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We're Open and Honest Around Here

Many businesses make proclamations about the way they operate. Internal documents often centre on key attributes of the company, that might include reward and recognition of people, a genuine customer focus and openness and honesty among staff and between managers and staff.

External documents for existing and prospective clients often focus on the capability of the company and their commitment to delivering high quality, on-time service.

Yet if we ask staff how things really are within their company, so often they will say that these documents count for nothing.

I think this problem – which I call the ‘alignment gap’ - stems from two sources.

The first source of the ‘alignment gap’ relates to the ‘face-value credibility’. By this, I mean that often a company’s proclamation simply is not possible to fulfil. Let’s take an example.

How many organisations make the claim that they have ‘open and honest’ communication? Think about this – is it possible for everyone, on all occasions, to be completely open and honest? Is complete openness and honesty really what everyone wants? Is there no room for tactful comments? What if one honest comment really hurts another person?

When face-value credibility is an issue, staff will quickly pick this up.

The second source of the alignment gap relates to inadvertent creation of negative Unwritten Ground Rules (UGRsŪ.) UGRs are people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’. And more often than not, negative UGRs are created inadvertently by managers.

Let’s stick with our example of ‘open and honest communication’. Negative UGRs can easily be created or sustained when this is claimed as a priority for a company yet managers display contrasting behaviour. This can take a number of forms:

• A manager saying to staff ‘Honestly, I’m telling you what I know – if my bosses were a bit more open, I could tell you more’
• Managers and staff seen to have meetings behind closed doors – and being obviously wary of others overhearing them
• People sharing ‘in jokes’ which others clearly are not able to relate to

If one or more of these is seen to take place on a regular basis, UGRs soon emerge that might include ‘Around here, people claim to be open and honest, but we all know that’s a load of rubbish’.

What can organisations do to overcome these issues?

Managers need to address to the sources of the problem – face-value credibility and the creation of negative UGRs.

To address face-value credibility, company documentation needs to be carefully analysed. Values statements needs to be reviewed and serious consideration needs to be given to two questions ‘Is this what we really want? Is it a realistic commitment to which we can all subscribe? The same analysis needs to be given to all major organisational proclamations.

Addressing negative UGRs is a little more complex. In our work with companies, we see the need to apply four broad phases to boost the culture using UGRs.

The first of these phases is really important – people need to be given exposure to the UGRs concept. We have found that the creation of an awareness of UGRs, of itself, can often improve the culture.

Company documentation – both internal and external – can have a strong and positive impact on bottom line performance. The danger however, is that that same documentation can sometimes be the vehicle through which negative and counterproductive cultures grow. It's worth serious conbsideration.
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