In the famous tale by Hans Christian Anderson, an Emperor who cares only about his appearance unwittingly hires two schysters who pretend to sew him fantastic new clothes at great cost, but in reality produce nothing. They convince the Emperor that only noble people can see such clothes. The Emperor, despite not seeing the clothes himself, cannot admit as such and thus he walks around naked. When the Emperor shows his ministers, they are too afraid to say anything. In fact, everyone is afraid to tell the Emporer the truth until he appears in a parade, naked, and a young child with no such pretenses calls out that the Emperor has no clothes! This cry, taken up by others in the crowd, reaches the Emperor, who continues to walk down the street, still confident that such common people did not have the upbringing to appreciate his wonderful clothes. In scientific terms, this is known as pluralistic ignorance.
How does a 150-year-old tale apply to you and specifically to management?
During the normal course of business, but most notably during staff and departmental meetings and communiques, you might find yourself preaching to your staff certain virtues or practices. Common examples might be:
- The importance of honest communication
- Making sure you ask your staff for direct feedback
- Suggesting that failures are okay as long as we learn something from them
- Asking everyone to tighten up on expenses
- Keeping an open door policy
- Having the ability to publicly admit that you were wrong
- Turning back an initiative that appears to be less fruitful (or more painful to your staff) than thought at onset
- Recognizing and addressing poor performance
- The importance of avoiding cronyism, and acting impartially
…and so on.
These are all noble and supportable initiatives and can factor in improving the workplace culture and ratcheting up performance. In the best case, it can socialize to your staff that you understand the importance of these behaviors. At the same time, you are also suggesting that you (and your management team) will support the behaviors by participating in them.
But are you?
To find out,
you must ask yourself and others: am I adhering to these guidelines? Most assuredly your staff and peers will know whether you are or are not.
The only thing more destructive to a culture than not establishing such guidelines is not adhering to them personally.
As a good manager, you can often avoid such dangers by following some basic practices:
- Keep an open communication channel down to the most junior staff person. In fact, your newest recruits (much like the tale above) may be the most honest with you. Longer term employees may have been blunted by previous attempts to raise concerns. Meet regularly with staff in a casual environment.
- No matter what feedback you receive, be receptive, take note of it, and later ask yourself “is this possibly true?” It may not be true, but the perception exists so considering it a truth both reinforces that you are willing to take feedback and provides an opportunity to examine what may be causing this perception.
- Be careful not to constantly socialize a litany of best behaviors. Pick certain key behaviors that you feel are key to the success of the organization and make sure you personally live by them.
- If you are in senior management, make sure your managers also live by the same behaviors you are suggesting. Don’t rely on them to report to you whether they do or do not – meet with their staff periodically.
- Establish some sort of recurring survey to receive feedback on the culture, then keep an open mind of the feedback you receive. Act upon the items that are of most concern.
- Make sure you treat your staff with the same respect as you treat your management team. Do you joke and appear at ease with your management team and then tense up with you speak to staff? If you’re preaching that we’re all in this together, then you need to treat everyone as part of the “we’re all”.
If you create a culture of trust where everyone believes that management walks the walk, and acts in the best interest of the individual, and thus collectively of the firm, you will have established a high-trust, resilient and positive culture from top to bottom.
And you will be fully clothed.