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Text and Subtext

One simple truth that redefined my understanding of leadership:

Values aren’t defined by what a leader says or the words in a mission statement.

Values are expressed by the reality of what a team rewards, celebrates, and sacrifices.

Some thoughts on the concept of the principle of “text” and “subtext”.

On December 2nd, 2011 Enron Energy Company went bankrupt. In the following days, pervasive accounting fraud and manipulation at the company were revealed. Arthur Anderson was their lead accounting firm. Anderson had annualized revenues of around 10 billion before the scandal. The evidence in the Enron bankruptcy was so damning that Arthur Anderson went out of business. Ironically, Enron had proudly proclaimed these four core company values for many years: Integrity Respect Communication Excellence But that’s not how values actually work.

To understand why it’s important to understand the concept of text and subtext. Text is what we say and write. It’s the things that we explicitly communicate. The subtext is all of the things we communicate inexplicitly with our actions, behaviors, nonverbals, and attitudes. It is easy to assume that leadership is about the things that we explicitly communicate, but research consistently confirms the opposite. People hear the inexplicit messages of an organization far louder than what it explicitly communicates. A couple of examples:

First, a classic scene from the movie Office Space. The audio on this clip isn’t great but it is definitely worth watching:

The boss, Bill Lumbergh, is introducing a consultant who is obviously there to fire some of the team members. it doesn’t matter what is said, everyone knows the subtext is bad for them. Then hilariously Lumbergh introduces the forced corporate fun of “Hawaiian Shirt Day” at the end.

Second, an actual Enron example. Ironically, I was in college in 2001 and part of a group of students who toured Enron and Arthur Anderson on the same weekend just weeks before the house of cards fell apart. During the office tour, we asked one employee if he liked working at Enron. His response was, “I do on paydays.” No matter what Enron explicitly communicated about its mission or values, everyone in the building had viewed the culture to be about making as much money as possible. The fraud and greed are easy to explain in that context.

What are the clues about an organization’s true values?

Who gets hired?

Who gets promoted?

Who gets rewarded?

What motivates sacrifice?

A great quote that has stuck with me is, “A team should be able to point to examples of how they have made sacrifices for their core values.”

It’s important to be clear about one thing. Leadership absolutely requires explicitly sharing values and vision. All great leaders repeatedly and explicitly talk about values. The danger is when what we say and what people experience don’t align.

There are few insults more stinging than to call someone a hypocrite. If you ask most people what that word means they will answer, “To say one thing and then do another.” That’s an example of hypocrisy, but the historical definition is even more helpful. Merriam Webster says this: ‘Hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word ‘hypokrites’, which means “an actor.” … The Greek word took on an extended meaning to refer to any person who was wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not.

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Simon Sinek has famously said, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Leadership is similar. As a leader, your “why” matters as much or more than your competence to others.

Leadership is ultimately about trust. People will follow imperfect leaders who they can trust, but they will rebel against those in positions of authority that they do not trust. They view them as hypocrites. Healthy culture starts with the text and subtext of team matching.

This concept can be powerfully applied to almost any context. Here are a few:

Are you a part of an organization where there is a chasm between the stated values and the real values? How can you help to create change? If change is impossible, is it the right time to exit?

We all have gaps between what we say we value and what we value with our actions. What areas can you see this gap in your life? Ask a couple of trusted friends to share what they see. Self-Awareness is hard, but it leads to growth and transformation.

Are you actively leading a team? How are you monitoring the subtext and health of that team? Are you fostering an environment where others can tell you when your words and their experience don’t align? Are you receptive or defensive to feedback?

If you have children: What are the values you hope to be impressing on your kids? Ask them to tell you what values they are learning. How are those lists different?

Leadership isn’t about being a perfect person. Those don’t exist. It’s about fostering an environment where everyone knows what is valued and rallies towards a common goal. A culture where the text and subtext are the same.

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