The 5 Words Leaders Use That Do More Damage Than Good

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Mar 23, 2015

The most misunderstood phrase in corporate speak is “People are our greatest asset.”

Those five words do more damage than good.

That was the hook as I began my speech this week at the Great Place to Work list announcement in Dubai .

I have gotten so that when I hear that phrase, to me it is a signal that whoever said it is not really connected about those assets. If you have to say it, you probably do not believe it yourself.

Does the talk reflect the reality?

But we all see it: The CEO’s talk it, the EVP mentions it, the website is full of the same statement. But I wonder sometimes if I stood outside their building and did a man on the street interview, I wonder what that “asset” would say?

I notice that annual reports of many publicly listed entities proudly state that people are their greatest assets. It has been said so many times now that it has become something of a cliché. I feel that if you have to continually say it either you are trying to convince yourself, or, the people who are hearing the message.

On a recent flight, I sat next to a CEO who, after finding out what I did, went to great lengths to describe just how connected he was to his employees.

The problem was that when we exchanged cards, I knew that the company’s name rang a bell. By golly, I knew the head of HR from a recent conference. I explicitly remember how she told me about the environment and the culture. Her description was 180 degrees different from the CEO I met on the plane.

The 5 most meaningless words

This is not an isolated case, because as I read and watch business news, those five words will always stop me dead in my tracks. Those five words are a jolt each time I hear them. It’s like the father who swears he is the best dad and husband yet is despised by everyone. We all know of cases like that.

But I wonder just what the corporate world look like if organizations truly believed those five words.

If they did truly believe them, you would find a transformed workplace, but that does not translate into nap pods, pool tables, or free ice cream. Those are just superficial perks that really carry no value in the long run.

The most inspired and critical dynamic in any workplace is the manager/employee relationship. Fix that and you are on the road to redemption. No gym or free food will ever make up for having a culture with the wrong kind of managers walking around.

You could spend all the money available and it would have no effect. Managers need to know how this whole culture thing works. They need to know that they are the most important piece of the equation.

Forget the leadership development; you should focus on getting managers to connect.

Connecting with the troops

In order for leaders to best connect with their staff, they need to be in the mix with their team. They need to develop social skills that will allow them to interact with their direct reports. This builds a strong teamwork atmosphere.

I recently read a story about the Ritz-Carlton where you could easily find leaders helping to prep for a banquet, or on the floor stripping dirty linen when the need arose. Interacting with many levels beneath them on the organization chart was no big deal to these leaders, and their direct reports were not in awe of the leadership chain. As a matter of fact, a lot of the interaction is on a first name basis.

This connection is the foundation of any organization, because a strong foundation equals a strong company. A weak foundation will eventually fall in on itself.

The results will eventually follow

This is so plain and simple. Companies that have earned the distinction of being a great place to work have understood this all along. They know that if they make the strong connection between the organization and their employees, everything else, for the most part, will fall into place. From strategic initiatives to financial goals, the results will eventually follow.

So next time you hear those five little words, think about what organization it came from. There just might be a disconnect between the speaker of those words and where this person came from.

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