What are your non-negotiable leadership lines in the sand?
American country music superstar Kenny Rogers had a long and storied career, but he will forever be known for “The Gambler,” his song that asserts you’ve got to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.”
While it’s good advice for the poker table, I think it’s even better advice for leading your team, group, division, or firm.
You’re not leading if you don’t provide direction, clarity, and structure. Accordingly, your employees rely on you to continually clarify and answer two questions:
One especially effective way to provide answers to these questions is through dogma: lines in the sand defining and sharing non-negotiable expectations of your team. The dictionary definition of dogma is “a set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.” Dogma often has a negative connotation because it’s associated with religion, politics, and other topics that are typically off-limits during your family’s holiday time together. But when used the right way and in specific areas, dogma is incredibly effective in providing the clarity, structure, and behavioral guidance your team requires to be successful.
You may not be aware, but you’ve likely been guided by leadership dogma at some point in your career. You’ve probably worked for at least one fantastic manager—someone who challenged you, engaged you, and helped you grow. Think about your experience with them. What was one thing you knew you absolutely HAD to do while working for them? Was it making sure you were never one second late to a meeting? Or answering the phone in a certain way? Or how you and your colleagues were expected to treat one another? Or perhaps how you had to format certain documents?
I’m betting you’ll be able to think of several specific things—big and small—that this leader required of you to advance or remain employed. Why did you do these things? Because you had to. They were non-negotiable lines in the sand!
And if you peel those behaviors all the way back, it’s because each was one of your manager’s dogmatic zones. They were the ways of thinking and doing things that your manager determined were the best and right way for the team.
When used the right way and in specific areas, dogma is incredibly effective in providing the clarity, structure, and behavioral guidance your team requires to be successful.
I use dogmatic zones in my coaching practice because I know there are certain moves that are required to position a client leadership team for success. Some examples of my non-negotiable coaching zones include how to build a sustainable culture, how to implement change, how to create priorities, and how to implement firm-wide communication rhythms. I’m fairly flexible about how my clients choose to execute the vast majority of my coaching, but when it comes to these areas, there’s only one way to do it—my way.
Of course, not everything can be a dogmatic zone. If that was the case, which is certainly extreme, you’d be a tyrant ruling every decision, which leads to a one brain with 1,000 hands structure that’s neither effective nor scalable. It’s important to acknowledge that the most thoughtful and deliberate dogmatic zones are employee-friendly and affirming, rather than restricting and oppressive.
So where and how does it make sense for leaders to identify their non-negotiable dogmatic zones?
Here are three areas to consider.
Boundaries are limits pertaining to things like time, access, schedules, and even how people are treated.
A good example of this is work-life balance, which has become increasingly important to many people in the post-pandemic world. A Forbes Health-Ipsos survey found 90% of respondents felt work-life balance was an important factor when considering a position. As a result, some leaders have chosen to create dogma and set hard boundaries around work time. This type of dogma might include requiring employees to leave the office at a regular hour each day or insisting that staff refrain from sending email outside of business hours unless there’s a true emergency.
Others create dogmatic boundaries around how customers treat their employees. I’ve seen this scenario play out both ways—where leaders have no boundaries and certain clients treat staff horribly while the boss shrugs and tells the team they can’t do anything. On the other hand, I’ve seen leaders step in and tell customers that if they continue to treat the staff poorly, they’ll terminate the relationship. A supremely dogmatic move!
At a more personal level, I’ve also seen leaders create dogmatic boundaries that limit how and when they are willing to be interrupted during the workday. Some announce an “open door policy” that allows workers to share concerns or ask questions at any time. Others set specific office hours for access. Both methods work—it’s a matter of personal preference.
How you choose your boundaries is completely up to you and what you believe creates the right environment for your group, team, division, or firm. The important part is that you identify which boundaries matter most, set your dogmatic standards, and then reinforce them as non-negotiable.
Key Question for Leaders: Where would clearer boundaries benefit me, my team, and my firm?
Many leaders I know suffer from the “everything is a priority” trap. The trap, of course, is that when “everything is a priority,” in reality, nothing is a priority. It is CRITICAL to be clear about a small number of priorities. You must decide what’s important at the expense of other things. This makes prioritization and how priorities are executed excellent candidates for well-thought leadership dogma.
As I mentioned earlier, setting priorities is one of my personal dogmatic zones as a coach. Here’s what it looks like: My clients can select one, two, or three priorities—but no more than that. For me, that’s non-negotiable.
Some leaders also choose to create a dogmatic zone around priority planning. They require a clear plan, containing outcomes and actions, before allowing work to begin. Another potential dogmatic zone is how priorities are monitored and communicated to the broader team.
I’m a fan of creating communication rhythms for priorities and processes. This ensures more real-time transparency and opportunities for problem solving and course correction in response to inevitable problems and delays. Identifying and executing the right priorities correlates to profitable, scalable growth. This makes priorities an ideal dogmatic zone for leaders to clearly define how they expect their team to operate.
Key Question for Leaders: How can I tighten expectations for how our priorities are selected, planned, executed, and communicated?
Whether deliberately created or not, your organization is full of established behavioral norms. This might include how people treat one another, how phones and emails are answered, when people arrive at the office, how people act in meetings—and much more!
As a coach, I frequently speak and write about core values and how critical they are to build a sustainable, scalable culture. Without a doubt, your firm’s core values should be a non-negotiable standard and dogmatic zone. In fact, the process I use to help clients create and operationalize their core values is designed with this in mind.
But beyond the “core,” there are plenty of other opportunities for leaders to define dogma around behavioral expectations. I have several clients whose dogma requires the most senior person in a meeting to speak last, particularly during debates and brainstorming sessions. This seemingly minor detail is critical to preventing groupthink and maximizing the contributions of each member of the team.
I’ve seen others create behavioral dogma around how people are expected to show up to meetings (on time and prepared), how meetings are scheduled (no agenda, no meeting), how promptly staff answer their phones, when staff are required to be in the office versus working remotely, and when and how people report on their critical metrics.
Beyond your core values, one way to be really clear about behavioral norms is to create a manifesto of sorts that defines your firm’s “way” of doing things. In other words, your dogmatic zones! An “our way” document can provide crystal clear guidance and expectations for both staff and management. It’s also quite useful to accelerate onboarding new employees because it sets the expectation from day one: To work here, you must adhere to our defined standards.
Key Question for Leaders: Which behavioral norms, if defined as non-negotiable ways of doing things, would accelerate our growth?
“Strong convictions precede great actions.” — James Freeman Clarke
While there is no right or wrong way to select a dogmatic zone, most leaders fail to establish enough deliberate, clear, and overt guidance for their teams. They miss a valuable opportunity to shape their team’s thinking and behavior where it matters most.
Follow your beliefs, convictions, and experience to identify your dogmatic leadership zones. Although there are plenty of areas and activities in your business where your team can, within reason, do things their own way, there should be some that are non-negotiable. Identify them, clarify your expectations, and then communicate and institutionalize your dogma over time.
If you’ve read this far and are still thinking that dogma implies micro-managing (best case) or dictatorship (worst case), I’ll remind you that, correctly applied, dogmatic zones represent an extremely thin slice of the actions and behaviors inside your firm. What’s more, well-thought dogmatic zones are employee friendly and affirming, not restrictive and oppressive.
When used in the right way and in specific areas, dogma is an effective means to provide the clarity, structure, and behavioral guidance your team needs to be successful. Outside those zones, allow your team the agency and autonomy to achieve their goals and results for the business.
In other words, take Kenny Rogers’ advice: Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
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