evident to customers. And they’ll probably jump ship at the earliest opportunity. The solution is clear: Treat your employees at every level with civility and respect. Make sure all supervisors do the same. No excuses.
7. It’s the same old story. Grandiose pronouncements for new initiatives that are intended to provoke a new battle cry are falling on deaf ears. That’s because employees have heard it all before. Bringing your employees together to build new initiatives for a goal or challenge is usually received with rolling eyes and sighs of annoyance and anguish.
Employees are smarter today. They can tell when leaders are inauthentic in their pronouncements. They will usually give you one chance to get it right. No one wants to feel manipulated into thinking that what you’re putting forth is brand new. It rarely is. There are too many options available (even in a sluggish economy) for good people to stick with leaders who aren’t serious about being authentic.
8. Because he’s (or she’s) the boss. That’s why. A patriarchal and paternalistic culture exists in far too many organizations. In this type of culture, there are the haves, and they have all the answers; and there are the have-nots, who have no power.
Employees buy into a patriarchal and paternalistic business culture because it lets them off the hook. They can avoid having to make promises and take action, and they feel that they have “permission” to wait until someone tells them what to do. That creates a dependency on receiving orders from leadership, and those employees can’t execute your strategy because they won’t take responsibility for causing things to happen.
9. We’ve always done it this way. Old paradigms, nonexistent visions, and limiting business models that are fixed on past performance keep your employees from moving your government forward. A rigid belief system that creates inflexible boundaries around what is possible for the future makes employees feel stifled. When employees can’t see how or where they can improve their position in life and can’t perceive a future for themselves that doesn’t look and feel a lot like the past, they become apathetic.
Employees who haven’t been shown that they can grow, develop, and expand their opportunities within the organization—so that they have a sense of control over their own possible future—will lose interest in what you want. Once again, that’s why it’s so important to make sure that employees have a voice in determining where your organization is going, how best to get there, and what their individual roles look like.
10. The boss is watching, so just don’t screw up. Leaders who focus on not losing, rather than on working to build something they can share with their employees, end up sabotaging their own organizations. For an employee, there’s no benefit to coming to work each day for a leader whose fears dominate the working environment, because a supervisor operating out of fear takes it out on employees. Those employees just put in their time, but not their best efforts, as they focus on placating the supervisor.
Leaders who are in constant fear of the unknown and uncontrollable events need to get a grip. There’s no faster way to turn good employees into cynical and nonproductive ones than to stress them out for no purpose other than to feel like you’re controlling the possibility of failure.
If any of the conversations in this list sound familiar, take them seriously. They are likely the reason employees are disconnected from you as a leader, from your organization’s vision, from its mission, from organizational strategy, and from the needs of a local government’s residents.