Three Kinds of Lip Service That are Hurting Your Culture
By Kevin Smith
You know about Lip Service, right? (hint: it’s not just a rockin’ song by Elvis Costello.) This is when you talk about something but your actions don’t back up what your lips are saying. It’s a terrible feature in organizational cultures and it can devastate trust and morale. I see it all the time. But not all lip service is created equally. I see three forms of it regularly and each has its own kind of negative effect on an organization.
Three levels of Lip Service:
1. Saying you want honest communication and feedback, when really you don’t.
Here the leader(s) will ask for open, critical feedback, but everyone in the organization knows not to touch this with a ten-foot pole. No one dares to speak up. Those who have done so have been punished for their decision through retribution, or by being passed over for promotions or good assignments. This is often an open secret within the organization. This is often the easiest one to spot, and, perhaps ironically, the easiest one to address.
2. Asking for honest communication, acknowledging this is a best practice, but not being willing to follow through.
The thought process here is leaders who think: we need to ask for and promote open communication. That the “ask” will make your team feel safe and valued. But the lip service is in not actually believing that anything needs to follow up the “ask.” These are leaders who believe that acknowledging this is the only important part, not actually in doing anything to promote the actual communication itself.
Scenario: The senior leader describes a reorganization of departments. He asks for feedback on the new system, and gets only thumbs’ up and approval. Then he says, “okay, now tell me the 10% you’re holding back.” Do you know this phrase? And nobody says anything … until they get into the hallway where the whispers and grapevine conversations go crazy.
Here the leader knows that a good culture would allow and reward open feedback that is critical and he acknowledges it. But the team knows that this is a dangerous thing to do, and it will not be rewarded despite calls to do so.
3. Genuinely wanting a culture of honest communication and feedback, but lacking the EQ to know that the messages don’t line up, that there’s cognitive dissonance, and contradictions which undermine the call for openness that are pervasive.
This is, sadly, the more difficult version of lip service to address. In this scenario, leaders genuinely want open, critical feedback. They understand that trust and accountability are at stake and that this kind of dialogue will help the organization. The piece that is missing is that the culture doesn’t actually support it despite the good will and good intentions of those at the helm.
Scenario: within the organization there is a regular and genuine promotion of trust and accountability. There is a heartfelt desire to make sure everyone is open to constructive criticism in order to find red flags, to have healthy dialogue that will move towards continuous improvement. This is all in the interest of leaving egos behind and focusing on what’s best for the organization despite titles and hierarchies. HOWEVER (comma) what actually plays out is subtle and undermines what the leaders preach. For example, in small meetings an absent person may be criticized for a failure, or for a “dumb” idea. (You can bet people are thinking, “I wonder what they say about me when I’m not there?”) But in this scenario, there is not enough awareness at high enough levels to see where the dissonance lies. Leaders actually believe they are operating at this level of trust and communication. This can lead to disastrous decisions that don’t have the vetting that is presumed to have happened.
Number one is actually the easiest to fix. It requires convincing those at the top that this environment really works. It requires changing of a few minds to get buy-in.
Number two is what I see most commonly. And it’s pretty deadly.
Number three is hardest to change as these leaders believe they are doing the right things. This requires nuance to reveal.
All three versions of Lip Service are harmful. Don’t mistake that. But they can all three be fixed. Paying careful attention to culture can take some time but you’ll also see that a good culture of honest feedback can become infectious and it can snowball, because it helps people to feel safe, to know that they are contributing to the organization, which provides meaning to their jobs. You know … incentives beyond pay. 😉