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Consistency and Predictability January 9, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
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During my time in China managing a team that had a limited understanding of English I was reminded every day of the value of keeping it simple. This was harder than I thought, partly because I’m used to “thinking out loud” and bouncing ideas off others, inviting opposing views, weighing pros and cons, and brainstorming possible solutions before coming to a decision. I’ve always believed that being comfortable with uncertainty is a valuable state-of-mind in the workplace, but the language barrier that I faced in China (and the typical urgency that came with working in a high-volume factory) made it necessary for me to ask simple questions and give simple directions. I tried to reduce ambiguity and possible confusion by being as consistent as possible, with the hope that this predictability would help guide the actions and decisions of the team when I was unavailable.

It’s hard to work with a manager who is inconsistent and unpredictable. Every team relies on their manager to provide a framework that allows them to work independently with a high confidence that they’re doing the right things and making the right choices, aligned with the objectives of the business. Individual performance objectives are a good foundation, but the team also needs implicit guidelines from their management in order to exercise the judgment necessary to deal with unplanned events. An unpredictable manager can deprive the organization of that independent judgment with confusing and even conflicting direction.

Being consistent doesn’t mean that a manager has to behave exactly the same way under any and all circumstances. A manager isn’t a machine that generates the same output every time from the same input, but ultimately the team deserves to know what actions and behaviors are necessary for business success, and their manager has a critical role in providing that context. It starts with an aligned set of department performance measures and individual objectives, but those are empty words unless the manager uses every meeting and informal conversation as an opportunity to reinforce objectives, recognize achievement consistent with those objectives, and challenge actions that are inconsistent with those objectives. It also means quickly communicating strategic changes to help the team re-align around new objectives. Without this framework and active reinforcement people are less productive, and more likely to become disoriented and discouraged.

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