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Clarifying Boundaries of Your Organization’s Core Identity

Clarifying Boundaries of Your Organization’s Core Identity
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Clear boundaries about what constitutes in-bounds and out-of-bounds behavior are essential for sustainable success. In this excerpt from The Shift from Me to Team, which will be published this year, we explore this aspect of Reinforcing Systems.

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Exemplary leaders and leadership teams help clarify the boundaries of the Core Identity by acknowledging in-bounds behavior and addressing out-of-bounds behavior. And they do so as quickly as possible, so there is no team confusion about what is acceptable. The clarified boundaries enable the safety and security that all are seeking. 

People do not feel safe or secure when they are confused about what is acceptable and what is not. Even if the feedback is critical, they feel better knowing what is expected.

One of our clients had identified Care and Compassion as one of their Guiding Principles. In the operating room, a surgeon mistreated and disrespected a nurse, and this violation of a Guiding Principle was called to leadership’s attention. Leadership responded by talking to the surgeon, who admitted he could do better. This was not the first time this had happened, and he was asked to apologize to the nurse he had mistreated and to the other nurses who had witnessed his transgression. While the breach of Care and Compassion was not fully mended, the public apology helped the team feel better about the improved path they were on.

Subtle and Subjective Recognition for In-Bounds Behavior

We find that leaders underestimate the power of personal recognition. It is human nature to appreciate positive feedback from leadership, but we are also affected by the recognition of others. As a leader, be intentional and purposeful in what you reinforce. Your team is watching when you give feedback, good or bad.

As with formal objective recognition programs, leaders clarifying why someone is being recognized in the moment is essential. Be clear when you compliment; do not leave it to others to interpret why you recognized someone. Saying “Good job” leaves open what was good, and there may be a misinterpretation. Exemplary leaders reinforce alignment by invoking the Core Identity elements in their recognition. In this example, the leader highlights the Guiding Principle of Caring: 

Steve, I am very impressed with how you demonstrated Caring for the customer. You stayed positive even when they became short with you. Thank you for displaying who we are at our best, especially when under pressure.

Again, the more intentional and purposeful leadership is in recognizing aligned behavior, the more the organization’s Core Identity is reinforced. This leadership discipline will create the natural flow to success all are seeking.

Formal and Objective Recognition for In-Bounds Behavior

Strategically using formal, objective recognition to highlight alignment to the Core Identity that exemplifies the organization at its best can occur in many forms, including the following:

  • Perks
  • Compensation
  • Promotions/Titles
  • Awards

Most organizations have recognition programs that highlight exemplary performance by team members. To ensure a customized fit for your organization, we recommend tasking a committee with aligning existing recognition programs with the clarified Core Identity and creating new recognition awards if needed.

Fairness (a component of Trust) is one of humankind’s intrinsic shared principles. To honor Fairness, perks and compensation must be aligned with the organization’s Core Identity. Rewarding anything inconsistent with your Core Identity confuses and de-energizes those trying to understand the game.

Too often, we see recognition as a reflection of goal achievement without regard to how the goal was achieved. One typical example is commission-based sales. What is the objective that is being rewarded? If the sale alone is being rewarded, and not how the selling was conducted, there can be an impact on future sales. A short-term sales mentality without regard for honesty/integrity and respect/caring will compromise the organization’s brand and threaten sustainability.

Successful organizations go out of their way to recognize exemplary service that honors the Core Identity. How salespeople attempt to make sales is what is valued and recognized. The message is sent that sales are a byproduct of how the organization conducts business aligned with its Peak Performance Culture. Sustainable sales follow exemplary conduct.

Addressing Out-of-Bounds Behavior

It is natural for humans to test boundaries to clarify what is acceptable and unacceptable, so they feel safe and secure. As a leader, know that boundaries will be tested, must be tested, and even broken at times for your team to find its comfort zone. Leaders need to understand team members will test them, just as parents know their teenager will test their firmness about a curfew.

Team members are trying to understand what you meant by the boundaries you set. Be proactive and help provide clarity on in-bounds and out-of-bounds behavior.

Respectfully Addressing Perceived Out-of-Bounds Behavior

Do you ask questions when you perceive the organization’s standards are not being met? Do you ask in a way that the team member knows you care about them? Do you care about their development and their role in the organization? Do you understand that as the leader, you are responsible for teaching the proper boundaries, and if they are breached, it reflects your leadership? The leader is responsible for closing the gap in performance and conduct. Asking the right questions enables all parties to be part of the solution.

Organizations that value learning seek teaching opportunities to propel their growth. It is not about what happened in the past, except how we can learn and grow from it. Let’s understand why someone thought what they did was right. The following prompts take focus away from the team member’s actions and redirect it toward preparation for handling future situations. This isn’t about passing judgment—it’s about establishing best practices for the future.

  • I’m confused. Could you help me understand your thinking?
  • What could you do differently next time?
  • Do you have the tools you need?
  • How can I help you?

Addressing Those Not Closing the Performance Gap

Suppose the underperforming team member is allowed to remain as part of the team. In that case, their presence reinforces that leadership is not fully committed to the journey—not fully committed to aligning the organization to Peak Performance. The interpretation is that leadership does not care.

Furthermore, the team member who is not closing the performance gap knows they are in the wrong garden. They can feel this is not working, and they are stressed and unable to perform or interact as effectively as possible. But many, if not most, are afraid to make a move. They feel stuck; they need help from leadership.

Aiding the individual in finding a better fit reinforces the organization’s commitment to respect and caring about the individual and caring for the organization. Both the team member and the organization become beneficiaries when the fit is reinforced.

Time and again, I have had Michigan football players we removed from the team contact me years later to thank me for the wake-up call that changed their lives. They had been directionless. With their removal from the team, they had to take responsibility for their lives, and they began building a foundation for a more purposeful and fruitful life.

I used this principle of fit personally in my tough decision to leave Michigan Athletics. Many, including me, thought I was the right person to oversee Michigan Athletics. The President of the University thought otherwise; I was not the fit he was seeking. So, it was time for me to find a different garden to thrive in. No one was wrong—the fit was not right. Ultimately, I got the chance to pursue this journey to help leaders and organizations realize sustainable Peak Performance. I feel fortunate to have found this exciting and energizing purpose for my life.