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Setting the tone

Some staff have an unfortunate sense of what’s appropriate. How you react will set the tone of your organisation. Your people will watch you closely to pick up that tone.
  • A customer mailing list file called “ratbags” (or somesuch). As soon as I saw it, I insisted the name be changed. There was some shame-faced bluster about it just being someone’s silly sense of humour, but a glowering look stopped that. The word went out - always treat customers respectfully.
  • Walking past some staff drinking wine at their desks in the middle of the afternoon, I came back. simply said “That’s not appropriate” and walked off. The wine was gone in a minute and the staff later apologised.
  • On hearing that I wanted a more effective approach to late payment for electricity supply rather than simply cutting off customers’ power, the team leader responsible for credit control and payments proclaimed that “they’re all liars, and it’s the only thing that works”. I said I doubted that, and asked him to produce an analysis of the past year’s late payers and their frequency. Out of 40,00 customers, approximately 10% had been referred for late payment - most only once, and only 200 were chronic bad payers. He acknowledged he was wrong, but didn’t change his approach. He didn’t stay long and we made credit control part of a new customer service approach under a team leader who saw her job very differently, looking for ways to help customers not fall behind.
  • On hearing a product manager suggest that we make unsubstantiated claims in our product specifications, I respond “We don’t lie to customers.” On hearing the justification that “everyone else does it,” I reply “I doubt that, and in any case I don’t care. We don’t lie to customers.” That product manager didn’t last long either.
  • A product development team, given the challenge of designing a new antenna product platform at half the cost of the existing platform, started calling itself the CNA team which, on hearing for the first time, I learnt stood for “Cheap and Nasty Antenna”. My instant reaction: “You will drop that name immediately. I never want to hear it again. From now on, you are the EYE team - Elegant Yet Economic”. It not only set a different expectation for the new product platform; that name became a badge of honour and they still called themselves the EYE team years after that particular project had successfully finished.
You don’t always have to be quick on your feet; sometimes, a measured reaction is appropriate. Sometimes you’ll want to take a more consultative approach; asking people to think about the matter and decide what’s appropriate. But an instant reaction sends a very powerful message, as does a direct order, especially if you don’t usually act that way. Importantly, be consistent. And always remember, who you hire or fire, who you give an important project, who gets promoted, rewarded or praised - these all send important and closely-watched signals. What you do sets the tone.

Update in answer to Josh Forde
Jim : What do you think gave you the authority to do that with other people? We all have situations of seeing behaviour that we disagree with but don’t always feel we can effectively confront it or that we carry the respect to do so. It can’t be just about being the boss, it has to resonate with something larger than that?:
Good question, Josh. Actually being the boss does give you positional authority, but you use it carefully, and it only works well if it is backed up by personal authority - being assertive rather than authoritative, having confidence and conviction, and having earned respect for your past actions, knowledge and demonstrated behaviour. That’s something you build over time. Even if you don’t have it yet, it’s never too late to start. Most people recognise valid thinking when they see it, and although you may not persuade them this time, you’re building a personal ethos and reputation which will evolve into personal authority as a formal leader or as an important and respected influencer. And sometimes, all it takes is for you to speak out; you’ll be surprised at how often someone else jumps in to support you - the world is full of good people who want to do the right thing.

First published 28 November 2009