Hollow Talk

Hollow Talk

Hollow talk doesn't just happen at bad companies. Even the best managers sometimes forget that great ideas communicated in inspirational ways aren't enough to spark action. But our research suggests that the best managers use several methods to avoid the smart-talk trap.

Many companies spout vague and predictable platitudes about putting customers first, treating people well, doing quality work and so on. Yet some apparently reputable companies routinely violate such claims. One consulting firm had a much-ballyhooed policy that people should never travel on Sundays. The result: Their own consultants saw it as a cruel joke because that's exactly what so many of them had to do—travel on Sundays. Or, consider this excerpt from Enron's Human Rights Principles: "Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don't belong here." Or, more laughable: "We are dedicated to conducting business according to all applicable local and international laws and regulations…with the highest professional and ethical standards."

The best organizations don't only turn knowledge into action; their philosophies also guide how people act. At Intel, manufacturing plants espouse and follow the "copy exactly" philosophy. Intel's leaders justify this by saying "physics works," meaning that if you change one thing at a time and hold everything else constant in a system, valid lessons can keep being learned. Intel has zealously followed this philosophy for years, and it's a main reason why Intel has dominated its industry, even while such competitors as Advanced Micro Devices develop superior designs.

Steve Mariucci, coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team, says coaches and players always talk about coaching techniques and exercise regimes they should use, but rarely get around to doing such things. Mariucci fights this problem by never wearing a watch, because "I always know what time it is," he says. "It is always now. And now is when you should do it."

The smart-talk trap is difficult to overcome when what leaders say clashes with what they do. Both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney now face this problem. Most Democrats and many Republicans don't believe that Bush and Cheney, regardless of their ultimate guilt or innocence, are making sincere promises to clean up the accounting scandals when they might have committed these same sins.

Another impediment to action arises when leaders are inundated with more good ideas than they can possibly implement. Smart talk can be produced far faster than smart action: It is easy to say that a company needs a world-class Six Sigma program, but it takes years to implement one. We studied one company where the CEO seemed to fall in love with every new management concept and then announce a program to implement it: 360-degree evaluations, balanced scorecards, total quality and on and on. His managers learned to deal with the onslaught by pretending to adopt each program, but they didn't waste time actually implementing any of them. After all, each one would soon disappear, only to be replaced by another. Jeff Pfeffer and I call this the "Otis Redding syndrome." In the song, "(Sittin') On the Dock of the Bay," Redding sang, "I can't do what 10 people tell me to do, so I guess I'll remain the same." In companies, this means that managers get so much advice and so many new programs that they learn to ignore everything senior management says.

This article was originally published on 08-16-2002
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