Thoughts on Life & Leadership

A Junto Strategy Project

Symbols vs. Words — Symbols Win Every Time

Do your organizational symbols speak much louder than your leaders’ words?

5 1/4 Speed Limit

An “unintended” example of micromanagement

Let me illustrate what I am trying to get at with this question. The other day I was driving by a construction work site when one of their signs caught my eye. It was the speed limit sign I’ve included with this post.

My guess is that somewhere back at corporate headquarters the company has some nice literature and wall posters that talk about how great their employees are and how much they trust them, blah, blah, blah. The problem is they have some clear organizational symbols, like this sign, that clearly state that they don’t trust their employees, and that unless they babysit them, they’ll constantly be up to no good.

Think about that sign for a minute. 5 1/4 miles per hour. First of how do I even see if I’m a 1/4 mile/hour over the limit. Those must be some seriously amazing speedometers. Heaven forbid you drive 5 7/8 miles per hour. And don’t even think about driving a whopping 6 miles per hour. The earth may just end. (See tongue firmly planted in cheek).

This organization is not alone. My experience in working with a wide range of organizations is that the 5 1/4 speed limit problem exists just about everywhere. Leaders talk a good talk, but as the employees look around they see a range of organizational symbols that communicate a much different message than what the leaders are trying to send out.

To be an effective leader, one of our first tasks is to become more organizationally observant – to be able to see first and then speak later. If we do that, we’ll be able remove some of those symbols that undermine what we hope to accomplish in leading and be far more effective as a result.

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