Is formal incongruence destroying trust and productivity in your organisation?

“There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”
– Julia Gillard

“[The GST is] dead. It was killed by voters at the last election”
– John Howard

“We set ourselves this first goal – by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”
– Bob Hawke

“Liberals give”
– Liberal ads from 1977 federal election

What do all these pronouncements have in common? They’ve all been abandoned, one way or another. Julia Gillard introduced a carbon pricing mechanism that has become law. John Howard brought in the GST. Children are still living in poverty in Australia. And the tax cuts promised by Malcolm Fraser at the 1977 federal election were all taken back barely a year later.

When the gap between what people say they will do and their observed behaviour is significant, the observers usually begin to lose trust. Is it any wonder then, that the only profession we trust less than a politician is a telemarketer?*  (Interestingly, CEOs aren’t much better off.)

Whether we’re talking of politics or the business of change management, any disparity between thought, word and deed damages observers’ trust and goodwill. Sometimes governments can turn that damage around—Malcolm Fraser did get re-elected in 1980, for example, and John Howard once labelled himself ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’. Unfortunately for us, repairing that damage in the context of an organisation is much more difficult.

Consider the full line of sight, as outlined in this article: Implementing Transformational Change through a Line of Sight


Implemented fully, this approach will generate a large number of documents that outline the organisation’s strategy, from the Vision and Mission themselves down to individual policy and procedure documents. Each of these documents needs to communicate information to readers, preferably in an unambiguous fashion, in order to provide guidance for employee behaviour.

As an example, consider FedEx’s mission statement (as at May 2012) below:

“FedEx Corporation will produce superior financial returns for its shareowners by providing high value-added logistics, transportation and related business services through focused operating companies. Customer requirements will be met in the highest quality manner appropriate to each market segment served. FedEx will strive to develop mutually rewarding relationships with its employees, partners and suppliers. Safety will be the first consideration in all operations. Corporate activities will be conducted to the highest ethical and professional standards.”

Consider the language used. ‘Superior financial returns’, ‘high value-added’, ‘focused’, and ‘appropriate to each market segment’ all get high billing, showing that the statement itself is strongly focused on a drive to gain results—ultimately, ‘for shareowners’. Meanwhile, ‘mutually rewarding’ and ‘highest ethical…standards’ indicate a desire to be inclusive of people. And ‘safety’ as the first consideration and ‘highest quality’ indicate a preference for structure and procedure. Interestingly, there are no words in FedEx’s mission statement about growth or opportunity.

As a guide for employee behaviour, this mission statement firmly plants a flag on the mountain of performance—getting results is paramount, with a preference that it is done via meeting customer requirements, developing relationships, and being safe, ethical and professional.

Now let’s consider a hypothetical situation where FedEx is attempting to implement this mission statement. A working group is tasked with revising the company’s policies for employee development, and comes up with the following paragraph describing the company’s approach to people development, which they insert into the induction pack for new starters:

At FedEx, nothing is more important to us than the skills of our people. We want you to share in our success, and consequently we are determined to provide you with the greatest possible opportunities for learning and development. It is our policy to provide each and every employee, regardless of position or longevity with the company, with a $5,000 annual training budget that may be spent on any training of the employee’s choice, subject to approval by the employee’s supervisor. At FedEx, we are confident that you will find yourself able to excel in ways you never thought possible, and to push your boundaries beyond what you might have considered in the past. Welcome to the FedEx community.

On the surface, this sounds like a great idea (presuming the company can afford it, of course). But take a look at the language used in this paragraph. ‘Opportunities for learning and development’ and ‘push your boundaries’ are very broad, future-oriented choices of words. Describing the staff as a ‘community’ and saying that ‘nothing is more important than the skills of our people’ sets up an expectation of a people-oriented, welcoming and warm working environment.

Someone reading this piece of literature upon accepting a role with FedEx might genuinely be excited about what they could achieve.

But let’s go back to the mission statement for a moment: we’ve already established it focuses on the bottom line, on results. Yet this piece of policy documentation suggests a focus on the individual employee. What do you think is going to happen when the bottom-up expectations created by this policy document crash headlong into the top-down expectations generated by the mission statement?

Confusion would reign, for a start, as managers seek to amalgamate the two divergent sets of expectations using their best efforts.

Imagine a manager of a call centre who receives a training request from an operator to attend a course on contract management. Should they approve it? What if the operator wants to attend a course on effective facilitation of workshops? Should they approve that? Should the manager cut departmental training budgets by refusing to allow staff to attend courses after all to improve the bottom line in line with the mission statement, or approve training in line with the information in the induction pack? The manager must rely upon his or her judgement to resolve the situation.

When middle management is already burdened with the task of interpreting directives from above that are incongruent with expectations from below, this can be a death knell to productivity and—when a change is involved—to belief in and caring about the change.

And while many of us will be familiar with the concept of dealing with informal incongruence, where, for example, an organisation says “our people are our most important resource” one week and then cuts its training budgets the next week, the kind of incongruence outlined here is formal—it is enshrined in documentation. This makes it even more difficult to deal with.

Whether you are facing a change or you just want to assess your existing documentation to ensure you eliminate formal incongruence in your documentation, it’s worth paying attention to more than just the intention of the document; spend some time assessing the language you use, and the way in which it will be interpreted by those who read it. If informal incongruence can cause consternation, formal incongruence can rapidly destroy belief and trust in employees and shareholders alike. Change Factory can help you to build strong, stable and congruent documentation that promotes productivity rather than strangling it, making change easy.

*Source: What people think of your profession, viewed 18/05/2012

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