10 Commandments of Leadership-Tone Setting

Referring back to the introduction section, leadership is the art of getting people to do something because they want to do it for you. This points to a very personal connection in leadership in which followers, and other leaders for that matter, are drawn to work for an effective leader and not compelled to work for that person.

One of the lead questions that we routinely ask in leadership training programs is “who do your people work for?” Routinely the common response is the company name or a division within that company or even the parent organization. Occasionally we will hear a response about working for themselves painting a picture of self-motivated team members. Rarely we will hear the correct answer that they work for you.

That’s right. They work for you. The logo on the paycheck may have the company name but at the end of the day they work for you. This leads to an interesting phenomenon about the condition of your working team. If they work for you and leadership is a personal connection between the leader and follower, then who will bear responsibility for team morale problems or turnover problems?

Turnover and the Role of the Leader

Many organizations have an exit interview process that is usually administered by the human resources function. Almost without fail, the exit interviewer asks why the person is leaving. Almost equally without fail, the exiting team member says something about compensation. Box checked. Exit interview complete. Statistics now tell this organization that turnover is due to compensation issues.

Unfortunately, most organizations are asking the wrong questions in exit interviews. Rather than ask about why someone is leaving, ask why someone started looking for a new job. Why did they put themselves through resume’ updates, interviews and background checks for just a few more disposable dollars per year? It is with this line of questioning that you receive significantly different responses and ones that are more connected to the leadership within an organization.

With the “why were you looking” question, you will tend to hear more about how they were unappreciated by their boss, not connected to the group or never built a relationship with the leader. All of those point directly back to the personal connection of leadership and the impact it has on turnover.

The finance department does not have a turnover problem, it has a leadership problem. There is not a turnover issue in the Pawtucket branch, there is a leadership problem in that location.

Reasonable stability in employment will be a good measure of leadership quality within a working unit. There are some economic factors in play, especially with entry level team members, but this is largely about the leader.

There is an additional extrapolation in this topic. Good people want to work for good leadership. Conversely, poor team members will often tolerate poor leadership. Poor and difficult team members will struggle with good leadership because it challenges them and undermines their power over the working environment.

Morale and the Role of the Leader

Just as with turnover, the personal connection of leadership plays and important part of team morale. The marketing unit does not have a morale problem, there is a leadership failure in the marketing unit.

Just as children will follow the tone lead of their parents, team members will derive their queues for attitude and morale from the work leader. If the work leader is consistently upbeat and in good morale, the team will demonstrate the same. By contrast, if the leader is sullen, unresponsive, abrasive or hidden, that will suck the life out of the team.

The second leading question that we often ask in leadership training programs is if you can motivate someone else. About half to two-thirds of a typical group will respond in the affirmative while the remainder believes that motivation is an individual and personal function. The second group is correct but the example of how to be motivated is provided by the group’s leader. Motivation is personal but the role model is the leader. Motivation is personal but the spark to ignite motivation is often provided by the leader.

In the absence of a high quality, tone setting leader, other voices become stronger. The complainers set the tone. The whiners are the tone makers. The pot-stirrers become powerful. Team morale is not slightly dependent upon the leader, it is wholly dependent upon the leader.

Other Benefits of Tone Setting

In addition to the impact on morale and turnover, good tone setting has a powerful impact on customer service. When we treat our people well, they will treat our customers well. Conversely, when we are cold, distant and detached from our team, that attitude and approach will come across loud and clear to our customers. There is no coincidence that the best service providers often are organizations in which tone setting by leaders is practiced regularly and often.

Another finding that is closely related to morale and turnover is tone setting’s impact on stress. Most team members report that the stress level in a working environment is influenced, in large part, by the leader. When the leader is tense, stressed and chipping at people, the team will feel and embody that stress. When the leader is spirited, upbeat and friendly, the stress levels in the workplace are reduced.

