Teaching and Tolerance

What we see in the world — in business, in athletic competition, in our schools, in our streets and in our personal lives — is either what’s being taught or what’s being tolerated.

Positively, it might be going the extra mile for customers and clients, offering added value and establishing meaningful relationships through business encounters.

Negatively, it might be as minor as employees consistently showing up a few minutes late for work each day or as devastating as people rioting and looting with impunity. 

All of it is being taught or tolerated.

We all want to teach best practices — excellent customer service, strong client relations, smart business practices — and a lot of that is done formally. It involves instruction. There’s a face-to-face encounter where expectations are laid out and explained. The recipient acknowledges understanding, and everyone moves forward with clear direction and purpose.

What’s harder to manage is the stuff being taught indirectly, through example.

Teaching comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s formal, like in a classroom setting or with a certification process. Other times it’s informal. Teaching by example or telling someone to “do what I do” is informal teaching, and it takes place in every business even if those words are never spoken aloud. Employees all watch their bosses and copy their attitudes and behaviors, especially if there’s no formal teaching to send a clear message.

Every parent, coach and employer teaches through example whether he wants to or not. For our purposes here, let’s call these parents, coaches and employers “leaders.” If a leader says, “do what I say, not what I do,” he or she is sending a mixed message. And if the leader’s actions contradict his or her words, you can just about guarantee that the wrong message will be the one’s that’s received. After all, actions speak louder than words. It’s critical that leaders unify their messages and teaching.

If performance was entirely based on deliberate teaching, the world would be a better place, and our lives would be easier. Unfortunately, the other side of the performance coin is tolerance, and it’s apparently much harder to manage or correct.

To be clear, we’re not talking about “tolerance” as a virtue (e.g., religious tolerance), but “tolerance” as a vice (e.g., enduring dangerous or destructive behavior).

If a leader is doing a good job of teaching and still getting bad results, the reason is usually simple: he or she is tolerating bad performance. This is true whether the leader is a parent (“I can’t get my kid to study!”), an employer (“I don’t know why that employee won’t show up for his shift on time!”) or a civic leader.

Ultimately, it’s about accountability and ownership. We need to realize that what we get out of life or business is nearly always directly related to what we put in. If we each look into our own little corner of the great big world, we need to be honest about what we see. We need to think critically about what is happening. We need to identify the good and the bad. And we need to determine whether the things we see have been taught or merely tolerated.

None of us has an excuse to teach anything less than excellence. But since deliberate teaching is not everything, we must also look carefully at what’s being tolerated and work to correct what’s wrong.