Put standards front and center as you propel your organization’s strategies for success

Better Still blog Standards image

Put standards front and center as you propel your organization’s strategies for success

Better Still blog Standards image

Standards are powerful instruments to guide and improve organizational performance, especially when leaders apply them well. Too often, however, standards are invisible and untended. To gain their full value, make standards explicit and relevant, and align them with your strategic priorities.

In your quest to make your organization smarter, better, faster, or stronger, use standards even more effectively than you do now. Standards operate all across your organization, hundreds and even thousands of times a day, guiding how work should be done and how people should act. They influence actions and behaviors in obvious ways, and in ways you may not realize. Are the standards in your organization moving it in the direction you seek, or are they holding it back?

Consider briefly where standards are currently active in your organization:

  • The quality-control standards for your products and services
  • The customer-engagement standards across your customer lifecycles
  • The regulatory standards that require compliance
  • The performance standards for your employees and teams
  • The codes of conduct that direct ethical behaviors
  • The fiduciary standards set by your board
  • The professional standards that your attorneys, accountants, and other specialists must adhere to
  • The operational standards that have been put in place by each division or department
  • The individual, sometimes idiosyncratic standards that every executive, team leader, and team member applies throughout the course of daily work.

Some of those standards advance your strategic priorities, enhance your organization’s reputation, and sustain excellence every day. Some standards, however, may undermine your agenda, contradict one another, or are no longer relevant. As a result, your organization’s collective set of standards may not be serving as you expect.


To make standards work well, begin by bringing them into plain view 

Standards may be pervasive in your organization, but chances are they aren’t easily recognizable or readily present. As one expert points out, standards are “so taken for granted, so mundane, so ubiquitous … They are usually noticed only when they fail to work.”1

That’s because standards generally operate below the surface of everyday activities, especially in professional organizations. Daily attention tends to orient to tasks, deadlines, deliverables—but not the standards that inform them. Often, standards are assumed (which can be dangerous if people misconstrue them); ignored (which can be reckless); or unarticulated (which can confound people and create unintentional errors).  

Many subsurface standards are those held by a single individual who doesn’t bother to express them, but who expects others to adhere to them. That’s especially consequential when the individual is a leader, whose position power determines the actions and behaviors of others—the executive who holds a standard that direct reports should not talk to other executives without permission, or the director who expects that team members should report the details of all departmental activities. When a standard is unexpressed, people usually discover it only when they violate it, which can cause negative repercussions and undermine morale.

In fact, we often fail to acknowledge that standards are the source of many breakdowns: When I fail to deliver what’s expected, it’s the standards that I breach, and to which I am being held accountable. In those moments of failure, we tend to focus feedback on the topic of the failure—the missed deadline, the error-filled report—but the real, larger transgression is the lack of adherence to a standard.

If you want standards to positively influence action and behaviors, the first steps are to bring them into plain view and make them understood.

  • Take stock of organizational, departmental, and leadership standards that exist but that may not be known or understood, and make plans to disclose them to affected parties.
  • Make current standards explicit—from crucial standards related to organizational ethics that are buried in a code-of-conduct document to the individual standards a leader holds about team expectations and performance. To make a standard explicit: Clearly articulate what the standard is, what it is intended to do, who is affected by it, and when it applies and doesn’t apply.
  • Invite conversations about standards so people can ask questions, clarify their use, and make standards a normal, everyday topic of discussion.


Next: Inspect standards to make sure they’re relevant, and align them

Standards require regular inspection, management and maintenance, like any operating system. Set aside time to attend to them, applying a systems view to examine how well your current collection of standards is serving critical business needs. Remember to include in your inspection the standards that span the organization; those that reside in divisions and departments; and those that are held by leaders, influencers, and key specialists.

When you inspect your standards holistically, you may discover that:

  • Some standards are outdated or irrelevant to current and emergent priorities
  • Certain standards may contradict others, leading to confusion and suboptimal performance (for example, standards that emphasize speed and urgency may conflict with standards regarding quality)
  • There are so many standards in force across the organization that progress is impeded
  • Some standards are more important than others to propel organizational strategy.

After you inspect your standards, you can then update, discard, streamline, and align them so you have a current, healthy set that will propel your organization in the strategic direction you seek. Make this a positive exercise by doing the following:

  • Ask both top executives and those who are affected by key standards to participate in a joint “Spring cleaning” initiative of organizational standards.
  • Agree together on how you’ll determine which standards are essential to your next phases of organizational success, and which are not.
  • Follow a consistent process to update standards or create new ones.
  • Decide where individuals and teams will have autonomy to create their own standards.
  • Make a plan to communicate the standards and educate people about their importance every day. If standards must change, then also apply appropriate change-management practices to increase adoption and ensure that the new standards stick.


Then, ensure that actions and behaviors match the standards you set

Standards are concentrated, action-focused expressions of intentions and expectations. They describe how work should be done and how people should act. They are guidelines, guardrails, even directives, and they shape thoughts, behaviors, and actions.  

But standards don’t matter if people don’t follow them consistently. Incomplete application of standards weakens the impact they can have. Worse, leaders, teams, and whole organizations will appear disingenuous if they declare certain standards and then don’t adhere to them. Any leader who falls prey to “Do as I say, not as I do” faces diminished standing and influence as those around them question how trustworthy they are.

That example gives us a glimpse into how powerful standards are. They represent commitments we make, based on deeper values and beliefs: “We stand for [quality] [inclusiveness] [innovation] [service], and as such we declare that we shall act and behave in the following ways:” At their best, standards inspire and make us better, and create coherence between aspiration and action. They also require that we fulfill the promise they represent.


To move your organizational priorities forward, to connect intention to action, and to activate one of the most potent leadership levers you have available, turn your attention to standards and put them front and center in your organizational agenda.


Future posts will examine where standards come from; how to operationalize standards effectively; the importance of peer-to-peer alignment of standards in professional organizations; how to use standards to improve coordination and action; the role of standards in feedback and learning; and other standards-related topics. Also, watch for these posts related to standards: 

  • Working remotely? Now is the time to focus on team standards
  • How to boost the effectiveness of your new cross-functional teams
  • New team leaders: Focus early and often on standards

Lawrence Busch, Standards: Recipes for Reality, 2011.

Tom Lowery is Better Still’s content creator and designer, and an expert and consultant in change management, talent management, leadership development, and team optimization. He holds a Masters degree in ethical leadership from Claremont Lincoln University.

This topic is represented in the Better Still catalyst “Manage Standards With Others,” one of seven catalysts that are foundational to individual and organizational excellence. Five Better Still tools support this catalyst, in Better Still Teamwork ToolkitsSM for Team Leaders and Team Contributors, and in Better Still Solutions.

© 2020-2021 Connection Matters, Inc. All rights reserved. “Better Still” is a service mark of Connection Matters, Inc. 

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