Good tone setting leaders also find that their ability to influence and their sphere of influence becomes significantly greater. This is no accident or coincidence. People like being around someone that exudes a great tone and you will be more welcome and more invited to decision making and influence generating events. The converse is that leader that is often “worked around” in an organization because no one wants to be around their grim tone and demeanor.

The Mechanics of Tone Setting

Good tone setting requires a couple of basic behaviors and skills that are applied on a consistent basis. Some leaders utilize these skills on almost a naturalized level, while others must embrace the skills on a more mechanical level.

The first step of good tone setting is the initial greeting of team members. For most environments that is the “good morning” at the start of the work day. To pull this off correctly, the greeting must sound sincere, upbeat and not, on any level, forced. The great tone setters will also include some relational dialog about family, interests or just the drive to work.

One epiphany moment exists in the initial greeting of team members. Leaders have a significant choice at the start of each day. On one side they have their office or cubicle where all of their work lives. New email, yellow sticky notes, files and stuff. On the other side is the team. You know, the people who do the work so you can be the leader.

When a leader chooses to take a few minutes and go to the office prior to greeting team members, they are telling the team that, at best, they are secondary in importance. Don’t be naïve. Your team notices that choice.

Another great tone setting skill is to demonstrate interest in team members. One of the many tests that we often administer in leadership training is to quiz the depth of knowledge about team members. Most leaders can recite the family composition of team members. Some leaders can talk about the interests, passion points and motivations of team members and a few can provide insight into location of origin, pets or other details.

A leader’s ability to show interest is a powerful tool. When you are able to follow-up on a sick spouse, inquire about the results of a soccer tournament or check on vacation plans, team members feel connected, respected and valued. Those are the team members that will work harder, faster and stay with you longer.

Another weapon in successful tone setting is the ability to laugh and lighten the mood. We always do serious work but often take ourselves too seriously. When the leader laughs, especially when times are challenging and tough, the team will respond in a very positive manner. Tense people do not work well and are not very productive and that message of tense is set by the leader.

Optimistic and Upbeat

Remaining optimistic and upbeat is an important factor in good tone setting. The leader must review situations with optimism and remove all negative and defeating language. One of the many marveling points that I have seen is when the leader responds to a question by saying “what’s so good about it?” or “another day in paradise (dripping in sarcasm).” Those responses, as well as similar ones, are great indicators of the lack of optimism and spirit in the leader.

People do not want to follow someone who is miserable. They do not want to follow someone who has the same complaints and gripes as they have. People want to follow someone who offers solutions and hope to the challenges that the group faces. The leader’s job is to exude a demeanor of consistently optimistic and upbeat energy that can feed the team’s need. If you want to suck the life out of your team quickly, complain openly with them. Fail to offer silver linings and see the potential opportunities.

One great challenge to a leader is when a working situation affects them in an adverse way. A company is going through difficult financial times and cuts all management pay. These are often the defining type of times when a leader must fight off the urge to be downcast or a victim and embrace the overcoat of optimism (we can recover) and upbeat (I still have a job).


Building appropriate and genuine relationships with team members is also an important skills and competency for leaders. These relationships are built on establishing commonalities, listening effectively, providing respect and knowing a little bit about each team member. These relationships represent the core ingredient in loyalty and the desire for someone to push themselves working for you.

When building relationships with team members, remember to spend significantly more time in finding out who they are as compared to telling them who you are. To paraphrase Covey: seek first to understand and then seek understanding. Also be very in-tune with the clues that your team gives you. Look for pictures, bumper stickers or clothing themes that provide a hint about someone’s interests, passions or family composition. Largely, people enjoy talking about their family, their pets, where they are from and in what they are interested. Let them and use that information for future follow-up.

Being an effective leader does not require superhuman memory skills as much as it requires the desire to be interested and the desire to remember team member information. In the pre-proliferation-of-computers era, leaders made index cards that included some key information from relationship building as well as important dates such as work anniversary, promotion date and birthday. That information was reviewed periodically prior to interacting with team members. In the more modern world, many leaders note key information about team members in contact management software and databases for future reference.

