John Rowe, president and CEO of Exelon, tells this story:
In my first C.E.O. job, a young woman who worked for me walked in one day and said, “Do you know that the gossip in the office is that the way for a woman to get ahead is to wear frilly spring dresses?”
And I just looked at her and asked, “Where did this come from?”
She said: “Well, you said, ‘pretty dress’ to four women who happened to be dressed that way. And so now it’s considered policy.”
I said: “Well, it’s the furthest thing in the world from policy. I was just trying to be pleasant in the elevator.”
People hang on a leader’s every word on what seems like trivia and can resist like badgers your words when you’re really trying to say something you think is important.
I wrote about this phenomenon, which I call "Godzilla in the corner office," before. Godzilla's tail alone can destroy hundreds of buildings without him even realizing it, and people high up in the food chain in an organization can wreak havoc without even realizing it. John Rowe's story is a perfect example.
You create expectations and tacitly encourage behaviors through your own actions. Do you check your smartphone when you're talking to a direct report? Do you arrive five minutes late to all meetings? Do you send emails on Sunday afternoons? What messages are you sending to your team? Is that what you want?
It's ironic, of course, but people in your organization will attend closely to what seems like trivia, and ignore or resist what you think is important. This is the nature of hierarchical organizations. Recognize it, be alert to the messages you're sending, and periodically seek honest feedback from people throughout the company. You might be surprised at what you learn.