When standards are not met

Bridging strategy and leadership with non-negotiable standards

What happens when standards are not met?

As a leader, it can be an almost unbearable temptation to let off steam, when subordinate employees do not comply with a set of agreed-upon standards. However, only meaningful actions at an individual level have the power to affect behaviour.

Bridging strategy and leadership

One of the most thought-provoking articles I have read in recent years was about scolding children.

In the article, the author argued that not only is scolding downright damaging to children but, in ten years from now, we will look at it in the same way we look at physical punishment today. As a father myself and as a managing director in a knowledge-intensive company, I am, of course, well aware of the fact that there is no direct link between raising children and managing a company.

Bridging strategy and leadership

But the article did actually raise some of the same questions that I am faced with on a daily basis.

The more innovative and development-oriented our organisations become, the smarter and more confident our employees become, and the harder it becomes to convince them to prioritise tasks which are perceived as either boring and/or non-beneficial at an individual level. As a leader, it can be an almost unbearable temptation to let off steam and give the insubordinate employees a public spanking, when they do not comply with a set of agreed-upon standards that are essential for the common good of the company.

Non-negotiable standards

Standards which, if you ask me, must be met by any organisation that has ambitions beyond basic survival. Standards that are non-negotiable and for which there is no excuse not to meet them are, in my opinion, the glue between strategy and leadership and a fundamental part of the DNA of all successful companies.

But what are the characteristics of a non-negotiable standard?

A good starting point is that it is critical for obtaining the strategic goals of the company. It must also be simple and easy to communicate, and all employees must agree that it is meaningful and important. And I do mean all employees, because the most important feature of all non-negotiable standards is that all employees, to some extent, can be held accountable.

In my own organisation, it makes sense to have a target of 4.5 on a 5-point scale in any kind of satisfaction survey, whether it concerns clients, employees or specific projects. In addition, we have introduced a 90% rule, meaning that all employees must attend 9 out of 10 internal educational and social activities, regardless of how many billable hours they miss while attending. We all agree that these targets are important and that, everything else being equal, we will be a better company if we succeed. We are also aware that there will be situations in which we do not succeed, and when that happens we try not to scold but to apply meaningful actions instead.

Create impact on an individual level

This brings us back to scolding, which for many of us comes natural after many years of practice. It just does not affect the behaviour we want to change. It violates and it causes anger and resistance. As leaders, the only thing we achieve is to degrade our own authority with endless orders and recommendations without creating anything but indifference. What does create impact, however, is making our points meaningful at an individual level. This may seem as an overwhelming task, but we can ease it considerably by ensuring that the standards we introduce live up to the requirements mentioned above and reflect the mission and core values of the company.

If we succeed in that and in adapting the standards to our strategy, culture and management systems on a continuous basis, they will not only be meaningful – they will also be durable and non-negotiable, and we will not have to scold anyone anymore (almost).