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Are You Silently Teaching Your Team to Fail?

There are two concepts in leadership that intersect in a powerful way:

  • Fail to plan, plan to fail
  • You’re always saying something, especially when you say nothing

We all know the first one – hard work applied to a non-existent plan is most often a waste of that work.  Let’s say I need to get home.  If I drive 10 hours at top speed, but in a random direction, it’s more likely than not that I’ll end up even further from my goal.  Worse, let’s say every time I stop for fuel or a rest break, I randomly change my direction.  Now I’m just embodying chaos until I’m totally lost, out of gas, and hungry.  Sound like success?

Whether you’re a team of firefighters just arriving on scene, or a team of office workers on a project, it’s always better (safer, more effective, more productive, more fulfilling) to create a clear plan before acting.

The second concept might be new to some readers.  It works like this: say your employee is about 15 minutes late for work most days.  And you say nothing.  You’ve still communicated a very clear message: “I’m okay with this, please continue.”  And your employee hears it loud and clear, just as though you’d said the words out loud.  In fact, three weeks later when you finally say, “hey, you’re in trouble for being late,” they are rightfully confused and angry, because you just changed the rules.  They don’t trust you, and they shouldn’t.

Accountability is verifying that shared expectations have become reality.  And you’ve been sharing the expectation that 15 mins late is A-OK.  You’ve been lying through silence. It’s one version of what Dave Ramsey calls “sanctioned incompetence.”  But they should just know better, you might be thinking.  Maybe you’re right, but reality doesn’t care.  The reality is that they don’t know until you tell them.  Even if they do come in on Day 1 knowing better, after you’ve spent long enough telling their co-workers (with your deafening silence) that punctuality doesn’t matter, that’s what becomes true.

So how do these two intersect?

If you’re not clearly communicating the goals and priorities of your organization, you are actively telling your team to pursue chaos and failure.

It’s a marriage of the two concepts listed at the top of this blog.  If you’re saying nothing about the plan, you’re saying there is no plan.  If there is no plan, the plan is chaos until failure.  Ergo, if you’re not communicating the plan clearly, you’re clearly telling your team the plan is to fail.

You’ll see the results on both short term and long term time scales.

In the short term, your team is ineffective.  In the long term, this leads to employee burnout and turnover.  If you’re not clearly defining your organization’s goals, and tying your team member’s near-term priorities to those larger goals, they are going to quit.

A lot of research on generational differences reveals that Millenials, and moreso, GenX, are motivated by meaning and purpose in their jobs.  While that’s true, the reality is that this notion has also influenced GenX and beyond.  In other words, all of your workers consider meaning and purpose to be primary motivators in the workplace.

Meaning and purpose cascade down with positive effect if you put the work in.  The company’s Mission and Vision are the long-term guides.  This year’s prioritized goals support accomplishing the Mission.  Your department’s quarterly priorities are in service of this year’s goals.  Your new-hire team member’s KPIs and monthly project milestones support those quarterly goals.

The plans cascade down, and the work rolls up to support the plans, and the result is a daily sense of purpose.  This generates productivity, unity, retention, and countless other valuable benefits.

It all rolls up.  Or it doesn’t.  If your department’s goals don’t clearly support the organization’s goals and the Mission, you’re in trouble.  Even worse, if your department has no goals, or the goals change every few weeks (which means you have no goals), the end result is confusion and chaos.  If this problem permeates your organization, then your Mission statement is actually: Pursue chaos until failure is achieved.

How do you know if you’re communicating goals clearly?  Ask.  During 1on1s, team meetings, even casual works conversations, try asking questions like:

  • What’s your top priority this week?
  • Do you know what our department’s top three priorities are for this quarter?
  • Can you recite our Mission Statement?

If you get blank stares, it’s time to get to work communicating, and fast.

If you get some pretty solid answers, you can go up a difficulty level:

  • How does your top priority this week support one or more of the department’s top quarterly priorities?
  • Do you understand how our department’s priorities support the larger goals of our organization?
  • Can you explain how our quarterly and yearly goals support our Mission?

Next time a new opportunity comes up, facilitate a discussion on how that new idea does (or doesn’t) fit in with near-term priorities and long-term goals.  Hold off on adding this new project to anyone’s plate until both you and they can articulate how this supports the bigger “why.”  

If you can get your team members generating that connection at the get-go, you’re sowing the seeds for a culture full of meaning and purpose.

Your job then becomes the inspiring task of leading the bountiful harvest.

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