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RICHARDSON: How to be a workplace role model

RICHARDSON: How to be a workplace role model

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Rosa Parks once said, “Each person must live their life as a model for others.” I agree, and have been wondering how well people do this in the workplace. Generally, our actions speak louder than words, so people at work model their behavior on the actions of others and not what people say.

Numerous examples come to mind.

I have worked with colleagues in multiple institutions that would emphasize the importance of respecting the chain of command. You’re familiar with this structure. Each employee in an organization reports to a single person. If Fred reports to Tim, who reports to Sandra, who reports to Audrey, then Fred should always talk with Tim first about any situation and not bypass Tim to talk with Sandra or Audrey.

Audrey says she respects and adheres to the chain of command concept. But invariably, she lets someone in the chain other than Sandra reach out to her with issues or concerns. So when Fred contacts a person two three levels above and Audrey responds in a way other than, “You need to go back and start with Tim for this issue,” she’s undermining the chain of command. More importantly, however, her words and actions are not congruent, and those in her organization will “listen” to her actions, as they speak louder than her words. And folks get confused.

Another example is when supervisors say they want their employees to make their families a priority. Children have afterschool activities that might require an employee to leave a bit early. Caregivers of parents or grandparents have demands on their lives that most of us cannot imagine.

If the boss regularly leaves work early to coach her daughter’s tee-ball team, she is modeling the behavior she says she supports. Yet so many people talk about being supportive of their employees’ personal lives, but then say no when an employee needs to leave early to take a parent to a scheduled doctor’s visit.

It’s even crazier to think this is reasonable given many of us have worked from home for more than a year and been very productive. It’s not the specific time of day that we work that is an important, it’s the fact we get the work done. We still have some pretty rigid supervisors who are uncomfortable loosening the reins.

And what about the company that preaches a work-life balance (as if there really is such a thing) but then drops a project on several employees’ desks at 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon, with the expectation of it being completed by Monday at 8 a.m. Any plans the employees had for Friday night, Saturday or Sunday have just been canceled. I’ve known excellent employees who have left organizations because of that situation. Again, actions speak louder than words.

So think about your company. Do your actions line up with what you say is important? Or are you sending mixed messages with the model you represent to your colleagues? Maybe you don’t even see it. You might need to ask some trusted colleagues to be honest with you about the congruency of your actions and words.

If you learn you are confusing people, it’s time to rethink your actions or your words.

To respect the chain of command, you need to redirect people back to the appropriate member.

When you advocate the importance of a work-life balance, most employees would prefer that you stand by those words. You should quit sending mixed signals with overtime work and last-minute assignments.

And it’s my opinion that every person should make time for the needs of children and eldercare, if that’s part of an employee’s life. But that’s just me, and I’ve always tried to model those behaviors for my colleagues. How about you?

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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