One great dividing line of good leaders and a very challenging line for new supervisors is the difference between friendly and friends. Effective leaders bridge the pitfalls related to the appearance of favoritism, clouded judgment and poor perception by being friendly with all their employees but friends with none of them. This is an important distinguishing line that often requires the use of “no, I am sorry I can’t” when responding to an after work drink invitation.

Consistent and Fair

One of the challenges associated with tone setting is the need to be consistent and apply tone setting fairly and equitably. It is painfully easy to be upbeat, build relationships and greet those team members that have always been nice to us. For the team members that have been supportive, complimentary in 360 degree reviews and volunteer for more work, tone setting is a walk in the park. Just like talking with treasured friends and family.

Where many leaders find challenge is to provide the same amount of tone setting behaviors and skills to those team members that may be or may have been a little problematic. Those team members that question, challenge or irritate are a tough crowd and it is easy to justify why you would not tone set with them. After all, they are a bitter and nasty bunch.

Another challenge to consistency are the team members that rebuff tone setting. The ones that do not open up when trying to build a relationship or the ones that may even tell you “it is none of your business.” In reality, it is these two populations that need your tone setting more than any other. These people are screaming to be engaged by the leader. Here, your resilience will play a big part in continuing to reach out and try to build rapport.

Think about the impact of your eyes for a moment. Too frequently our eyes point out what is different about others and not what we may have in common. Look at the common little pockets of team members in a parking lot or break room and you will see that groups often form around age, gender or ethnicity. The effective leader has to ignore the messages of the eyes and reach out to all populations, regardless of difficulties, and build an excellent tone base with each of them.

Open, Available and Visible

The tone setting competencies of openness, availability and visibility incorporate communication tone, situational responses, timing and physical environment.

Openness describes your approachability as a leader. Are you open to questions, comments and ideas in a one to one environment? Are you dismissive or are you accommodating? Openness is also one of the core service qualities associated with effective leaders. Leaders with a genuine heart for service and care for their team will often be more open and approachable.

The first step in achieving openness is to carefully manage your response to requests for your time. This is much more about your tone you choose rather than the words you use. When interrupted, you need to insure that you do not sound hurried or aggravated. Although the interruption is not the most important thing going on with you, it is the most important thing going on with your team member. Be polite, appreciative of their time and control the urge to hustle them through a response. The hurried or huffing response is a complete openness killer.

Another dynamic of openness is the response to ideas and suggestions. It is extremely important not to be dismissive of any idea, no matter how unrealistic it might be to implement. Thank people for their idea, commit to think about it and encourage them to keep thinking and coming up with ideas. One surefire way to keep ideas from coming to you is to dismiss one in a patronizing manner. One more idea flow killer is to constantly reply in a justifying manner that includes responses that you are aware of it and that you are already working on it. That sends the message that you are all seeing, all knowing and on top of everything and there is no need to share future ideas or suggestions with you.

As a competency, availability is much more physical and logistical than it is attitudinal. Beginning with the work environment, availability is greatly hindered when your desk or workspace is setup in a way that puts your back towards people. Many of your team member will pass by and dismiss any interaction with you because you look busy. With you facing forward, many more people will stop and interact. The long term value of this is the flow of direct and accurate information to you will be much greater and your ability to evaluate the culture and tone for the environment will be much more accurate.

Availability is also about your approachability in informal settings. If you are only seen with a phone in your ear or responding to email on your PDA, your availability is hurt. Another behavior to avoid is the walking in packs syndrome that many manager types embrace. They stroll down the hall in a group of other managers. This will absolutely condemn any approachability from your team. Some of the best interactions and information gathering that you will achieve will be during hallway walks, break periods and other informal settings and you must insure that you appear available during those times.

