Leaders Know When to Be Stubborn: 3 Common Mistakes Leaders Make When They Try to Be Over-Accommodating

May 30, 2016 | Fabio Malagisi | HCI
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Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and I couldn’t agree more. Culture is the foundation that business success is built upon. Perhaps most importantly, culture sets the framework for employee engagement.  However, all too often, while leaders try to develop a strong culture that engages employees, they get sidetracked and make honest, yet fatal mistakes. In the quest to listen to employees, they often lose their focus and compromise their vision. It is a classic conundrum of culture. You want to focus on employees and accommodate them but at the same time, when it comes to culture, being overly accommodating can be a culture killer. Here are 3 common mistakes that leaders make when they try to be overly accommodating.

Overemphasis on moral victories: Businesses have goals and those goals define success. They define if you are winning or need to catch up. Profitability, market share, sales growth, are all examples of tangible goals that define progress toward long term strategy. Now what happens if you are falling short of those goals? All too often, leaders soften focus on tangible goals and fall back to intangible wins, (which I refer to as moral victories), such as “we are building momentum” or “we have a great team in place for the future”. I’m not saying these are not worthy accomplishments, they certainly are, but they need to compliment the ultimate goals, not replace them. All too often, in an effort to stay positive, leaders compromise on their goals and in the process build a culture where it is ok to fall short as long as you are ‘trying hard’. Leaders must be able to acknowledge failure and at the same time still engage employees. Moral victories become justifications for failure.

Ignoring the DNA: It varies by organization, but what the best organizations have in common is a very strong value system. These values define the DNA of the organization and create the framework that culture is built around. The Ritz Carlton’s focus on customer service or Facebook’s focus on innovation, are great examples of clearly defined values that make up an organization’s DNA. These DNA characteristics are non-negotiable when building a successful culture. The fatal mistake leaders make is that they are overly flexible and they don’t commit to their value system in a manner in which they make hiring and firing decisions based upon them. We have all seen examples of this. That person that clearly doesn’t fit but gets hired because the team was enamored by their qualifications, or worse, that person that is an absolute jerk but is allowed to continue on because they deliver on their quotas. Leaders that understand culture, never compromise on values when it comes to personnel decisions.

Overprescribing Training: Well intentioned leaders are often willing to invest in training for their organizations. They set aside funds for education reimbursements, create online training communities and spend large sums of money to bring in experts. This is admirable and shows a focus on employee development, which is essential to a strong culture. What you must be careful of however, is overprescribing training. Training is important but it doesn’t replace a culture that develops employees through their day to day jobs. If that’s not happening, then you have a bigger issue within your culture that you need to address. General Electric is a company renowned for their training resources, however when I was an employee there, I remember very clearly being told to never put “Take a training class” as an action step to address a weakness. Although at General Electric, training was a critical piece of the culture, it was also expected that every manager was taking responsibility to train others and every employee was taking responsibility to learn through every experience. Training was used as a reward, not a remedy. As a leader, if you are constantly hearing that there is a need for more training, before rushing to increase that investment, at least consider the fact that your organization might not be proactively developing employees through their jobs and are thus using training as a scapegoat.

Culture development requires steadfast commitment. It is very tempting as a leader to be flexible with employees and always listen to feedback and react. This is what a good leader does, right? Like all things related to leadership, it is not an exact science and it is important for leaders to sometimes take the unpopular route. Sometimes, you need to challenge vs accommodate. Knowing when to avoid sugar coating falling short of goals, knowing when to fire someone due to lack of value alignment and knowing when to not invest in training and instead address a gap in your culture are all examples of nuanced situations where being over accommodating, can lead to unintended consequences. Great leaders know when to be stubborn.