Toxic talk

Features - Management

7 conversations that are undermining your strategy and killing performance.

November 24, 2015


The business world, in general, is a vast network of interrelated conversations, and your company is a microcosm of that network. What this means is that the conversations that take place between your team members are incredibly important. In fact, they’re everything.

Words are far more powerful than most people realize. Unbelievable outcomes happen when you say how it’s going to be and then take action to have it be that way. Change your language and you change your perspective, which changes what’s possible in your future.

But suppose you, the leader, are declaring bold possibilities full of fire and optimism, but your employees are engaging in other kinds of conversations? Bitter complaints. Criticisms. Cynical rants full of self-pity and anger. All of these conversations create a sense of unconscious disconnection in the workplace and disempowerment among the workforce.

Unfortunately, I’ve learned that the conversations in nearly 90 percent of companies are limiting, and they undermine and sabotage your company’s performance. Most of these conversations aren’t visible to leaders. Yet they go viral throughout an organization, kill morale, prevent engagement and slow productivity to a crawl.

These conversations are symptoms of what I call an “Execution Virus” and they are deadly. Because Execution Viruses are so deadly, only 13 percent of companies succeed in overcoming them.

Here are seven performance-killing conversations your employees may be having within your company without your knowledge. This is why employees don’t — or, more likely, can’t — execute the strategy of your company. All you need is one of these to assure a place on the list of 87 percent of companies that fail to execute their strategy.

“It’s not our strategy.” If this persistent conversation is being repeated (albeit in the background) throughout your organization, your employees feel that they have no say in the direction of your company, and therefore, they disconnect themselves from its future. You do all the planning, and you demand a certain result; they do all the work, and you get all the reward. Be honest: Would you be very motivated or bought-in if you were in their shoes?

The key to eradicating this particular Execution Virus is to invite your employees to the strategy table. Ask them for their insights and opinions regarding the path your company is on and how they see themselves fulfilling their roles. Don’t just talk about engagement and empowerment. Allow people to contribute, ask questions and even disagree with you. This gives them a way to invest in what they’re working toward and gives real meaning to their work.

“They don’t appreciate us.” So many leaders believe that if they acknowledge someone, it will come back to haunt them. Perhaps the employee will take advantage of the comment when the time comes to review his or her performance and salary. So leaders think, “They get a paycheck, and that ought to be enough acknowledgment and appreciation.” Nevertheless, employees may still feel exploited. And from there, it’s a short step to becoming actively resentful of management for not recognizing their contribution to the success of the organization.

No matter what level of skills a leader has achieved, I’ve rarely found an executive who is totally comfortable authentically expressing appreciation for an employee in front of others. So here’s some tough love: Get over yourself. It can cost you big-time not to have that conversation. It costs you nothing to appreciate and acknowledge the contribution of others.

“They’re always making excuses.” Employees learn from their leaders. When leaders use ready-made excuses, point the finger of blame at peers or other team members, or cite circumstances beyond their control as reasons for failing to deliver, employees will find their own excuses for not doing what they said they would do. This produces a business culture in which strategies, plans and intentions disappear soon after they are agreed to, and teams quickly fall back into business-as-usual behavior.

No one holds management accountable. Honestly, how comfortable would you be calling your own boss on the carpet? You’ll have to attack this Execution Virus starting with you. No more excuses. It’s time to become publicly accountable for your own results—the good and the bad. You’ll find that your people are much more willing to follow a fallible leader with integrity than a perfect leader who constantly passes the buck.

“What is our mission statement, and why should I care?” Have an unannounced conversation with all members of your team and ask them to tell you the mission or vision statement of your company. If you’re lucky, maybe 5 percent will be able to give you a credible answer. As for the rest, you’ll have difficulty getting them to understand the relevance of the company’s mission, much less motivating them to implement it with any sense of urgency.

How can people implement actions or execute a strategy when they can’t understand the relevance of your vision or mission as it relates to their jobs? Most teams don’t openly discuss the mission and its relevance to their marketplace focus. As a result, the significance of their role isn’t well understood. For employees to be effective, they must understand where they fit and how their job impacts overall contribution to the desired outcome.

“They treat us like crap.” If there’s mistreatment, rudeness and nastiness toward employees, leaders will surely take action to stop it, because they know that no company can execute its strategy with that going on, right? Apparently not. In a study that spanned 14 years, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson found that 98 percent of employees surveyed reported experiencing rude or uncivil behavior either toward them or toward another in their presence.

Uncivil behavior hits squarely at the bottom line, because those who are on the receiving end nearly always report responding in a negative way. Employees who feel that they’re being treated badly will put forth the bare minimum of effort. Their negative attitude will be all too evident to customers. And they’ll probably jump ship at the earliest opportunity. The solution is clear: Treat your employees at every level with civility and respect. Make sure all supervisors do the same.

“It’s the same old story.” Grandiose pronouncements for new initiatives that are intended to provoke a new battle cry are falling on deaf ears. That’s because employees have heard it all before. Bringing your employees together to build new initiatives for a goal or challenge is usually received with rolling eyes and sighs.

No one wants to feel manipulated into thinking that what you’re putting forth is brand new. It rarely is. There are too many options available for good people to stick with leaders who aren’t serious about being authentic.

“We’ve always done it this way.” Old paradigms, nonexistent “visions,” and limiting business models that are fixed on past performance keep your employees from moving your business forward. A rigid belief system that creates inflexible boundaries around what is possible for the future makes employees feel stifled. When employees can’t see how or where they can improve their position in life and can’t perceive a future for themselves that doesn’t look and feel a lot like the past, they become apathetic.

Employees who haven’t been shown that they can grow, develop and expand their opportunities within the organization — so that they have a sense of control over their own possible future — will lose interest in what you want. Once again, that’s why it’s so important to make sure that your people have a voice in determining where your company is going, how best to get there, and what their individual roles look like.

If any of the conversations in this list sound familiar, take them seriously. They are likely the reason your employees are disconnected from you, from your vision, from your mission, from the strategy for your company, and from the needs of your customers. They are the cause of your Execution Virus.