Some people will misinterpret availability as an opportunity to micromanage. Being available and approachable is not your chance to tell people what to do as much as it is your chance to interact and aid them in finding the correct answers themselves. In another leadership commandment we talk about breeding and not breeding sheep. This will be an important tool set to remember when you improve your availability.

Michael Eisner, the former chairman of the Disney corporation, may have pioneered the programmed and systemic approach to visibility. He calendared a block of time each day to interact with a different area of his company. In some cases, he used more than an hour in this “management by wandering” style. The reason that he performed this ritual was to make sure he was connected to almost all team members in his organization, insure the culture that he visualized was being lived and to improve the accurate flow of information he needed to run the company. His visibility also demonstrated that he was connected to the line level of the operation and that he was in tune with the needs and challenges facing his team members.

No supervisor, manager or executive can lead their area via email or through a spreadsheet. You cannot hide in your office and expect your vision to be realized. You must be the highly visible symbol of everything that you want from your team. They must see you, see your caring and see your engagement for them to be engaged and caring. Over the years we have seen some very stark, and sometimes painful, examples of the difference between the impact of good visible leadership and those environments that only see the leader when something is wrong.

A cautionary note about visibility must be made about the difference between visibility and an inspection tour. Some leaders use the impetus of visibility to note and point out things that are wrong. There are plenty of chances and opportunities for inspections and quality control. When you are working on visibility, you are building relationships, setting the tone, getting to know your team and demonstrating support. After you launch down the path of an inspection tour, you will be amazed at how quickly people will hide from you on future tries to be visible.

From a programmed and systemic perspective, the best way to insure that your visibility remains high is to plan and calendar the activity. No different from any other appointment or calendar entry. Prioritized with the same urgency that you would give any other activity. Some managers, supervisors and leaders will struggle with visibility activities because they do not see it as a productive action. Remember, as a leader, your role is to insure the productivity of others and visibility is an ingredient to their production.

The Great Tone Setting Penalty

As many of you have already figured out, the most difficult challenge associated with all of the tone setting actions is being consistent. Being upbeat every day. Being optimistic, visible and approachable every day. Greeting team members every day. Showing interest, listening and being open every day.

This also leads us to one of the most significant penalties associated with leadership. You don’t get the luxury of having a bad day. We allow our team members to have bad days. We even compromise performance expectations when someone is struggling at home. You don’t get that. Not that you are immune to problems or even feeling ill, you just don’t get to share it with others or intimate you are struggling.

Many leader types come to work no matter what is going on at home or how poorly they feel. One of the most underutilized tools available to a leader is sick time. Compare for a moment the damage you cause by setting a poor tone compared with taking a single sick day to get yourself well. Contrast the poor morale you create when you could take a personal day to get your act together. Stop dragging yourself to work when the long term impact could be significantly bad.

Organizational Culture

The culture of any organization is hard to define but you can always feel it. You can feel it if it is a good culture. You can feel it if it is a bad culture. Culture is best described as a combination of the general tone and demeanor of the organization, the organization’s defined values and the personality of the organization’s leaders. Each of those three ingredients play an integral part in building and maintaining organizational culture.

Before we discuss your role in the culture equation, there are three common cultural drivers. Each organization uses combinations of these drivers to build their own culture. The most successful organizations recognize these drivers and manage driver influence on a regular basis.

The first and most important cultural driver is Customer Focus. As an influence, Customer Focus places great weight on the impact of all actions and decisions on the customer and builds all organizational structure around the needs of the customer. Some common traits of Customer Focus in organizations include decisions made at operational levels, team members that are recruited more for personality and communication skill rather than experience or education and a clearly defined mission that call attention to the importance of customers and customer service. You will also tend to see a close connection from a company’s leaders to the customer base and a frequent measurement of customer comments and service levels.

By far and away, those organizations that maintain a high level of Customer Focus as a primary driver will be the most successful and resilient organizations. From the perspective of ratios, the best run organizations will have at least a sixty percent Customer Focus as a cultural driver.

