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The Danger of Mixed Messages

Posted on August 12, 2015

The Danger of Mixed Messages

Seemingly overnight, the "unlimited vacation policy" has replaced the standard 2-3 week vacation policy in many corporate offices in America. This policy was a move towards a less strict view of vacations - companies that adopted them don't track employees' vacation days and people are free to take as many as they’d like. It was initially hailed as a wonderful departure from bureaucracy and towards more worker freedom and autonomy.

But sometimes these policies veer wildly off course. One startup employee was excited to read about the company's unlimited vacation policy before she joined. It was only afterward that she realized the "no vacation policy" really meant "no vacations."

Her education was swift. After taking a Friday off for a three day weekend, she suddenly found herself being left out of important meetings and her work ignored. It took her months to get back in management's good graces and regain the status of a respected member of the team.

In retrospect, it should have been a bad sign when the CEO said "Work-life balance is a dated concept. If you love your work, it is your life." Perhaps not surprisingly, turnover was high at the company.

Walking The Talk

Beyond the necessity and benefits of having employees taking regular vacations, the bigger problem at this startup was the inconsistent messaging. Leadership preached one set of ideals publicly but obeyed the opposite set altogether. The actions didn't match the rhetoric and a culture of fear set in to enforce the unspoken rules. Wise employees knew to listen to the spiel but don't dare follow it.

This is an issue because the big business buzzword today is "innovation." Credit for this development goes to innovative tech leaders like Facebook, Google, and Apple who have profoundly improved billions of people's lives and created tremendous wealth for themselves in the process. Many business leaders now look at these companies with admiration and seek to emulate their success.

But how many of these companies practice what they preach? It's one thing to say your company values innovation, creativity, and new ideas but another to practice it. How many do?

How a Culture of Fear Inhibits Creativity

The truth is managing people to perform specific tasks is easy and innovation is inherently risky. What happens if the new idea fails? Does someone get blamed, does someone lose their job? Managers and employees need to feel safe for a true innovation culture to thrive. No one wants to step forward if they are afraid of being punished for it, and a company where no one steps forward is one that stagnates.

But to create an innovative culture there's no need to think big all the time. As companies like Toyota have shown, innovation and change are an incremental process. Winners have big goals but realize those goals are achieved with small consistent actions.

That's why we here at Vocoli encourage the idea of "small wins" in creating an innovation culture. Business success doesn't have to come from hitting a once-in-a-lifetime home run like the iPhone. More often than not it comes from companies making small winning moves, like putting tools within easy reach of assembly line workers. In this way, the Toyota Camry became a consistently top rated car through a series of small, helpful employee suggestions for improving the process.

Emphasizing small wins is a way around a culture of fear - they are easier to swallow and incorporate into the existing system. And when small ideas are regularly put into practice, they set off a virtuous cycle of improvement. More employees are willing to volunteer their suggestions and are actively engaged in improving the company, rather than merely executing the commands of others.

If you are interested in learning more about how to create an innovation culture in your company, feel free to contact us 888.919.5300.

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