Two Enemies to Avoid -- Setting Standards, Part 5

We’ve spent our last four weeks looking at how standards help leaders set direction. Last week, we dared to peer underneath the mechanics of setting standards and into the motives leaders have for setting them. This week, we investigate how our long-term leadership effectiveness is impacted by our reactions when standards are violated. To start that investigation, let’s first think about what it means to be a follower. What does it feel like to be on the losing end of a standard? What happens inside followers when they must be corrected regarding a new or existing standard? What happens within on-looking followers who watch the enforcement of standards unfold?

Standards give followers clarity as to the direction they are being led. But there is the inevitable reality that when violations of standards have to be addressed, followers have meaningful opportunities to be drawn into fear and anxiety. Though fear and anxiety are often used as levers by less developed leaders who are focused only on the short term, leaders focused on long-term success know they are problematic creatures. Here are a couple of ways to keep the creation of fear and the feeding of anxiety off of your long-term leadership to do list.

Taking the Long View

As leaders, we (hopefully) don’t set standards for the purpose of creating fear and feeding anxiety within our followers. The momentary existence of both fear and anxiety is unavoidable in life and leadership. But their constant presence over the long haul is (a) an un-fun way to live that invites the best of our followers to find new leaders, and (b) an inefficient way to lead because of the relational turmoil they cause.

Productivity and efficiency are slowed in any organization where fear and anxiety are consistently present. Think about all the c.y.a. and cc emails that are sent in atmospheres where fear and anxiety reign. Then there are the agenda driven conversations that appear to be about clarification but are, in truth, about self-protection. And on top of these, there is the emotional energy spent on self-management and personal survival rather than serving clients or improving processes. These all produce the very opposite of an efficient, well-oiled machine.

Given that corrective measures are ripe with possibilities to promote fear and anxiety, what are we to do when standards are violated? How do we as leaders get the value out of reinforcing standards without birthing fear and anxiety? The answers lie not in outward techniques but inside the leader’s attitudes and perspectives.

It’s an Opportunity, Not an Affront

First off, if you’re creating new standards, expect them to be violated. They are, after all, new. New standards take some getting used to for everyone. And because organizational slippage occurs over time, even old standards get violated now and again. So save yourself the trouble of being shocked when a standard gets ignored or missed.

When you encounter violations of standards, take care to remember that each violation of standards is a learning opportunity. To see violations as a personal affront to you and your leadership, as some are tempted to do, is to miss what the moment truly is: a chance to develop a person and the organization. Each time a standard is violated, it is an opportunity to reiterate the culture you are creating. Every violation is pregnant with the opportunity to reinforce where you're taking those you lead and why you're taking them there.

If we can discipline ourselves to see violations as opportunities rather than personal affronts, it will meaningfully affect the feel of our conversations with those who’ve violated the standards. It will shift the tone away from your frustration (or maybe even anger) and toward an attitude of service through development. In doing so, we will be less likely to feed the fear and anxiety that can come attached to corrective conversations and are counter productive to long-run relational health between leaders and followers.

Just Say “No!” to Judgey Judgerson

If we can avoid the pitfall of taking a violation of standards as a personal affront, we haven’t side-stepped all of the internal temptations we need to just yet. We still have to deal with Judgey Judgerson.

You know Judgey. He comes calling whenever the people we lead don’t “get it.” Judgey whispers in our ears to remind us of all the screw ups the person who violated the standard has had in the past. He tells us that the violator knew exactly what to do and did something different anyway either out of laziness or pure insubordination. He tells us how we’re sacrificially leading the troops. He reminds us how hard we’ve worked to be pristine examples of the standard that was violated. (Judgey always thinks we’re great; that’s one of the reasons we love him so.)

I think you get the picture. When we bring judgment to discussions about violated standards, we bring a debilitating bedfellow to the conversation. Judgment from leaders fuels unhelpful anxiety and fear in our followers by telling them they have no voice, control, or influence in the situation. The antidote to judgment is curiosity. Curiosity mutes our followers' fears and anxieties by inviting dialogue into the corrective process.

Hitting the Bottom Line

If we set standards, having to deal with violations is inevitable. When we seek to reinforce the standards we’ve set, we should expect some level of tension in the air. That tension is not bad. Very little of value in life has ever been done in the complete absence of tension. But that tension needs to be a tension-of-the-moment rather than tension-as-the-norm. Tension produced by ever-present fear and anxiety makes us less effective leaders over the long haul. It introduces suspicion into our relationships. This makes everything less efficient and can even cause us to lose talented followers. Inefficiency in relationships and the lose of talented followers are not theoretically negative; they hit the actual bottom lines of our organizations and teams.

Having the attitudinal discipline and perspective to (1) not take violations as personal affronts, and (2) check our judgments at the door

puts grease into our leadership gears. These internal practices of the leader maximize the developmental value of reinforcing standards without triggering fear and anxiety. They enable us to set and reinforce standards well. And that helps us set direction more effectively for those we lead. Remember what Colonel Art Athens said way back in week one of this series: “Leaders 'Set Direction' by setting standards.”

Share Your Thoughts:Have you ever seen a leader respond to a violation of standards in a way that created fear and fed anxiety within his/her followers? Have you seen a leader handle the violation of standards exceptionally well? Tell us about it. We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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