Mind the Gap: Are People Bumping their Heads on Your Values Ceiling?Lead by example is a management cliché. Most executives mouth the words. But many executives don’t appreciate how their behaviors set the upper limits for any core value they’re trying to build their culture around. Too often the espoused values are what the top tells the middle to do for the bottom.

Ethics and honesty data collected through 360 surveys by Zenger Folkman on 5,268 leaders vividly illustrates the point. In their Harvard Business Review blog, “The Data’s In: Honesty Really Does Start at the Top,” Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman found the top managers in an organization create a ceiling — that is, leaders the next level down tend to be rated lower than their managers on every leadership dimension — and that includes their honesty and integrity. In other words, levels of honesty are set at the top and can only go downhill from there.

Former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher famously observed “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.The very same can be said about an executive’s integrity, honesty, and ethical behavior.

Most executives, like most frontline staff, don’t set out to do a bad job. It’s rare that an executive will declare a value or behavioral goal and then deliberately contradict that value with his or her actions. Most acts of executive hypocrisy are committed innocently. Many executives simply have no idea that their actions are widely perceived to be out of step with their words. And as their personal credibility gulf widens their declarations of values raise the organization’s “snicker factor.”

A big reason executives’ lived values are inconsistent with espoused values is simply ignorance. They’re not getting feedback on how their actions are perceived. Ironically, those very executives who are the brashest violators of their own fine rhetoric are the ones least likely to hear about it. No one wants to tell the emperor he’s naked and being snickered at. So the fantasyland surrounding the inconsistent executive rises ever higher into the stratosphere. And executive frustration also rises because managers, supervisors, and frontline people aren’t grabbing hold of the new values. The values gap widens ever further.

While the two broad steps to help you and your management team live your values are easy to describe, they are very tough to do. The first step is to open up as many feedback channels to the executive team as possible. In today’s interconnected world there’s a multitude of informal and formal ways to get unfiltered feedback on your behavior from people in your organization as well as outside suppliers and customers.

Secondly, treat the messengers, especially internal ones, with kid gloves. If it looks like they got shot in the process, feedback will instantly revert to “gee boss, you’re doing a great job!” Only those people with a career death wish will then participate.

Executives need to LOL – Lead Out Loud – to shift values from rhetoric to reality. Zenger and Folkman advise executives to “take deliberate care to communicate expectations of honesty.” But as the American philosopher, essayist, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” What we do shouts so loudly most people can’t hear what we say.

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