Dealing with Expedient Nod

It doesn’t matter who you are in the organization, you first have to deal with your own internal commitment to face expedient nods. How strong was your ethical voice yesterday? Is it stronger today? If you answered “yes” then HOORAY! That means that you are facing your decisions, listening to your voice and taking the appropriate actions. Whew, I love when that happens. If you answered “no” then ask yourself the same question tomorrow, and the next tomorrow, and the next tomorrow. If your commitment is strong the answer will be yes one of these tomorrows. I promise.

Along with internal commitment, your external actions can support a more ethical work environment. The following actions will help your team make more ethical decisions and promises.

If you’re the CEO, here’s what you can do:

Set the tone.
Even though you can’t stop all ethical lapses, you can set the stage so that expedient behavior is not tolerated. If you are involved, highlight your commitment during new-hire orientation, and stop rewarding expedient behavior just because its outcome looks good on the surface. For example, a star salesman may moderately overestimate a product’s performance during an enthusiastic sales presentation. If you bestow a bonus, your actions will have overridden all of the words spoken about company values during employee meetings.

Protect confidentiality.
Implement processes that make it easy for employees to express their concerns in a safe environment. For example, check the process for reporting sexual harassment. Typically, interviews in these cases are plentiful, and the alleged victims’ confidentiality must be protected through several layers of management. At any point on the chain, confidentiality may be broken, with a devastating impact on the worklife of the person making the charge.

Discipline ethical lapses.
If you fail to discipline ethical lapses, employees become desensitized to them and stop holding a clear definition of what is right and wrong. Employees will be quick to rightly or wrongly see Expedient Nod everywhere. Expedient Nod’s actions build on one another. Employees may feel pressure to be on the lookout believing that for every Expedient Nod deed they know about, there are two they don’t know about.

If you’re a manager, here’s what you can do:

Keep your promises.
Understand that your words can either build power, or take it away. Employees respect managers they can trust, and when managers break the trust, they lose the power. Managers often don’t realize the extent to which their subordinates take their words to heart. It may be easy for a manager to forget her promises, but it’s never easy for a front-line employee to forget what she has said.

Holding the title of manager carries with it an implied promise. An employee sends e-mail to a manager with an expectation of being replied to. Just because the manager does not specifically make a promise or a commitment, the obligation is implied through the person’s title—“manager.” If a manager ignores e-mail, she is slipping up without even meaning to.

I’ve seen an interesting phenomenon with the use of the “cc” line of e-mails. Some employees copy a peer or superior of the manager on an e-mail to say that they can’t count on the manager to respond and they are documenting their attempts to communicate. So if you, the manager, are receiving requests with extensive “c.c.s,” ask yourself if your employees are over-documenting because you are under-responding.

Kathryn’s Believe it or Not
Keeping Commitments
LeapFrog!, Response Design Corporation’s metric database, told us that only 28 percent of managers describe their agents’ confidence that the rest of the corporation will follow through on the promises they make as “very high.”

How do you think your employees would rate your organization? Just a thought – tomorrow why don’t you take an informal poll? The results might surprise you.

Help employees keep their promises.
When an employee promises a customer that a product will be delivered by a certain date, the customer feels good and the employee feels good. The employee thinks “I know there is a 50/50 chance that the delivery will not take place as promised, but it’s not that big a deal. At least I’m handling the call and, at the point in time that the product is not delivered, I can make another promise. The employee will say to the customer, “We really worked on this, and we are sorry it did not happen, and here is the next promise.”

Employees who deal with the customer may often feel conflicted and think that if they don’t tell the customer “the whole truth” then they are lying. Customers often want something that the employee knows the company cannot deliver. On one hand, employees don’t necessarily want to expose the corporation’s dirty laundry and say, “This department is inefficient,” or “We’re having trouble with that product now.” How, they wonder, can they avoid slipping up by promising something that will not be delivered?

We can train our people to make ethical promises by focusing on the needs of the customer, not on exposing the shortcomings of the company. Withholding this information isn’t an ethical lapse. Some employees need to know that.

An agent may say, “I understand that you need this product tomorrow, but I am unable to guarantee that you will receive it by then. Let me see what alternatives there are.” Or, “I’ll work within my company to see what we can do for you. May I get back to you with alternatives for expediting this?”

Many times managers leave agents to fend for themselves. When this happens it’s obvious that the agent is going to focus on what he knows best – the shortcoming of the company. Rather than have this happen, prepare them through role-play to focus on the customer – not on the company.

Keep your fingers on the pulse of the organization.
Expedient Nod can be detected in exit interviews and employee surveys. Surveys should ask, “Do you believe this to be an ethical company? Managers who see scores close to the survey scale’s midpoint should look for Expedient Nod. (Watson Wyatt has researched the percentage of employees who believe they work for an ethical company—even though they don’t divide the ethics into grievous lapses vs. expedient nods.)

Everyone should face small lapses in honesty and deal with them as they come up.
Employees should flag us down when they see ethical problems and give us a chance to make things right. We’d cheer people on as the national news reports how they quit rather than work in an organization awash in ethical compromises. So why don’t most employees say “enough is enough?”

John Ellis, from “What Matters Most?” finishes his quote by saying, “Dilbert-company employees know the exact calibration of corporate dishonesty.”

So if employees know the exact calibration of corporate dishonesty, why aren’t we inundated with a groundswell of stories, complaints, gripes, lawsuits, riots, and possibly insurrection?

Maybe many try to communicate and we don’t hear. Others have stopped trying because they have learned that it’s useless. The primary reason was described above. We, as leaders, are the primary channel to listen to their view. However, we may have turned the volume way down on our own internal guidance system and therefore have no reference to what they are saying. We can’t hear their story so we shrug it off. Perhaps they can’t get the attention of a busy co-worker and so they give up. They try to find someone who is sympathetic but others are tired of trying to “make a difference” and so they tune them out. Some people think that a single slip-up won’t make much of a difference anyway so why bother?

Just like my friend who worked for a Fortune 500 company that I described earlier, many employees join their ideal, dream job only to become disillusioned. Unlike my friend, many can’t leave. The only alternative in a company where corporate expediency is business as usual is to continually buck the system, or toughen up.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot out of an employee to go into work every day and feel like the “one lone voice in the wilderness” crying out against corporate expediency. Eventually, almost everyone will buckle, toughen up, and go along with the crowd.

In Part Four we will continue to discuss what a manager and a supervisor can do to avoid Expedient Nod.

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