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Managers and Uncomfortable Truths

A movie called North Dallas Forty came out in the 70s. Not a family movie, but one that I enjoyed as someone who likes sports. One scene often pops into my mind as I think about the modern organization. After a loss and a gruesome injury to a teammate, the coach tells them to get ready for practice the next day. One of the players gets into an argument with him and says, “when we call it a game, you say it’s a business; when we say it’s a business, you call it a game.”

What I hear is management (and to a certain degree the employees) trying to frame the company. What many companies often refer to as their core values. They frame it in the way that is most advantageous in the moment – not consistent. More often companies create core values around popular words and phrases, but not on how they really plan to act.

For example, look at the core values or the mission/vision statements for the tech companies that recently went through layoffs. You’ll find that those statements are around caring for the employee, doing the right thing, being good to society, etc. They are always good and positive things.

The issue is that these aren’t the values the company, more specifically the executives, live by. If it were, most of the layoffs you saw would not have happened. I say that because most of the big layoffs by companies were by incredibly profitable businesses. Disney didn’t lay people off because they were going to lose money. In fact, they made billions in profits. If they really put all those fluffy words in action and said “we will make less money, but hold the values in our mission statement”, they would have been crushed by the stock market.

Let me turn this back to the manager – which is the focus of these blogs. Many times, the manager is the one caught in the middle. Managers must work on creating trusting and psychologically safe environments. Managers also must demonstrate and teach the mission and values of the company as determined by the executives. Too many times, the actual actions are in conflict. It sets a manager up to fail unless they act appropriately.

Executives should be the ones speaking the uncomfortable truths. They rarely do. Which means that will fall to the manager. Teach the values and mission and build trust, but also be clear that the business is in it to make money and it may put that above employees sometimes.

I want to be fair. There are many cases of executives and companies doing the right thing. We say it a lot during the Pandemic and hear stories occasionally about executives who put the needs of employees over the business. Let’s celebrate those instances. The manager in that company has an easier job because the org is living the values.

Executives have a critical role in the success of the org in terms of setting strategy and looking at the big picture. They have very little downside to telling employees hard truths when they don’t have to. Managers need to step up that game.

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