The Double-Edged Sword of Standards.

sword     Having standards and holding to standards are two different things; yet we often confuse the two.  Let’s take a quick step back to make sure we all are using the term in the same way. Standards are the lowest threshold or the minimum we are willing to accept or expect to uphold.  Standards set the guidelines for areas of our lives like behavior or quality. Standards work in conjunction with our expectations.  Having standards means we have expectations or hope that an outcome will be what we want it to be.  Sometimes we can control the situation to adhere to our standards, and sometimes we can’t.  Notice the phrase “our standards”.  Standards can be fairly subjective, and as discussed before (in previous blogs), subjectivity makes it hard to lead.

Just because I find certain words or actions offensive does not mean that others agree with my point of view. For the good of the team, I believe other leaders and experts have shown that in order to have a cohesive unit, dubious behavior needs to be stopped. By setting the standard of behavior and expected conduct for my team, I am establishing an environment more open for communication and trust, which are foundations of strong teambuilding.  The double-edged sword, then, is that I must also adhere to the established standards.  In fact, as the leader I have to toe the line better than the rest of the team to set the example.  Unfortunately, that is not always easy or fun.  Standards may be tough to take, and to be honest I don’t always want to follow the rules myself.  Yet if I, as a leader, allow exceptions to the standards, I will crush my team faster than just about anything else.

When I do not hold myself or others accountable to the established standards, I essentially communicate to my team that there are no standards.  This is one of those times where the line has to be drawn in the sand or the standard becomes meaningless. There always will be ways to find an exception to get around the rule, which is not an acceptable path for leaders.  Let’s put this in non-person terms – if baby food is produced in a factory that sends the jars through a metal detector, everyone is happy about it.  The standard is set that no metal will be in baby food.  If even one shard of metal sets off that detector, it is never going to be okay.  That baby food will be scrapped, and the entire system has to be inspected.  Why should we ever allow our standards for behavior or teamwork to be any less important?  Lesson learned: Never compromise when it comes to standards.

-Lori Buresh

CEO, The Professional Development Team


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  1. #1 by Noble3 on March 27, 2013 - 8:32 am

    Lori, I absolutely agree. As a mathematician, I often ask whether there is a limit to the application of certain ideas or concepts. In this case, how big a group can you lead with this concept of standards and principles?

    I think that one of the toughest challenges for a leader is to establish a set of standards that meets the needs of team without crippling the team. Without completely politicizing your blog, I think that any discussion regarding public policy, and in particular the current Supreme Court analysis, faces this specific challenge. It is for this reason that I appreciate the awesome responsibility of leadership, and commit to being both a leader, follower, and team member.

    Can your concept of a standard change from one team to the next? Should it? What conditions exist or what changes in your team would warrant a change in standard? How do you make a change without the appearance (or the actuality) of a compromise in standard?

    • #2 by The Professional Development Team on March 27, 2013 - 9:51 am

      Wow – what great questions Noble! I would love to say that standards should never change but I think that is naive. It may be fairer to say that behavioral standards must remain in place. Those standards that involve the interaction and behavior of the team I submit are universal – just like our laws against sexual harassment. However, the other standards in regards to team performance may be subject to change based on the goal to accomplish and the team involved. I can expect higher standards of work and excellence from a team of adults than I can from a team of 5th graders. Although both teams should never call each other names.

  2. #3 by Chuck Drobny on March 27, 2013 - 9:20 am

    If I profess to hold to standards and then don’t abide them then by this author’s definition I don’t have those standards.

    Leadership is modeling the behavior that you expect others to emulate. So the issue has more to do with holding to one’s professed standards and modeling that behavior than holding others accountable to those standards.

    But the heart of the matter is not standards but ethics. Those are a code of conduct completely external to the individual who chooses to embrace them and publicly professes that decision. Self imposed standards or personal ethics are nonsensical verbal twists to obfuscate the individual’s unwillingness to concede personal hegemony to some authority other than themself.

    In the workplace if one faces an ethical conflict where the organizational mandate conflicts with one’s embraced ethical standard, the only choice is to leave gracefully lest one compromise their integrity. Attempting to alter the organizational mandate or culture by falling on one’s proverbial intregity sword in hopes other will follow invariably results in a lonely death while coworkers shy away commenting, “I’ll bet that hurts.”

    How we do things as determined by what the organization accepts is perhaps the standard mentioned by the author. Leaders do it the harder way, the better way, the tougher way. That models the behavior.

    • #4 by The Professional Development Team on March 27, 2013 - 9:55 am

      Chuck, you are right, our personal standards may conflict with organizational standards (hopefully by being more stringent). If we choose to set the example by being self-righteous, I totally agree with you that it is a long, lonely trip back to the dugout. Let’s put it this way, if we espouse the standard of conduct that everyone should be on time for meetings, yet fail to either be on time ourselves or hold team members accountable when they are late, then do we really have that standard? Are our actions speaking much louder than our words? I believe that kind of discord or conflict of messages can destroy a team. You are absolutely correct with your last statement – Leaders do it the harder way, the better way, the tougher way. Amen to that.

  3. #5 by brownbearrealestatecom on March 27, 2013 - 1:52 pm

    Thank you Lori for a most insightful post. I am of a mind to bring your professional point even closer, to that of self, and the importance of thought and action. I can state it no clearer than as follows, and I find it in compliment to your position:

    “Your beliefs become your thoughts
    Your thoughts become your words
    Your words become your actions
    Your actions become your habits
    Your habits become your values
    Your values become your destiny” – Mahatma Gandhi

    Let us then be ever mindful of the creative power in all that we do.

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