In a recent offsite teambuilding retreat with the leadership team of my organization, we discussed our group norms. “Norms” are expectations we set and, hopefully, commit to, for how we will behave as leaders. “Norms” are also people named Norman, but I can’t make behavioral commitments on their behalf. Our team came up with some good stuff. We agreed, for example, to go directly to the source if we have a complaint or concern. That is as opposed to whining to a third party about it as a way of avoiding a potentially awkward, difficult, or even emotionally dangerous conversation. I like that one. I am often guilty of whining and I find it to be ultimately unsatisfying. I resolved to do better.
After the meeting I fretted for a while about a norm I felt was missing from our list. My frustration was rooted in my concern that while we may agree to behave appropriately with each other, that doesn’t necessarily commit us to behaving appropriately with anyone else. I could be a helluva guy with my peer and a real jackass to my employees.
In a subsequent meeting with the same group of leaders, I offered up a new norm. My first draft was as follows:
We acknowledge that our staff and our customers are smarter than us and their voices must be valued in our discussions, deliberations, and decision-making.
A colleague offered a friendly amendment to the “smarter than us” comment. She said, “they know more than us.” I can live with that. The fact is I depend on my staff to know how to do their jobs. I have a staff of highly technical people. I inherited them and I’ve never done their jobs. I couldn’t train them if I had to. I recognize and appreciate how smart they are and I spend as much time as possible listening to and trying to understand their perspective. I still have to make decisions and some of those decisions will go against their advice and counsel. I explain my reasoning, ask their forgiveness, and beg for their support.
No matter how politely the leaders treat each other, the staff won’t follow a leader who treats them poorly. At least not without mocking that leader behind his back.