The game of ‘telephone’ was great for giggles when a pre-teen. However, the real-life effects of communication failures as adults rarely get the same response. Certainly the consequences tend to be larger and often longer-lasting, especially when attempting to have others buy-in to your vision.
Such consequences are keenly felt when having difficult conversations with loved ones and when attempting to get multiple levels of a business to connect with a new message. The two situations may at first appear completely contrary, but the level of intimacy involved is no different. The message or vision you’re trying to share is an extension of your Values and hence who you believe yourself to be. The context may be different, but not the process.
Vision Must Be Reciprocal
Being caught up in a vision, personal or professional, can be intoxicating. Often the trainings involved for instilling a corporate vision can have similar props to, and feel like, a religious revival meeting. Special speakers, games that induce a feeling of connection through shared levels of mortification, and dress-code. The most ingenious is name badges, as the sweetest thing a person can hear is the sound of their own name, only increased by the belief: ‘a complete stranger knows me!’ That we so often forget our names are emblazoned in colorful marker right on our chest only points to a passive blindness in the face of the desire for recognition.
All of these strategies are targeted to get buy-in, the individually felt ownership of a collective vision. How this plays out between the conference and the day-to-day living in the office is where the proverbial rubber and road meet.
When middle managers were aligned with top management’s strategic vision, things played out as the widespread view of visionary leadership would suggest: the more these managers engaged in visionary leadership (by communicating their vision for the future and articulating where they wanted their team to be in five years,) the greater the shared understanding of strategy in their team, and the more the team was committed to strategy execution.
Why Visionary Leadership Fails – HBR
For managers that were misaligned with the company strategy, however, the dark side of visionary leadership became evident. The more these misaligned managers displayed visionary leadership, the less strategic alignment and commitment were observed among their teams.
The focus on middle management is key here. Visionary leadership at the top all too often becomes an extension of the conference/revival mentality, where the mere presence of a dynamic and charismatic person is thought to be sufficient. Unfortunately what’s missing in this standard view is a recognition of everything else that went into the initial training. The collective feel, as it were, gets lost.
This is why middle management is so important. They become the signal-boosters for the visionary hub. For this reason, middle managers need to be strong leaders themselves, possessing the capacity of sharing a vision. However, this very strength, when unbound from the greater vision, starts a business version of ‘telephone’ that gets ugly. The process happens in two stages:
- Without reciprocity, without consistent communication between the governing vision and middle management, the strength needed to spread a message gets used to fill in perceptual gaps.
- Those perceptual gaps will inevitably be filled in by what is felt to be important by the person in their individual space. Ego always trumps vision when a consistent message is missing.
How does one escape this destructive game? By building on Values.
Values as Messaging
External behavior is primarily concerned with aligning the world with an internal desire or vision of ‘what should be.’ We act in ways we’ve learned from past experiences, which will result in people and circumstances shifting to what we want/expect. These desires are grounded upon a set of Values, signposts for what is important to us in a given situation/context.
How do you ensure that managers are aligned on your company’s strategy? Our experience working with companies around strategic alignment suggests it starts with creating strategic alignment among middle managers before strategy execution efforts begin. This should not be one-time communication but a dialogue; people will only take ownership of strategic change if they are consistently persuaded by its value.Why Visionary Leadership Fails – HBR
The “strategic alignment” spoken of above should start with an identification of those Values which support the ‘Governing Vision.’ As noted in the image below, Values are the bedrock for making sure a vision is accepted at every level of an organization.
This process works for several reasons:
- Values are universally understandable, stemming from the shared experience of being human.
- A ‘Governing Vision’ is supported by Values through an articulation of what those Values mean in practice, i.e. Principles. This keeps each level of management from filling in the gaps of what Values mean. When uncertain, refer to Principles.
- Principles are the support beams connecting Vision and Values. They keep a Vision from being too vague and too specific, resulting in either the chaos of competing visions at all levels, or an inability to be flexible within changing contexts.
A ‘Guiding Vision’ fails when there are too many voices clambering to be heard. To make these voices turn from being a disparate group of instruments into an orchestra, individual buy-in is a must. As when we gain coherent and consistent direction in our individual lives through what we care about, our Values, so too can organizations.