Myth busting #4/5: Leaders must always demonstrate perfect behaviour

Aart Willem de Wolf Published at

Company culture, by definition, is something which permeates through every level and role. When exploring company culture myths at R&G, we naturally had to take a look at where leaders’ own behaviours fit into the jigsaw. Similarly to the other myths busted in this series – #1 ‘Of course we are aware of our own culture’, #2 ‘Once everyone knows our values, the culture we’re aiming for will follow’ and #3 ‘A self-contained culture training programme will do the job’ – we concluded that instincts need to be turned on their heads.

Company Culture Myth #4: Leaders must always demonstrate perfect behaviour
Leaders have to walk the talk and lead by example. A popular belief that makes sense to some extent. After all, you can’t expect your teams to change if you, the leader, are behaving in a manner that conflicts with what you’re asking of them.

However, even leaders are only human. Prone to slip up now and again, just like anyone else. The issue at stake is how others respond when a leader demonstrates undesired behaviour. Some might observe, say nothing and come to private unfavourable conclusions about their leader’s commitment. While those who are opposed to adopting the required culture will seize this as a mandate to reinforce their viewpoint, perhaps even stirring up trouble by trying to bring others along with them.

Given that no human’s behaviour will always be perfect, presenting leaders as super-humans who always get it right is asking for trouble. So what’s the solution? If we replace expectation of perfection with acceptance of good intentions, and introduce the idea of shared accountability, a leader’s human fallibility becomes much less of a high-stakes risk. This translates as creating a culture whereby team members and leaders have equal responsibility to call each other out, and help each other realign, when something’s amiss. Which probably sounds a bit scary. After all, many cultures – in society as well as in organisations – are founded on hierarchical principles which make direct open criticism of leaders an unacceptable behaviour in its own right. How can leaders possibly lead when their team members have equal rights to telling them what to do?

The key lies in setting and communicating clear definitions of which behaviours are accountable, together with a universally understood definition of recovery behaviour. Recovery behaviour being how team members go about helping their leaders get back on track when they start to exhibit undesired behaviour, as well as how leaders help their teams when they go off track.

Achieving this means breaking out of long-held taboos. ‘Obedient’ team members have to be prepared to behave in a subversive manner. Leaders have to demonstrate vulnerability. But the end result is full and equal accountability for behaviour throughout the team, which reinforces new behaviours since it becomes a group responsibility, rather than only a leadership responsibility.
In conclusion:

Putting recovery behaviour practices in place enables accountability to be shared by all.

One more to complete the set
I’ll reveal the final myth busted in this 5-part series in my next post. If you want to read it now, catch up on the first three myths, or just have the convenience of reading the full story in one place, simply download R&G’s white paper Company culture: Mastering the Art of Herding Cats:

Herding Cats Whitepaper image

Aart Willem de Wolf is Managing Partner for R&G Global Consultants in The Netherlands

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