Just as smart people tend to have the most sensitive bullshit meters, they also have an aversion to cognitive dissonance. When your actions don’t align with the tenets you preach, they’ll very quickly disengage and you’ve sapped the great value you might otherwise get from them.

Every company I’ve worked with has giant posters on the walls boasting core values like Empowering Team Members and Being Inclusive and Learning From Failure. And most of those companies have executive teams who in turn love giving 1% Better kind of feedback, make key promotion decisions in a closed room, and never publicly own up to any failure of actual significance. 

I’d argue that dissonant signaling does more harm than brutal honesty. Nobody expects a perfect workplace. Nobody expects to have every wish granted at all times. But having such a disconnect between spoken and lived values feels like an insult at a smart person’s intelligence.

I’ve seen this happen in a variety of ways:

  • Selective “empowerment”

This is when a leader fully “empowers” their staff when it comes to being accountable for targets that aren’t reached, but feels the need to keep more power for themselves when it comes to approving tools their teams may need to achieve those targets (business travel, development budget, team recognition, etc.). You can’t in good faith delegate responsibility for an outcome without also delegating trust/budget/approval authority to enable the team member to perform effectively. 

  • Feedback

I’ve written about this separately, but in any hierarchy, the person with higher status cannot reasonably expect honest feedback without having done the pre-work of being vulnerable & introspective. Saying that feedback is welcome without taking the first step to building a bridge of trust signals to your team that you don’t really want it. “Feedback as long as it’s good” is not feedback. 

  • No, but, however

The three words that kill any conversation (credit Marshall Goldsmith). You’ve basically dismissed whatever your team member said previously. Sometimes may be inevitable, but catch yourself when you’re using these words to make sure you aren’t using them too much; you don’t need to win every time. My favorite signal of signal vs. say is “I agree with you, but”…which is saying you agree and signaling that you clearly do not. 

No workplace is perfect, nor does anyone expect it to be. So be honest. If your signals start to contradict your organization’s stated values too often, your smartest people are going to be the ones who leave first.