Google “words matter,” and your search results will fill with articles, research, and podcasts. Language is important, and clearly defining your intention can mitigate future challenges. Leaders tend to focus on the messaging - what we say matters.
In speeches and marketing, words matter. Positive words can inspire, change someone’s direction, and unify. When focusing on the intention of our message, something special happens. Unclear messaging creates chaos, confusion, and conflict.
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 become a deception? When your company’s culture contradicts your messaging. When employees express frustration 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 actions. When words fail - actions speak the truth. In many ways, the 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.
Contradictory department culture happens as a way to correct broken or unfair company culture. It perpetuates an “Us” versus “Them” culture. It allows departments to have their own culture that contradicts the company culture. What happens when the culture is divided? When this happens, company culture needs a reset. This means many leaders listening to each other, employees listening to each other, and leaders and employees breaking down silos. The goal is to find common ground and a way to course correct.
What can companies do to turn the tide? Recently, in a conversation with a couple of leaders, we talked about how easy it is when decisions, operations, and community collaborations are black and white. I burst their bubble by explaining how life is all about the gray areas. First, companies need to spend more time in the gray area between words and actions to understand better how these gray areas affect the 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. The 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, tell 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. Keeping the cultural living organism alive must take consistent and constant reflection. 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.