February 5, 2010

When Commitment is Just a Crowd-Pleaser

In the organization, you can’t really do anything without management commitment and a certain degree of consensus. In fact, management commitment is usually at the top of the list when it comes to a project’s critical success factors.

But when is commitment real and when is it just lip service?

Sometimes, when the boss tells you to do something, he means it and gives you the authority and resources to make it happen. Other times, “go do” is superficial and denotes more of a “this isn’t really important”, but we need to make a good show of it for political, compliance, or other reasons. In the latter case, there is usually no real authority implied or resources committed to getting the job done. But at least we gave it our best (not!).

As an employee, you have to be smart enough to know the difference in what you’re being asked to do (and not do), so you don’t end up stepping in the muck—trying to do something that no one really wants anyway or the opposite, not delivering on a project that others are depending on.

Knowing the difference between what’s real and what isn’t can mean the difference between a successful and rewarding career (i.e. “you get it”) or one that is disappointing and frustrating (because you’re sort of clueless).

It was interesting for me to read in the Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2010, about how looks can be deceiving when it comes to support for someone or some cause: apparently, in certain European countries, such as Ukraine, it is common place for rallies to be attended not by genuine supporters, but by people paid to show up. In other countries, you may not be paid to show up, but instead be punished for not doing so.

The Journal reports that “rent-a-crowd entrepreneurs find people fast to cheer or jeer for $4 an hour…[and] if you place an order for a rally, you can have it the next day.”

So what looks like thousands of people turning out to support someone or something is really just a sham. This is similar to leaders who turn out to support a program or project, but really they are just paying lip service with no intention of actually helping the project make an inch of progress. Their superficial support is paid for by goodwill generated by their apparent support or what one of my friends used to call by “brownie points” (for brown-nosing their boss or peers)—but of course, they aren’t really behind the initiative.

The article summarizes it this way: “For now, people see the same old politicians and hear the same old ideas. If someone fresh brings a new idea, people will come out and listen for free.”

Good leaders need to actually say what they mean and mean what they say, so employees are able to focus on the work that’s really important and get the results the organization needs. This contrasts with ineffectively telling employees to “go do”, but no one is standing with or behind them—not even for 4 dollars an hour.

Of course, leaders must get on board with the direction that the overall organization is going. That is just part of being a team player and accepting that first of all, we are not always right as individuals, and second of all that we live in an imperfect world where sometimes our choices are not ideal.

However, when employees are required to rally for causes they truly don’t believe in or leadership feels compelled to pay lip service to initiatives they will not ultimately fund or commit to, the result is a dysfunctional organization. The outward reality does not match the actual feelings or thoughts of its people. (Sort of like having a diversity initiative headed by all white males over the age of 50.)

Let us commit to a spirit of honesty in all our dealings. If a conflict needs to be addressed, let’s address it directly rather than avoiding or glossing over it. One very basic and simple step toward this end is to recognize and reward the people who are brave enough to say when the emperor has no clothes and who are able to provide alternatives that make sense.

And finally—when we do commit to something—let’s see it through.


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