5 Mistakes Leaders Make When Setting Standards

Fully-developed standards strengthen organizations to look beyond stiff guidelines, prescribed procedures and hard metrics to focus on a set of intentional principles about how it should run.

Do you care about expanding your team?

What organizations want is for their leadership and upper management to do the right thing, at the right times, for the right reasons, all positioned within the settings of their operations, their culture and their aspirations. It should be in the form of real-life actions, mission/vision statement, and the drum beat that is reverberated throughout the organization.

These efforts can be summed up in the standards that are set by the organization as a whole; where every member of the team is held accountable to them and is capable of holding their leaders accountable as well.

So if you’re leading a business, coaching a team, or have found yourself in the workplace now responsible for more than just yourself — Here is a super concentrated list of pitfalls leaders at all levels can avoid when setting their personal standard and the standards they hope to instill in all leaders around them.

The Standard Is Set Too Late

This was one the first lessons I learned in the Navy. Set your standard high for both yourself and your team. There’s some good science behind this.

The brain is an highly adaptive piece of human machinery. People will consistently hit the mark that is expected of them. Think about yourself: how often are you focused on doing what is asked of you, nothing more? Probably more than you care to admit. But it’s totally normal! Here’ why…

Our because are wired to meet our mental models of “good enough.” The feeling of “good enough” is the bar our brains must clear to validate the reasoning behind our actions while taking the path of least resistance.

Here’s how eLife, where a study on the “path of least resistance” was published, puts it:

Imagine you are in an orchard, trying to decide which of the many apples to pick. On what do you base your decision? Most research into this type of decision-making has focused on how the brain uses visual information — about features such as colour, size and shape — to make a choice. But what about the effort required to obtain the apple? Does an apple at the top of the tree look more or less tempting than the low-hanging fruit?

The answer, this study suggests, is that the low-hanging fruit will probably look more appealing to you. “Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest,” said the lead researcher, Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura. Conversely, when one option is harder to get, we’re more likely to think it’s the wrong choice.

The best news for leaders — “good enough” can be manipulated in any given situation. We can actually influence people to reach for the high-hanging fruit by setting that standard to begin with.

To raise the bar in the future causes an interruption in the model we initially set and causes anxiety and stress. Taking the path of least resistance for us comes in the form of rationalization, denial, or distraction. Because of this, setting a low standard and raising it through a set period of time is exponentially more difficult than setting a high standard and having flexibility to loosen it if need be. People will always adapt to the bar, so set a high bar for “good enough” in the first place.

The Standard Is Not Agreed Upon

“I let my players set our team goals and standard, and I just enforce them,” said legendary college basketball coach Tom Izzo. The brilliance is simple and, well…brilliant.

In this way, the standards-making process becomes a self-authoring exercise. This allows the standard to be enforced for the team, by the team. This is what dictates standards and pieces them together over the long term to form culture.

Asking your team the following questions in small groups and in individualized settings allows the standard to reveal itself.

  • What do you want your organizational culture to be?
  • What do you want your organizational culture to feel like?
  • How would you want outsiders to describe your organizational culture?

The Standard Is Not Clear

Clear messages creates consistency. Consistent standards, not having to be overly rigid, create zero room for interpretation. People often have two complaints when describing why they could not meet a standard: a lack of skill and/or a lack of understanding. In this case, we can ignore skill because standards don’t deal in skill or technical competence. But if people are unclear on the standard, then how can we hold them accountable?

I learned this as an athlete at the Division I level. Meeting and exceeding the standard of excellence means more playing time. But just as anyone who’s worked in large organizations knows, clarity isn’t always an attribute in abundant supply. With multiple players in multiple layers, it’s easy to have communication and direction go astray.

Research confirms this too. A Towers Watson survey, for example, shows that half of managers don’t set or enforce effective standards. If macro and micro standards aren’t clear and well-defined, how can employees hope to achieve them, and managers hope to reach them? Well, they may or they may not, but you’re inviting ambiguity into the situation.

In another survey, by Robert Half Management Resources, roughly one-third of CFOs felt their company’s employees were basically unaware of their firm’s strategic objectives. Even from my time in the Navy, I can understand that this one-third figure seems valid, so it’s exceedingly easy for the rank-and-file on the shop floor to be disconnected from the wishes of senior leadership on the top floor.

The Standard Lacks Purpose And Doesn’t Teach Anything

The point of a standard is to enforce a higher state of execution. In a perfect world, we are setting an expectation that people in our organization should be proud to hit and those outside the organization should want to become apart of. But do your people understand why the standard matters?

People are identified in their own mind and to others by what they do. Their work defines the nature of their partnership with others and the value of that partnership. People often justify themselves by their aspirations. People want to feel like they “arrived”, justified with their existence. Coming up short creates tension because none of his achievements provides any lasting internal satisfaction. Work goals and achievements can become temporary and enduring justifications. — Henry Levinson

Humans seek meaning. Always have, always will. In today’s competitive atmosphere, people feel connected to organizations that will challenge and exercise their strengths in a psychologically safe environment where they are held accountable to innovate. People want purpose in their jobs and a feeling of connection to the organization they willingly partner with.

Not being pushed to achieve will leave those you lead unsatisfied. You never remember those teachers and coaches that took it easy on you, that allowed you to be mediocre. The most influential people in your life are the ones that injected purpose into every layer of it and challenged you to meet a standard that gave you the feeling of “arriving.”

The Standard Is Compromised By Him/Her That Set It

Source credibility is the essence of leadership. If people can rely on you to help them get to where they are trying to go, they will invest their time, energy, and hard assets in you. But if you betray this relationship by compromising on the standard you have set, the entire trust relationship is at risk.

Doing what you say you will do is what maintains standards. When compromised, this gives latitude for people to rationalize that no standard is actually set. From there, people will settle for low-hanging fruit all day. And you will have set fire to your bridges of trust that you worked so hard to build

Are you making any of these mistakes? If so, how has it affected you or your business? What about other pitfalls that can affect how we set our standard — comment below and tell me what works for you!