The over-promising trap

I was recently discussing a large-scale project with some of its leaders. As they looked back on the effort, they agreed that one of the key problems was promising too much, too quickly.

Without carefully talking to the people on the ground, institutional leadership made public statements about how much better the system was going to work, and how quickly it would happen. The system didn’t live up to expectations. We’ve all seen that same thing. For a variety of reasons, leaders often promise more than their staff can deliver.

When we think about the leadership competency of delivering on one’s promises, it’s easy to think about the personal side. As a leader, I try hard to do what I said I was going to do. But sometimes I am making promises for my unit or project team. With the best intentions, I can estimate timelines, costs, and outcomes that end up not being met.

Making the best guess when all the data isn’t available means that we will sometimes be wrong about our predictions. When that happens it’s important to own the mistake and review it to avoid the same thing in the future.

At the same time, we can try to be realistic about the expectations we set. Change is hard, and new systems rarely work perfectly the minute the switch is flipped. Helping people have a realistic picture of what to expect can make the effort more successful in the long run.

Dee Anne Bonebright

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I’ve got a secret…..

Unless you have a birthday coming up, these are not words you want to hear. Especially at work from your boss. They strike fear and sow mistrust, yet, as leaders, you have information that you cannot share with your people – you have secrets! How do you balance the transparency needed to demonstrate integrity with the confidentiality your position requires?

Karen Seketa, a blogger that I follow, suggested that we think of it as being translucent not completely transparent. Leaders are “not sharing ALL information ALL of the time” but taking “an intentional approach to empowering your employees with the information they need in order to be successful.” When I consult with leaders they get hung up on what they can’t share and they overlook all they can share. Even in the most chaotic and tumultuous times you can share how decisions are being made, how you will keep them informed, how they can be involved and how they can share their concerns with you. People need and want clarity, honesty and how they can be involved. You can share that, even when you can’t share every detail or name or potential option being considered.

Yes, you may have a secret but that doesn’t mean you are hiding things from your people.

Todd Thorsgaard

 

A model of integrity

In recognition of President’s Day and our continuing dialogue on integrity this month, it’s a good opportunity to focus on a president who exuded integrity. George Washington, our nation’s first president, demonstrated integrity both on the battlefield and in the nation’s highest office. In the words of author and historian David Hackett Fischer, Washington possessed “integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others.”

Washington’s integrity was tested in the early years of our new nation, especially during the Revolutionary War. By 1777-78, he was commanding troops and had suffered losses in all major battles against the British. Retreating 18 miles north to Valley Forge, he helped his soldiers build log cabins where they stayed the winter in freezing cold conditions. With the lack of food, cold, illness, and a demoralized army, he lost at least a dozen men each day to death or desertion.

Washington urged Congress to send the troops food, but Congress advised him to steal food from nearby farmers. But that didn’t pass Washington’s integrity test. Even though local farmers were selling their corn and beef to the British, who paid in gold, Washington rejected Congress’s advice and promised to hang any soldier caught stealing food. Washington won the trust of his troops who were impressed with his integrity.  The next summer, his men who had trained hard over the winter, won a victory that set the stage for overcoming the British and gaining independence for America.

During Washington’s presidency, his integrity was tested often.  For instance, he recognized that America’s integrity, both at home and abroad, depended on honoring its war debt. Some Americans wanted to default on payments to those at home and in France who had invested in the war for independence. Some advised repaying part, but not all of the debt. Washington clearly saw this as an issue of integrity and persuaded Congress to pass a tariff to pay all our debts.

Washington wasn’t always popular with everyone, but he was respected and trusted. And that trust went a long way to ensure Washington’s success as our first president even when he did make mistakes. As Dr. Burton Folsum, Senior Fellow in Economic Education, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, observes, “Politicians of weak character are often second-guessed and challenged on their motives. Washington’s strong character helped Americans forgive him when he made errors in judgment.”

In Washington’s own words, he expressed the value of always acting with the deepest integrity:

“Without virtue, and without integrity, the finest talents and the most brilliant accomplishments can never gain the respect, and conciliate the esteem, of the truly valuable part of mankind.” – George Washington

Anita Rios

A slippery slope to disaster

It had been a good morning of snowboarding out west. Each run I pushed the edge a little more, tried to go a little faster or carve a tighter turn. And, no falls! I was ready to risk a double black diamond run. It was just slightly steeper I told myself, I can get away with it. But no! I lost my edge and took a spectacular fall.   Luckily all I lost was a little snowboard cred with my buddies but when leaders push the edge of integrity they can get on a slippery ethical slope that leads to a much more damaging career crash.

You may have heard about the slippery slope of ethics but until 2015 it had not been closely studied or truly understood how it works. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology answered a few of those questions and can help leaders avoid falling down an ethical slope. The study also addressed how to create a culture that discourages ethical breeches. The key finding is that when small trivial behaviors that are slightly questionable are not noticed or called out over time there is a large increase in the likelihood that ethical people will commit larger violations in the future. This evidence demonstrates that getting away with seemingly minor acts like grabbing a few pens from the supply closet and bringing them home or extending a medical appointment to run an errand makes it easier for people to next add a few extra dollars on their meal expense report or fudge a few data points in their research. And if that isn’t noticed it can build to covering up safety issues, rigging a hiring processes, embezzlement or outright financial fraud. Crashing careers, reputations and institutions.

