Setting the tone at the top

 What is the tone you want to set for your team?
What is the tone you want to set for your team?

The team meeting was about to end and the partner was wrapping up his final speech. His last words weren’t what I was expecting.

What are we going to do? We’re going to rip itsmash itkill it!

I looked around the room as many people joined him in his passionate war cry, which he’d obviously used many times before. Was I in some sort of college fraternity? A member of a competitive sporting team? An army in a war-torn country?

No, I was in a corporate meeting room of a large global organisation.

Be careful setting the tone at the top

The tone at the top refers to the example that leaders at the top of an organisation set for the employees who work there. They have a role in instilling the culture of the entire place.

However, tone at the top does not just apply to the very top of an organisation. There are many “tops”. If you are leading a small team, you are the top. Your boss is the top of another team that you belong to. If you sit on a committee for your local charity, you are part of the top.

What was the tone in my first example? Ah yes, rip it, smash it, kill it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that these are aggressive, dominating statements. While not to be taken literally of course, these words have a lot of power.

When the tone from the top is aggressive, competitive and dominating, this is what you will get in your organisation. When I worked for this company, that’s exactly what I noticed. Relative to similar competitors, this organisational culture had a greater degree of arrogance and aggression.

So be careful when setting the tone from the top. Whilst the “rip it, smash it, kill it” war cry was catchy, sometimes fun and even amusing, you’d be amazed at the silent effect this can have as it is gradually reinforced and seeps into the subconscious of the people who continuously hear it.

You set the tone at the top in your team

No matter how big or small your team is, *you* set the tone at the top. Perhaps you lead only a single person — you’re still at the top. You lead by example and are a role model, like it or not.

You aren’t a role model in the sense of being a famous footballer or movie star. But what you do and say matters, because it tells other people what is important in your team.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Effective communication

If a leader communicates effectively and ensures that the correct people are involved at the right time, then this tells people in the team that communication matters.

On the other hand, if a leader subverts normal communication channels and has back-room chats to get work done, then this is the example that the team sees. In this case, communicating through the proper channels is not important.

Adversarial or collaborative?

If a leader speaks about external teams or colleagues like they are bumbling idiots and don’t know what they’re doing, an adversarial mindset is likely to develop within the team.

On the other hand, if a leader is open to suggestions and works to collaboratively solve challenges with external teams and stakeholders, a collaborative approach is likely to be the cultural norm within the team.

Achievement or comfort?

When a leader encourages their team to hit key milestones and expects overtime to achieve it, the tone at the top is likely to be one that says deadlines matter.

However, some leaders have the opposite approach. They value comfort and reduced stress within the team and don’t push hard to deliver to key milestones.

Tone at the top comes from both actions and words

Don’t think you can fool your team. Whenever you do anything, your team sees actions and hears your words. Regular readers will know that one of my favourite topics is consequences in the workplace.

If your words suggest one thing, while your actions say another, the actions will win.

If you say you care about deadlines, but there are no consequences for missing them (or reward for achieving them!), then your actions say that deadlines don’t matter.

When your words say that you value collaboration with stakeholders but you ridicule them when they aren’t in the room, your actions suggest an adversarial mindset.

What is the tone at the top in your team?

Regardless of the type of team that you lead, you set the example. Do your words match your actions or are you saying one thing and doing another?

It is difficult to maintain a consistent attitude to leading your team, particularly in times of adversity. While sometimes you may falter and have momentary lapses, you should strive to maintain a consistent tone at the top.

Not only should you strive for consistency, but you should think hard about what you want that tone to be. What type of team do you want to lead?

Tone at the top starts and ends with you.

Maybe don’t rip it, smash it or kill it.

Be thoughtful and intentional. Understand what you want the tone at the top to be and act accordingly.

Originally published at on April 23, 2017.

Author: Ben Brearley


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