Robert Fulghum, author of the famous life advice book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” once wrote: “Don’t worry that your children don’t listen to you, worry that they watch you.”
This profound advice applies to organizations as well as families. Your subordinates, whether direct reports or not, pay more attention to what you do than what you say. A single action will eradicate any number of carefully crafted explanations or excuses. Many of the executives with whom I have worked overlook this fact and pay a price. This is neither good news or bad. It just is.
With the Memorial Day holiday upon us, seems like a good time to conduct a small experiment. Many of us will spend time with our families over this next week. Since your family is the first complex system you learned to navigate, seems like a prime place for a little reflective work.
First, place yourself in the hierarchy. Are your parents around? Aunts, uncles, or grandparents? If so, what do you notice about these people and how their behavior shapes the behavior of you and others around you? What is their role in the schedule, the menu, the mood, the timing of things? Can you see yourself acting out a role that complements or conflicts with the people higher in the hierarchy than you? Is this a familiar role?
Second, look at the people lower in the hierarchy – your children, nieces and nephews, even grandchildren. How do they behave toward you and other people up and down the hierarchy? Most families have well-rehearsed dances they waltz through with time-honored practice and precision. Like all systems, the agreements are rarely spoken but well understood. That’s why bringing a new partner or friend into the system can be both revealing and just a bit dangerous.
Lastly, just rent this idea: the behavior of all the players below you in the hierarchy is in direct response to what they think you want – or want to avoid. Imagine the wildness of your kids is an inelegant request for your attention. That the sullen reluctance of your teens is a message they aren’t certain what might happen if they acted as grown-up as they really want to be. Or maybe even the insistence by your adult children that they get more involved in your life is how they know to express appreciation for all you mean to them – not a second-guessing about your competence (and most likely how you taught them to problem-solve.).
Every system is perfectly aligned to produce the results it currently produces. When one thinks of this – “a chip off the old block” could take on a whole new meaning. Happy Thanksgiving!