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Why Running a Business Is Like Raising a Teenager

Raising our 15-year old daughter is a constant challenge. As those her age are prone to do, she has perfected the art of exploiting the weaknesses of her parental team. For example, if my wife says she can't have a sleepover at our house because her room isn't clean, she will then come to me and ask the same question (not mentioning, of course, that my wife has already said no). She has learned that on some issues, I'm the softy, while on others my wife is more likely to acquiesce. She also knows that the probability of her receiving permission is much higher if she approaches us separately. To her, we're just an ineffective management team that doesn't have its act together.

My wife and I have learned (the hard way) that we need to discuss our daughter’s requests together and arrive at a mutual agreement before we give her our decision. We know that this is the only way to properly enforce the rules and provide her with the confidence that our decisions are reasoned, rather than random and contradictory. We believe that by presenting a consistent, unified front, she will have a greater respect for us and confidence in the wisdom of our family rules. She will believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is indeed order to the universe and become, we hope, a better-adjusted adult.

The Problem
Organizations face a similar problem. Only half of all employees say the senior management of their organization works well together as a team. When senior management fails to present a reliable, unified, and well-thought out front to employees, the workforce loses confidence in the leadership and direction of the organization. For example, I have worked with clients where the senior management team constantly bickered, genuinely did not like each other, and even openly spoke ill of one another to employees. They constantly tried to take the organization in different directions and rarely agreed on anything. Needless to say, these management teams had a difficult time running the organization, instilling employees' confidence in their leadership, and maintaining a productive workforce.

In one research organization I worked with, the VP of Sales and the VP of Operations could never see eye to eye. Not surprisingly, the employees in their respective departments constantly battled each other as well, often because they received conflicting decisions from above. Employee morale and motivation declined in those departments. Nobody knew who was really in charge and what decisions really mattered. Many good employees quit.

What to Do

  1. Recognize that your employees are watching
    Management needs to be aware of the consistency of the decisions and communications they convey to employees. Employees are sensitive to differences in opinion within senior management and will often read more into them than is warranted. While some differences are important, if management provides mixed messages to employees, it will always have negative consequences.

  2. Use a facilitator
    There are many excellent facilitators who can help management teams reduce conflict, get on the same page, and present a unified voice to employees.

  3. Change the key players
    Sometimes oil and water are just not going to mix no matter how much you shake them. The CEO or president must be prepared to make radical changes when the senior team cannot work together well. Sometimes the problem is actually the CEO. A good executive coach can really help turn things around.

  4. Present a unified front even if there is disagreement
    For the sake of the children (in this case your employees), it is important to present a unified front even when you disagree. It is better to provide employees with strong, clear messages then contradictions. Public relations and communications professionals can be very helpful in positioning management, especially in larger organizations.

Don't send inconsistent messages to your employees about the direction of the organization, what decisions should be made, or what assignments should be carried out. If you can't reach agreement on important issues, call in a facilitator or an executive coach.