The second most prevalent cultural driver is Results Focus. This is found in an organization that is very driven by bottom line results or in performance metrics. It is also more common in publicly traded companies because of the pressure from investors and stockholders. Unfortunately, it is also found frequently in struggling organizations as they try to rebound financially or from a difficult economic period.

In Results Focused organizations almost all activities are equated to a return on investment and if that return is not short term or very positive, the activity is discarded. Results Focused organizations often operate with very high and quantified performance standards and move at a rapid pace. Environments with emphasis on sales or manufacturing are common examples of Results Focus. If not moderated, Results Focus can interfere with or override Customer Focus in an organization. Another common element of Results Focus in the great level of control related to costs, expenditures and investments. The higher control, the higher the Results Focus.

The third organizational cultural driver is Team Member Focus. Team Member Focus is the placement of high value on team member satisfaction, growth and comfort. These often become the employer of choice in many communities because they offer the best benefits, highest compensation, great flexibility in working time and many other perks.

The connection with this focus is that with happy team members, performance and customer service will come along for the ride. While generally true that Team Member Focus will connect with production and service levels, it can morph into a culture of convenience when team member needs and wants trump organizational effectiveness.

As baseline rules, the best organizational culture will be comprises of sixty percent Customer Focus, twenty percent Results Focus and twenty percent Team Member Focus. With that balance, the organization will tend to achieve the greatest combination of focus elements and associated results. As with any ratio, an increase in one focus will cause a decrease in another focus area.

Without the benefit of detailed assessments, surveys and observations, take a look at a couple of areas to determine your organization’s cultural drivers. What values are sought in hiring? Are the policies and procedures designed for customer convenience? Does the organization provide support for learning and growth of team members? Do routine purchases require high levels of approval? What is the scope and tone of senior management communication? With these questions, you can get a pretty clear picture of organizational cultural drivers and the ration in which they are in play.

Your Role in Organizational Culture

There are four primary functions that you, the leader, must play in reference to organizational culture. Your first role is to determine organizational culture and the impact of that culture on your sphere of influence within the organization. This is no easy task and you will occasionally receive mixed messages on culture. Some people around you and above you will walk the talk while others balk at it. You will have to gauge key objectives, vision, mission, core values and the tone of leaders to determine the culture.

When the culture is built on solid ground and clearly defined, your second role related to culture is relatively easy. Simply support it and build upon the strengths found in the organization’s culture. The one challenge point in this area will be your ability to subordinate some of the strong feelings that you have related to how things “should be” with how thing actually “are.” Your support of the organizational culture is critical to how your team will respond within the culture and your overall leadership message of support and oneness.

When an organization’s culture is a little fuzzy or you are unable to reconcile what the culture really is all about, you will need to provide some fine tuning for your team. This requires you to find the strongest and most positive messages within the culture and constantly reinforce those messages. It will also require you to quash the messages that are counterproductive or not helpful to the organization and redirect team members to the strong and positive points of the organization’s culture.

The final role that you may have to play related to organizational culture is that of definer. You may be the one that establishes values, connects to the vision and provides clear messages related to the organization. Many new, emerging and growing organizations lack an organizational culture and leaders, at all levels, must work to define that culture and produce the environment that cultural drivers have the correct balance. This is also seen when there is a change in senior leadership and the previous keepers of organizational culture are replaced. When in the role of definer it is important to see the needs of team members, customers and all stakeholders and to determine what cultural elements will produce the highest degrees of success for all.


Tim Schneider is the President and founder of Soaring Eagle Enterprises, Inc. His mission, as well as that of his company, has always been "Committed Only to Your Success." Over the past fifteen years, Mr. Schneider has become one of the most sought after speakers, instructors and professional facilitators in the nation. Renowned for both his style and the content of his messages, Tim delivers powerful messages about customer service, team work, leadership, communication and personal s...

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