The boss gave an impressive speech on quality at the All Hands’ Meet. The hall was filled with 1700 software engineers, developers and project managers. The leader espoused the cause of quality by positioning it as the way to get joy, leave a legacy, a tool for achieving work-life balance, and everything short of nirvana. The speech was passionate, the tone was intense and the contents were full of data and anecdotal evidence on how quality, single-handedly, has changed lives of people and organizations.
When I applauded along with the throng in the hall, the implied appreciation was sincere. Later that day, while speaking to one of the Senior Managers, I enquired how the leader implements quality movements in everyday work, and the metrics that the team uses. He gave a sarcastic smile, and dismissed his speech as a “usual ra-ra session”. The contrast between his reaction, and the strong speech I heard earlier was so strong that I decided to inquire around further.
After many rounds of innocuous questioning around various members of the team(s) at multiple levels, a few irrefutable facts about the boss emerged:
Quality is currently the world-wide flavour in this company, and like in the case of all previous seasonal flavours, the boss latches on to the theme with a fervour that borders on the religious.
The company has duly recognized and regularly rewarded this boss’s ‘alignment’ with the global vision, and the boss has adornments all over his cabin as proof that this behaviour pays.
However, when it comes to a contention between quality and timeliness for project deliverables, the boss has never chosen quality. Not ever missing a deliverable is what gets the boss his increments and incentives. Being an authority on the topic of ‘Quality’, explaining away the lack of quality in some of the deliverables has never been a problem for him.
In effect, while talking eloquently on quality gets him all the visibility and PR, in private team meetings and reviews, he pushes for deliverables to be ‘sent off’ on time or earlier, and quality be damned.
The team has learnt to laugh away, and not take all his exhortations on quality seriously. Even with bad quality, they know that shipping on time has become the team ‘mantra’.
There are CEOs who propound ‘zero tolerance’ for certain behaviours in public, and encourage the exact opposite behaviours in private. Lot of managers seriously believe that such dichotomy instances are inevitable, and are part of ‘being’ the leaders in large organizations. There are managers and leaders who do not even bother to reconcile the contradicting messages, and leave it to the team members to figure it all out.
Human beings are adept at recognizing and practising mechanisms that ensure their survival. They sniff the air, look for covert and overt signals, watch progress of certain issues at meetings, and know that the number of times the boss follows up on something is an indicator of his/her priorities. But, in all companies, people ultimately follow the path(s) that will get them the rewards. They watch the behaviours that get all the praise and promotions, and simply ape those actions. They learn to ignore all the other optics and atmospherics.
A substantial aggregate of all ‘pats on the back’ is the only way for careers to flourish. Team members who identify career-enhancing behaviours are admired more by their colleagues than those who merely manage to avoid career-limiting behaviours. Just watch the tenor of the conversations when the team members meet each other, far away from the ears of the bosses. The chatter is always about cloud patterns, smoke signals and what works and/or does not work with this leader.
The leader has to know the wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Social Aims” written as far ago as 1875:
“Don’t say things. What you ARE stands over you the while, and thunders so, that I cannot hear what you say.”
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