Over the summer I have enjoyed visiting several factories owned by the same parent company.  What struck me about the visits was how the leadership style of each leader impacted on the site; in particular what the leaders ‘walked past’.  I started to take an unhealthy interest in cable ties!  Let me explain:

Plastic cable ties (CTs) come in all sorts of sizes and colours although are usually black and are great to clip things together, they are cheap and used all over the world.  When you want to release whatever is clipped together you cut the cable tie and throw it away (in the appropriate place).  What seems to happen though is that new and used CTs end up all over the environment.  On my site visits I started to notice a different approach to CTs on the floor.  On one site tour if the leader saw any litter when walking around the site she would stop and pick it up, CTs included.  This site was immaculate as was the attention to detail in all the other areas of her leadership.

On a separate site visit there were lots of CTs in the car park, some in the factory and the workshop floors in various stages of decay .  This site leader walked past the CTs not even noticing they were there.  This sparked an interesting discussion about CT litter as a sign of attention to detail and pride.

Clearly the CTs on the floor were a sign; a detail, that got me thinking what else is this leader walking past?  There are two aspects to responding to this point:

Firstly am I noticing things, i.e. seeing them in the first place?  In organisational psychology ignoring something is called ‘Discounting’.  Discounting can be very unhelpful particularly if we get used to ignoring things, for example:

  • Getting used to ignoring CTs on the floor
  • Getting used to ignoring poor performance
  • Getting used to ignoring great performance

I wonder how many times it would take to ignore inappropriate behaviour before it becomes normal and accepted then wouldn’t even register in the mind?

Secondly, even if I notice a leadership issue, will I raise the issue of what I am noticing?  If I see some poor/inappropriate performance do I have the courage to speak up and intervene?  Sat in the comfort of my office the answer to this is clearly ‘of course I will!’  and I have noticed in the heat of the moment in a meeting with a packed agenda or checking something out with a room full of leaders – this takes some what more courage.  Talking to a very wise friend of mine about leaders having the courage to challenge behaviour, my friend said:

‘Well Malcolm, you will never know the value of the intervention unless you make it’

This small statement has really helped me in those moments of, do I say something or don’t I?  To summon up my courage to intervene.  Making the intervention at that very moment it occurs is when it counts.

So what about the CTs?  When the site leaders were together I did talk about CTs and the link to ‘what do you walk past?’  The CTs became a metaphor, a common language with personal meaning for us to enjoy. This created thoughts about looking and seeing things, being curious and then voicing what we notice and discussing the impact of this on performance.