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Style Over Substance
Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
You and everyone in
the company are called to a company meeting and you head out with
reservations since you’ve attended such meetings in the past and have come
away disappointed, with perfunctory messages, carefully manipulated company
results, berating words for people or groups who have been unable to deliver
on unrealistic expectations (see
eN-060608 – Unrealistic Expectations), and obligatory
congratulations for a few people or groups. But this meeting sounds
different. The big boss conveys a truly inspiring message and sounds like
he really gets it. He lays out a vision for transforming the company in new
and exciting ways (see
eN-030102 – Poor Company Vision Clouds Everyone’s View). He
points to a future that holds great promise and potential. He discusses a
plan of action that can make a real difference and a call to action to make
it happen. He points to changes that will take place starting immediately
and envisions a bright and hopeful future that will bring excitement and
success to the company and its people. Everyone is charged up and anxious
to get started and leaves the meeting with a new spring in their steps.
Then … very little happens. The promised changes are always about to begin,
but never really do. Those changes that do begin go nowhere with little
real support. The hope in everyone’s minds diminishes with each passing
day. You have just been subjected, once again, to style over
substance, and its result can be devastating. In fact it can be
considerably worse than if the promising message had never been given.
People’s expectations get built up, only to be torn down. They watch the
bubble grow, only to see it burst; the bigger the bubble, the bigger the
mess when it inevitably bursts.
Unfortunately, we see style over substance everywhere and the
consequence is that people are becoming more jaded and cynical. We see it
in politics, where promises to “give” people this, that, and the
other thing fly left and right from all parties, with few, if any, of the
promises backed up by anything real or meaningful; but that doesn’t diminish
the non-stop pandering. We see it in companies and even in work, community,
and social groups. In smaller group settings it is generally easier to
identify who is delivering style over substance and who is really
delivering substance, and to do something about those who don’t deliver.
Substance is what people are really looking for. We want people to say what
they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they’ll do (see
eN-050804 – Say What Your Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say
You’ll Do!). There is a saying, “motivation without
implementation produces frustration”, that is very true. Inspiration
without follow-through generally results in disenfranchisement and
Too often leaders don’t really say what they mean. They couch what they’re
saying in lofty expressions and soaring rhetoric. They say what they
believe people want to hear. Often their flowery words and expressions
either mean nothing, or worse, really mean the opposite.
They often don’t mean what they say. They believe they can throw things out
there and people will soon forget what was promised. Or they know they will
be able to say that the situation has changed and that while they meant what
they said at the time, they simply have to change their position now.
Most damaging, they don’t do what they said they would do. It is the lack
of action, follow-through, and delivery that most discourages and
de-motivates people. Again, they’ll blame others or changing circumstances,
or the weather, or give some other meaningless excuse, but they won’t follow
through on their commitments. People are looking for actions, not words.
What damages most is when projects or programs actually get launched based
on the “style”, tying up untold numbers of people in doomed efforts
(that are incredibly frustrating to be involved with), preventing those
people from working on real projects or programs of “substance” that
can greatly benefit the company (see
eN-080703 – The Costs of Being “Free”).
So, what can you do about style over substance? To start, you must
be able to recognize style over substance. You need to
develop an effective bullsh-t filter. When something sounds too good to be
true, it usually is. When you hear such things, question them. Ask
respectful but probing questions that can separate “style” from “substance”.
What are the specifics? How will substance be achieved? What are the
specific milestones for success? When can they be expected to be achieved?
Etc. Trust is really critical in such situations, but trust must be earned
eN-080207 – Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others!). It may be
necessary to trust, but it is also necessary to verify the “substance”
versus the “style”. If the “substance” is real, great! Also
recognize that the person presenting the “style” is usually not the
one who must actually implement it to make the “substance” real (see
eN-061005 – No Job Is Hard For The Person Who Doesn’t Have To Do It!),
so ask more questions regarding who will be involved in actually achieving
the “substance” and what levels of true support they will have to
make this even reasonably possible.
Next, it may be necessary to expose the fact that what’s being
presented is style over substance. This can be a dangerous step, as
dissent is often not tolerated and dissenters are often harshly punished
(e.g. fired). So tread carefully and be sure that you really want to
expose what appears to be a sham. There are ways to expose style over
substance that can be less dangerous. If people in the trenches learn
about the lack of “substance”, this can undermine the “style”
before it involves many resources. Embarrassment can sometimes be effective
in exposing style over substance (see
eN-070208 – Embarrassment Rules The World?), but use it
carefully; a little can go a long way. More often, an open and honest,
non-threatening exposure of the problems with the “style” will do the
job. Sunlight is most often the best disinfectant.
Then, you will want to propose an alternative to style over
substance so that scarce resources are used most effectively. No one
benefits when resources are diverted on a doomed “style” effort. If
the “style” can be converted into a winning and beneficial “substance”
effort, then a win can be had by all, including the person who proposed the
“style”. If that person can be logically shown that his/her “style”
has no possibility of “substance”, and that person can be convinced
to graciously withdraw or appropriately modify the “style” proposal,
then that person can show he/she has character and an ability to adapt. If
that person can’t be persuaded to change his/her approach, then efforts to
convince others, peers or superiors of that person, must be undertaken for
the betterment of the company and to avoid wasting valuable resources (see
eN-030605 – Learn from Good Role Models; Learn More from Bad!).
It is equally critical that you avoid getting caught up in presenting
ideas or “solutions” that are really style over substance.
Make sure that any proposals you make have real substance to them. Wishing
for a desirable outcome will not make it so. There must be a realistic plan
to enable a desired and substantial outcome be achieved. Review it with
others with a track record of success in turning good ideas into reality
eN-030522 – Keep Your Eyes On THE GOAL!). “Style” will
not help your company make profits; “substance” will!
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Effective Engineering Consulting Services, All Rights Reserved