Article main image
Feb 17, 2021

Just hours after we watched his inauguration, President Joe Biden officiated at a virtual swearing-in of nearly 1,000 presidential appointees. During the ceremony, he made one expectation perfectly clear. Biden told his appointees, “The only thing I expect with absolute certitude is honesty and decency — the way you treat one another, the way you treat the people you deal with.”

He continued, “If you are ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect…I promise you I will fire you on the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.” 

Biden is clearly drawing a line in the sand: If you disrespect someone, there will be consequences. It’s a bold approach you might (want to) take at your organization, but a word of caution…

Let’s stick with the example of President Biden for now. He is operating with “absolute certitude” that everyone at that ceremony knows and embraces his definition of “respect.” Put another way, he seems to believe those leaders already understand what respectful behavior looks and feels like, and how respect shows up in the workplace. Further, he’s assuming that everyone will immediately begin acting respectfully in every interaction.

But in over 30 years of working with companies to create positive, purposeful, and productive cultures, we’ve learned that the “everyone knows” belief combined with the “everyone will do it now that I’ve told them to” assumptions bites leaders in the behind. Every time.

Despite the best intentions, such beliefs and assumptions miss a critical component of leadership and culture architecture, one that moves people from “knowing” the rules of engagement to “modeling” them daily. This essential step also creates a culture of accountability for respectful treatment.

Assumptions Kill Expectations

People have their own definitions of values and terms like respect, honesty, integrity, teamwork, etc. After all, it is human nature to personalize these values. The problem is that personalizing these values leads to a wide range of definitions, interpretations, and — yes — assumptions.

If you ask 20 people in your organization what respect means, how many different answers would you get? To some, it might mean being polite or kind. To others, it might mean appreciating experience and wisdom. Still others may interpret respect to mean acting as a devil’s advocate in a civil manner and challenging decisions that don’t solve problems.

As leaders, we cannot assume that every one of our employees has one clear definition of respect in their minds and hearts. In fact, we must assume they do not have a shared definition. On the flip side, this consequently makes it hard for people to avoid acting disrespectfully (at least according to your definition).

This brings us back to the one critical leadership and culture-building component…

No Assumptions, No Frustrations

Don’t make people guess what you mean by respect (or honesty, integrity, etc.). Despite their best efforts, people will likely guess wrong. And in the absence of explicit agreements, positive momentum can’t happen.

To ensure clarity and accountability, leaders must define what they want in behavioral terms, then align and refine all plans, decisions, and actions to their definition and expectations. 

Of course, specificity takes some time and focus — 30,000-ft., vague references and pie-in-the-sky descriptions are not helpful. Leaders must be explicit about what each of your organization’s values mean by specifying tactical, observable, tangible, and measurable behaviors.

For example, one of our clients features integrity as one of their values. We helped them formalize the behaviors they want everyone to model in their work culture, every day. One of their integrity behaviors is, “I do what I say I will do.”

This behavior meets three critical criteria. Specifically, it is:

  • An “I” statement. You must be clear that everyone, individually, is responsible to demonstrate your valued behaviors. “We” statements do not communicate individual responsibility as well as “I” statements.
  • Tactical, observable, and tangible. It’s not “attitudinal.” It can’t be because we can’t reliably measure attitude. You can, though, observe people who are consistently modeling your valued behaviors.
  • Measurable. This is of critical importance  because, just as you routinely measure actual results versus expectations, you must regularly measure traction toward achieving the values-based definition against expectations.

Once you have formalized your values and defined behavioral terms, you must communicate these expectations. Even more important: you must put these expectations on par with performance expectations. Until people understand that they are being measured by their alignment to defined behaviors, their behaviors won’t change enough to impact the culture of the organization.