Hot Leadership Buzzwords Deciphered

With the best of intentions, some of us made resolutions for the new year. Most people want to improve themselves. Others didn’t bother, perhaps cynically feeling that year after year, little comes of these lofty promises to ourselves.

Unfortunately, the cynics are generally right. The bare truth of the matter is, few new year’s resolutions lead to real change. The same sad truth applies to organizations. Most leaders want to improve their organizations. And while they’re not always tied to a new year, many have attempted to do so through resolutions in the realm of corporate culture. The parallels are striking, not just in the resolutions but in their failure to deliver lasting change.

"I resolve to be more considerate of others."

"We are customer focused."

"I promise to take better care of myself and lose weight."

"We value our people and treat everyone with dignity and respect."

"I will spend more time with my family."

"We are team oriented."

"I resolve to get going on this project I’ve been putting off."

"We are entrepreneurial and value innovation."

Why do so many resolutions fizzle, and how can we make resolutions—be they personal or organizational—that will stick?

Why Resolutions Fail

The key to understanding what works and what doesn’t is in the language of resolutions. Consider three different words—three different concepts that are often confused:

  • Goals: what we want to become.
  • Values: what we consider good, along with related attitudes and feelings.
  • Behaviors: specific actions we take in specific circumstances.

Resolutions may be phrased in any of these three ways. But there’s a huge difference in their relative effectiveness. Goals

Sometimes, resolutions are phrased as goals. People say something to the effect of, "I will be a better person." Organizations may say, "We will be the internal service provider of choice to our company, and contribute to business strategies and the bottom line."

These kinds of resolutions are bound to fail. Sure, it’s important to know where you’re going (or else any road will do). And yes, it’s great to have worthwhile goals that inspire you. I’m not saying that stating your goals is a bad idea. I’m just saying that goals alone aren’t likely to have much impact.

I know there are people who believe that simply meditating on a goal will make it come true. But this is rarely the case, especially for entire organizations (which aren’t very good at meditation). Simply saying, "I will be a better person" is like saying, "I will be rich." It doesn’t tell you what to do to get there. So life goes on as always. Nothing changes, and the goals aren’t met.

Values

Even more popular (especially among organizations) are resolutions stated as values, attitudes and feelings. People say, "I will respect others more." Organizations say, "We are customer focused (we value our clients), team oriented (we value our peers) and innovative (we value new and different ideas)."

Inherent in these programs is the notion that stating good values will lead staff to adopt those values, and hence they’ll behave differently. But in reality, the posters and coffee mugs with the list of values are just as often mocked as embraced. Leaders appear to be Pollyannas. Staff point out that even senior leaders don’t "walk the talk," so why should they!? And even if staff want to change, it’s not clear just what they should do differently.

There are those who will say, "But Dean, having the right values is terribly important." Of course, how could anyone disagree with that!

But attempting to change your own values, attitudes and feelings is hard enough. Leaders who attempt to change what others value or teach others how to feel will find themselves on a long and frustrating path.

A Practical Approach

The fatal flaw of both goals (alone) and values (alone) is this: Neither are actionable. They don’t tell you exactly what to do differently. So you go on doing what you’ve always done. At best, you feel guilty while you do so!

To produce meaningful change, people must behave differently. Regardless of what they value or how they feel, change means reacting to situations (stimuli) in new ways (responses). In psychology, this approach is termed "behaviorism," and has proven more practical in most cases than the classic alternative, "introspection."

So here’s the key: Effective resolutions—both personal and organizational—are phrased as very specific behaviors. "I will do this (or not do that)." "We (in the organization) do this." Unlike goals and values, behaviors are tangible. They can be taught, modeled (exhibited by leaders) and measured.

For example, simply telling people to trust one another (a feeling) is not likely to have any significant impact, no matter how many posters you plaster around the workplace. Nor are the statements, "We value trust," or "We are trustworthy," likely to make it so.

Instead, consider the following specific behavior: "We make no commitments that we cannot keep, and we keep every commitment." This clear, direct, actionable principle causes people to behave in a trustworthy manner. And if they don’t—well, you can’t put "feel trust" on a performance appraisal, but you sure can measure broken promises and failed commitments.

Note that the behavioral approach is consistent with learning theory. Parents are taught to criticize the behavior, not the child. Teachers are trained to focus on behaviors. From Pavlov and Skinner to modern adult learning research, theory and evidence show that change is best introduced by teaching new behaviors.

Congruence between values and behaviors is inevitable. Once behaviors change, values and attitudes generally follow. In this example, once people behave in a trustworthy manner, they will learn to trust one another.

Consider the cycle: Values drive behaviors, and behaviors impact values. If you’re looking for change, the only question is where to break the cycle. The answer is clear: The quickest, most direct, and most effective way to change yourself or an organization is to describe the specific behaviors (cultural principles) that are expected.

The Problem with the Behavioral Approach

The major disadvantage of the behavioral approach is that it requires more words. A handful of value statements—if truly adopted—can drive the right behaviors in many different situations. On the other hand, to adequately cover the breadth of activities in an organization requires a large number of behavioral principles.

Over the years, I’ve worked with well over a thousand leaders (mostly in IT) to develop specific principles of behavior that address their goals and concerns. Each new team of executives added to the database of principles, as well as refining the wording of behavioral principles suggested by others.

Now, after all these years, the database has stabilized. While the wording of principles is always adjusted to fit each new organization, most of the needed concepts are there. The good news is that, using such specific behavioral principles, leaders have been successful at making dramatic changes in their organizations’ cultures in less than a year.

The bad news is that a printout of the database amounts to over 20 pages. It’s more like an encyclopedia of "best practices" at the individual level than a slogan to memorize or a banner to wave.

How to Make Winning Resolutions

At the personal level, the path forward is obvious. Most of us pick just one or two issues to address with our new year’s resolutions. The key to success is to phrase them as actionable behaviors. Say to yourself, "From now on, I do this."

In organizations, leaders have a choice. They may work on just one or two key behaviors. Or they may develop a comprehensive set of principles, and a change program to roll them out to staff over the course of the year. Either way, the same rule applies to organizational resolutions as it does to personal ones. Organizational culture must be actionable.

To get you started, take a look at examples of actionable behavioral principles from the database. Note the precise wording and the specific focus of each. Of course, these examples may or may not be relevant to your precise goals and concerns. (Here’s a special offer to CIO.com readers who work within IT organizations: Tell me about your specific goal or concern, and I’ll send you the most relevant principles from the database.)

Whether you draw from and build on the work of others (like the database) or start from scratch, the challenge is to translate your goals and values into simple, direct statements that tell people exactly what to do.

If you focus on specific behaviors, then I promise you that this time next year, you’ll look back with pride on your progress, and ahead with optimism about the changes you’re able to make.

Dean Meyer coaches CIOs on organizational, political and leadership issues. He listens, and helps you gain perspective with his compelling business-within-a-business paradigm and the common sense built over 35 years in the IT industry. He works with you to plan practical solutions, drawing from a wealth of implementation and systemic change processes. For a no-obligation get-to-know-you chat, contact his office at ndma@ndma.com or 203-431-0029.

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