Personally leaders need to be aware that even they can be swept down an ethical slippery slope without realizing it if they work in a culture that doesn’t pay attention to trivial incidents. The study recommends establishing a personal vigilance on ethics that encompasses all issues, large and small. In addition, it reinforces the importance of leaders clearly defining misconduct and quickly addressing even trivial behaviors to ensure that people don’t set themselves up for a larger crash down the road. The authors describe this as developing a “prevention focus” by:

  • setting clear ethical standards
  • openly discussing and describing potential ethical dilemmas employees may face
  • role-modeling ethical behavior
  • responding quickly and openly to even minor violations – this doesn’t require draconian punishment but it does require notification and follow-through
  • reinforcing vigilance and respect for ethical behavior in all settings

Slippery slopes are exhilarating on my  snowboard but they can cause even the most ethical of leaders to crash and destroy their integrity without proper vigilance.

Todd Thorsgaard

Are you congruent?

Congruent, what’s that? Congruence is defined as behaving in a way in which your values and your actions match. Sounds simple, right?

Over the last decade or so, I’ve done quite a bit of coaching with leaders who are preparing to interview for various leadership roles. One of my best pieces of advice to them is to demonstrate congruence in their interview. That is, when they say they have particular values, strengths or abilities, they need to be able to give clear examples of those things and weave them throughout their interview.

Demonstrating congruence is important for leaders at all times, not just in an interview setting.  When your actions match your values, it gives people confidence that you lead authentically and act with integrity. Still, demonstrating congruence is not easy.  It’s one thing to have the self-awareness to know and communicate your values, but it’s another thing to ensure that your actions always follow your espoused values.

In her chapter on Congruence in the edited book, Leadership for a Better World, Tricia R. Shalka, says “Acting in congruence means you give time and energy to the things you say are important. If you say your family is most important but you choose to work 80 hour weeks and, via technology, are never truly with your family 100%, is that congruent with saying your family is most important? Probably not.”

So how can you ensure that your values and actions are congruent? Here are a few questions for you to ponder:

  • What are my core values?
  • How do my actions demonstrate my values?
  • What actions have I taken recently that are clearly aligned with my values?
  • What actions have I taken recently that are not aligned with my values?
  • Do I need to change my actions to bring them in line with my espoused values? Or do I need to re-evaluate my values and communicate them honestly to myself and others?
  • How can I demonstrate congruence with those I lead?

Last week I was struck with the congruence that Dr. Annette Parker demonstrated while sharing her story of her early career. She started working at a GM plant fresh from high school and only later began her education at a community college, quickly becoming a tutor and then an instructor.  Dr. Parker continued her education and rose through her career to become a president of a community and technical college, and now leads collaborative workforce development efforts for the system. Her career has demonstrated the way she values both technical and continuing education for herself and others.

What examples of congruence have you seen in yourself or leaders around you?

Anita Rios

 

 

The perfect apology

We all know that effective leaders admit and learn from their mistakes, but admitting that we were wrong can be hard to do well. And if we’re taking ownership for an error related to work that was done under our leadership it can be even trickier.

On a website devoted to The Perfect Apology, the authors say that in a business setting, a good apology “will help solidify relationships with existing customers, acquire new ones, enhance customer confidence and improve overall loyalty to the brand.”

As an example, they analyze an apology given by JetBlue Airline after a particularly difficult week that included multiple delays and missed connections. The authors say it includes the key elements of an effective apology:

  1. It starts by expressing appropriate humility and remorse.
  2. It gives a detailed account of what happened and takes responsibility. In this case, the delays were caused by a severe winter storm, but the company didn’t try to minimize the effects of what happened.
  3. It offers restitution and proposes a Consumer Bill of Rights to remedy the situation in the future.
  4. It ends by saying that the airline values customer relationships and hopes to do business again in the future.

We could say that the experiences of an airline CEO don’t relate to us in higher education. We don’t sell tickets or compete for customer flight miles. We don’t seek customer brand loyalty (or do we?). But we all know that higher education isn’t perfect. People and organizations make mistakes, and leaders have to take responsibility. Is there anything we can learn from this example?

Dee Anne Bonebright

 

When compliance really matters

Part of acting with integrity is to comply with the laws, policies, and procedures that impact our work. While this might not seem as exciting as being innovative or as important as being strategic, it is an an essential leadership competency.

As a parent of a female athlete and someone who spent my career in higher education, I’ve been stunned by the stories about Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar. Clearly he illustrated extreme unethical and illegal behavior. But how did it go on for so long?

Here’s part of Aly Raisman’s testimony:  “If over these many years, just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would never, ever have met you.”

Michigan State had policies and procedures to prevent what happened. But somehow the culture of the school, and of organized sports, did not make them easy to implement. Many of his victims were not famous athletes – they were college students. A New York Times article said that one of them remembered it as being “common knowledge; everybody knew that if you went to him you got weird treatment.”

I’ve heard of supervisors that “everybody knew” harassed employees, or managers that “everybody knew” discriminated against certain groups of people. Sometimes that behavior had gone on for years. Higher education is clearly not unique in this, but how does it happen that people aren’t always held accountable for following the laws and policies that ought to be governing their professional work?

I keep thinking back to Raisman’s statement. How can we be that one adult who did something?

Dee Anne Bonebright