Words Matter, But...
Google “words matter” and your search results will fill with articles, research, and podcasts on the subject. Language is important and clearly defining your intention can mitigate future challenges. Leaders tend to focus on the messaging - what we say matters.
When we really focus on the intention of our message, something special happens. Positive words can inspire, change someone’s direction, and unify. Will negative messaging can erode, distort, and destroy. Unclear messaging creates chaos, confusion, and conflict. In speeches and marketing, words do matter.
Many companies work hard to define their message, policies, and values. They spend much time wordsmithing language to find the perfect vocabulary to represent their company culture and brand. It is a good marketing tool for the website and potential employees. It brings in new customers and can endear people to a brand. In these instances, words do matter.
What happens when all those words unintentionally become a deception? When the reality of your company’s culture contradicts your messaging. When employees express their frustration with or push back against the dominant culture. While words do matter, actions speak louder than words.
Your company culture is not defined by what you put on paper. It is the embodiment of what happens every day. The words in each daily conversation or company meeting; the contradictions of your decisions; the actions of your human resource department; the positive and negative reinforcement of all leaders; the inequality of performance appraisals; the communication or lack of in expressing your vision; or the way you pivot your business model. When the company's actions contradict your written words, employees believe your actions. Period - Full Stop!
You can refer to the written policy or values all you want, but if you do not breathe life into them daily, they are just words. Culture is a living organism. It grows and changes in space between words and action. When words fail - actions speak the truth. In many ways, action becomes the primary vessel for communicating and expressing culture. In these instances, words do not matter.
Employees always see through your company’s contradictions. It frustrates them. They want you to practice what you preach. They see the contradictions between your words and actions and perceive them as lies. When employees begin to ask questions or challenge leadership decisions, it is because of your contradictions. This is not always a commentary about leadership. It is a reflection of your declining company culture. Sometimes, it’s a combination of the two.
What happens when the culture is divided? It perpetuates an “Us” versus “Them” culture. It allows departments to have their own culture that contradicts the company culture. Contradictory department culture happens as a way to correct broken or unfair company culture. When this happens, company culture needs a reset. This means lots of leaders listening to each other, employees listening to each other, leaders and employees breaking down silos. The goal is to find common ground and a way to course correct.
What can company’s do to turn the tide? Recently, in a conversation with a couple of leaders, we were talking about how easy it is when decisions, operations, and community collaborations are black and white. I burst their bubble a bit by explaining how life is all about the gray areas. First, company’s need to spend more time in the gray area between words and actions to better understand how these gray areas affect your company culture. Next, communicate the intentions of your written policy. What does the policy mean and how does it improve your culture? Policies are no longer just business decisions. They employees demand to understand the impact on their lives. Then, Dialogue often - company wide - about how the little things contribute to your identity and why it’s important to a supportive culture. Finally, listen, ask for feedback from all company employees in person and in writing, and then take action based on the feedback. Since accountability for all companies, employees, and leaders is important, communicate back to your employees what can be improved quickly, what items will take time, and what items may not change.
Finding a healthy balance between words and actions is hard work. It is a long-term business challenge. It must take consistent and constant reflection to keep the cultural living organism alive. It is the role of every company board member, leader, employee, and volunteer.
If you need additional guidance, contact us at Pensivetastic. Let’s collaborate to define your path forward. We’ll help you get there.