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Gut Check: Have You Set Clear Leadership Expectations?

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Amazon gets its fair share of media coverage. Normally, it’s about how the company continues to innovate and radically transform the retail industry.  However in recent weeks Amazon has made headlines for something different – its culture.

Sparked by an article in the New York Times, the world got a glimpse into the day-to-day work environment of a company with a hard-core work ethic, punishing pace and extremely long hours that has been burning out many of its employees.

The story got huge and varied reactions. Many vehemently condemned the company’s culture, arguing that no company should ask its employees to completely ignore the importance of work-life balance.

Others defended it as a good example of what is actually required to build a successful company. These voices argued Amazon is a very ambitious organization that sets the bar very high for its employees. And that not every employee can thrive in that climate.

The debate over Amazon culture got so heated that Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO, weighed in to defend his company against the many negative reactions.

As I reflect on this story, I think something has been missed in the entire debate. Specifically, that Amazon has been very clear on the kind of culture it wanted to create.

Amazon has articulated 14 leadership principles that to me set clear expectations for all leaders and employees.  These principles tell Amazon employees to be obsessed with the customer, demonstrate backbone in day to day duties, be willing to disagree with others but always commit yourself to your decisions.

When I look at these leadership principles, I can immediately see how they translate into a culture that can rub some people the wrong way. However, given the fact the company has been so open about its expectations of employees, why did people react with such shock when they read the Times article?

The reality is that any principle, as lofty as it may be, should not be taken to an extreme. In situations where people get carried away with principles, it can actually make an organization weaker.

I strongly suspect Amazon has done just that – taken some lofty goals and practices and pushed them a bit too hard. In the future, the company may need to revisit a few cultural practices that are leading to negative outcomes, and modify them moving forward.

But one thing Amazon should not change is the practice of being crystal clear about what it expects from employees and leaders. In fact, regardless of some of the negative outcomes, Amazon remains a role model for establishing clear leadership expectations.

Based on my research, few organizations take the time to set clear leadership expectations. In fact, earlier this year we partnered with Human Resources People & Strategy (HRPS), the executive division of the Society for Human Resources Management, to survey more than 200 senior HR leaders across a wide variety of industries, representing a number of Fortune 500 companies. The survey found that only about half of the respondents said that their organizations established clear expectations for their leaders. The survey also found that while nearly 75% of respondents said that leadership accountability was a critical business issue, only 37% were satisfied with the level of leadership accountability in their organizations.

These results reveal a real problem for many organizations. No organization can be successful if it hasn’t set clear leadership expectations. Without those expectations, it will be impossible to drive real accountability among leaders and employees.

Think about your own organization for a moment. Have you set clear leadership expectations for everyone? Are you struggling with leadership accountability issues?

This week’s Leadership Gut Check question asks: are you setting clear leadership expectations?

Follow me @VinceMolinaro

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About the Author

Vince Molinaro is a speaker, consultant, executive at Lee Hecht Harrison, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Leadership Contract now in its third edition.

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