There are two types of restaurants: those where it’s acceptable for a cook to pickup dropped food and serve it, and those where it’s not.
Sure, when asked, everyone would say it’s unacceptable to serve dropped food in their kitchen. But is that how their kitchen actually runs? One of my favorite definitions of culture is, to paraphrase Henry Ford’s thoughts on quality, “what happens when no one is watching.”
And if managers really run such clean kitchens, then why are there so many:
- Websites with typos?
- Webinars with logistics problems at the start?
- Demonstrations where something breaks?
- Presentations where the numbers don’t foot?
- Customer meetings that start late?
The fact is most managers say they run kitchens where it’s unacceptable to serve food that was dropped on the floor, but all too often they don’t. Dropped food gets served all the time by corporate America. Why? Because too few leaders remember that a key part of their job is to set norms — in our company, in our culture, what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Defining these norms is more important than defining quarterly OKRs or MBOs — both because they persist over time and because they help define culture — yet few managers treat them as such. Sure, some managers like to emphasize values, and will frequently story-tell about a focus on Trust or Customer Success. And that’s great. But that’s all positive reinforcement. Part of norm setting — particularly the part that says what’s not acceptable is our culture — needs to be negative reinforcement: you can’t do that here.
That’s why I love Gordon Ramsey and his shows like Hell’s Kitchen. “YOU CAN’T SERVE THAT, IT’S BLOODY RAW!”
He is a clear, if overzealous, communicator who sets very clear norms. The power of norms is that, once set, the culture reinforces them. Everyone quickly understands that in our kitchen you don’t serve dropped food and people will call each other out if someone attempts to do so.
I remember over a decade ago, mixed in a deluge of corrections I’d made on a press release, I wrote something like this:
“No, No, No, No, No, Goddammit, No — Never [break this rule and do that].”
The guy who wrote the press release was new. He complained to HR that my feedback created a hostile work environment. The complaint made me pause. Then I thought: you know what, for someone who writes like that guy does, I want it to be a hostile environment. Cook like that in someone else’s kitchen. But not in mine. (Yes, he quit shortly thereafter.)
Over time I’ve learned that you don’t need to scream like Ramsey (or my younger self) to establish clear norms. You just need one, simple, almost magical word: unacceptable. Just as it’s unacceptable in this kitchen to serve food that’s been dropped on the floor:
- It’s unacceptable in this marketing team to publish work with typos. (Work on your writing skills and have a better process.)
- It’s unacceptable in this events team to have logistical problems at the start of an event. (Test them all, three times if necessary, before running the webinar.)
- It’s unacceptable in this SC team to have demos crash during sales calls. (Test every click before you start, and don’t go off-road for the fun of it.)
- It’s unacceptable in this finance team to create slides where the numbers don’t foot. (Cross-check your own work and then have someone else cross-check it again. Or, better yet, use a system to publish the numbers off one database.)
- It’s unacceptable in this sales organization to start customer meetings late. (Our standard practice is to book the meeting room 30 mins before the meeting start, arrive 30 mins early, and test all logistics.)
When it comes to norms, you get what you expect. And when you don’t get it, you need to be clear: what happened is unacceptable .
Since this is all pretty simple, then why do so few managers spend time defining and enforcing such operational norms?
First, it will make you unpopular. It’s far easier to be “surprised” that the webinar didn’t work for anyone on Chrome or “understanding” that sometimes demos do crash or “realistic” that we’ll never eliminate every typo on the website. But remember, even here you are norm-setting; you’re just setting the wrong norms. You’re saying that all these thing are, in fact, acceptable.
Second, it’s hard because you need to be black-and-white. A typo is black-and-white. Numbers that don’t foot are black-and-white. But amateurish PowerPoint clip art, poorly written paragraphs, or an under-prepared sales presentation are grey. You’ll need to impose a black-and-white line in defining norms and let people know when they’re below it. Think: “this is not good enough and I don’t want to debate it.”
Third, your employees will complain that you’re a micro-manager. No one ever calls Gordon Ramsey a micro-manager for intercepting the service of under-cooked scallops, but your employees will be quick to label you one for catching typos, numbers that don’t foot, and other mistakes. They’ll complain to their peers. They’ll cherry-pick your feedback, telling colleagues that all you had were a bunch of edits and you weren’t providing any real macro-value on the project . You can get positioned as a hyper-critical, bad guy or gal, or someone might even assert that it’s personal — that you don’t like them . A clever employee might even try to turn you into their personal proof-reader, knowing you’ll backstop their mistakes .
But, know this — your best employees will understand exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And they will respond in kind: first, they’ll change their processes to avoid breaking any of the established norms and second, they’ll reinforce those norms with their teams and peers.
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 And people who do unacceptable things don’t last long in this organization.
 No one would ever say “the ambiance was great, the service prompt, and the customer should have been happy despite the raw scallops,” but somehow many business people will say “the vision was great, the idea creative, and that the CEO should have been happy despite all the typos and math errors.”
 Ergo be careful in your approach. Feedback should always be about the work — criticize the performance, not the performer. And you must be consistent about enforcing norms equally across all people. (Norms aren’t just for the ones you don’t like.) Proof-read only the first page or two of a document and then say, “continued review, but stopped proof-reading here.” Or, borrowing from The Best Work Parable, you might just stop everything at page two, send the document back, and offer to read only a properly written version of it.
 This begs fundamental questions about approvals. Say you approve a press release about last quarter’s results and it contains both several typos and several incorrect numbers. Does your approval let people off the hook for those errors? How will they see it? What does your approval actually mean? Are you approving every number and every comma? Or are you, in effect, approving the release of the headline on a given date and assuming others are accountable for quality of the body?