Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Style Over Substance

You and everyone in the company are called to a company meeting and you head out with reservations, since you’ve attended such meetings in the past and have come away disappointed, with perfunctory messages, carefully manipulated company results, berating words for people or groups who have been unable to deliver on unrealistic expectations (see Unrealistic Expectations), and obligatory congratulations for a few people or groups. But this meeting sounds different. The big boss conveys a truly inspiring message and sounds like he really gets it. He lays out a vision for transforming the company in new and exciting ways (see Poor Company Vision Clouds Everyone’s View). He points to a future that holds great promise and potential.  He discusses a plan of action that can make a real difference and a call to action to make it happen. He points to changes that will take place starting immediately, and envisions a bright and hopeful future that will bring excitement and success to the company and its people. Everyone is charged up and anxious to get started and leaves the meeting with a new spring in their steps. Then … very little happens. The promised changes are always about to begin, but never really do. Those changes that do begin go nowhere with little real support. The hope in everyone’s minds diminishes with each passing day.  You have just been subjected, once again, to style over substance, and its result can be devastating. In fact it can be considerably worse than if the promising message had never been given. People’s expectations get built up, only to be torn down. They watch the bubble grow, only to see it burst; the bigger the bubble, the bigger the mess when it inevitably bursts.

Unfortunately, we see style over substance everywhere, and the consequence is that people are becoming more jaded and cynical. We see it in politics, where promises to “give” people this, that, and the other thing fly left and right from all parties, with few, if any, of the promises backed up by anything real or meaningful; but that doesn’t diminish the non-stop pandering.  We see it in companies and even in work, community, and social groups. In smaller group settings it is generally easier to identify who is delivering style over substance and who is really delivering substance, and to do something about those who don’t deliver.

Substance is what people are really looking for. We want people to say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they’ll do (see Say What Your Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!). There is a saying, “motivation without implementation produces frustration”, that is very true. Inspiration without follow-through generally results in disenfranchisement and disillusionment. 

Too often leaders don’t really say what they mean. They couch what they’re saying in lofty expressions and soaring rhetoric. They say what they believe people want to hear. Often their flowery words and expressions either mean nothing, or worse, really mean the opposite.

They often don’t mean what they say. They believe they can throw things out there and people will soon forget what was promised. Or they know they will be able to say that the situation has changed and that while they meant what they said at the time, they simply have to change their position now.

Most damaging, they don’t do what they said they would do. It is the lack of action, follow-through, and delivery that most discourages and de-motivates people. Again, they’ll blame others or changing circumstances, or the weather, or give some other meaningless excuse, but they won’t follow through on their commitments. People are looking for actions, not words.

What damages most is when projects or programs actually get launched based on the “style”, tying up untold numbers of people in doomed efforts that are incredibly frustrating to be involved with, preventing those people from working on real projects or programs of “substance” that can greatly benefit the company (see The Costs of Being “Free”).

So, what can you do about style over substance? To start, you must be able to recognize style over substance. You need to develop an effective bullshit filter. When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.  When you hear such things, question them.  Ask respectful but probing questions that can separate “style” from “substance”. What are the specifics?  How will substance be achieved? What are the specific milestones for success? When can they be expected to be achieved? Etc. Trust is really critical in such situations, but trust must be earned (see Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others!). It may be necessary to trust, but it is also necessary to verify the “substance” versus the “style”. If the “substance” is real, great!  Also recognize that the person presenting the “style” is usually not the one who must actually implement it to make the “substance” real (see No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn’t Have To Do It!), so ask more questions regarding who will be involved in actually achieving the “substance” and what levels of true support they will have to make this even reasonably possible.

Next, it may be necessary to expose the fact that what’s being presented is style over substance. This can be a dangerous step, as dissent is often not tolerated and dissenters are often harshly punished (e.g. fired). So tread carefully and be sure that you really want to expose what appears to be a sham. There are ways to expose style over substance that can be less dangerous. If people in the trenches learn about the lack of “substance”, this can undermine the “style” before it involves many resources. Embarrassment can sometimes be effective in exposing style over substance (see Embarrassment Rules The World?), but use it carefully; a little can go a long way. More often, an open and honest, non-threatening exposure of the problems with the “style” will do the job. Sunlight is most often the best disinfectant.

Then, you will want to propose an alternative to style over substance so that scarce resources are used most effectively. No one benefits when resources are diverted on a doomed “style” effort. If the “style” can be converted into a winning and beneficial “substance” effort, then a win can be had by all, including the person who proposed the “style”. If that person can be logically shown that his/her “style” has no possibility of “substance”, and that person can be convinced to graciously withdraw or appropriately modify the “style” proposal, then that person can show he/she has character and an ability to adapt. If that person can’t be persuaded to change his/her approach, then efforts to convince others, peers or superiors of that person, must be undertaken for the betterment of the company and to avoid wasting valuable resources (see Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More from Bad!).

It is equally critical that you avoid getting caught up in presenting ideas or “solutions” that are really style over substance. Make sure that any proposals you make have real substance to them. Wishing for a desirable outcome will not make it so. There must be a realistic plan to enable a desired and substantial outcome be achieved. Review it with others with a track record of success in turning good ideas into reality (see Keep Your Eyes On THE GOAL!). Style will not help your company make profits; substance will!

Copyright 2011 Workplace Insanity, All Rights Reserved

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