An Impromptu Leadership Lesson

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Recently, I was approached by an acquaintance who is a manager in his workplace. He was having problems with his team members and their lack of engagement and enthusiasm. Although it wasn’t planned, the conversation turned into a leadership lesson. It went something like this.

MANAGER: I am so frustrated. I just heard one of my employees say, “That decision is above my pay grade.”

ME: Why is that so frustrating to you?

MANAGER: Well, to me it’s just another way of saying “that’s not my job.” It shows no ownership or desire to take responsibility.

ME: So, you see it as a lack of initiative, a lack of commitment, is that what I am hearing?

MANAGER: Yes, exactly. And it’s damned frustrating because I think people should step up when necessary.

ME: Why do you think he’s demonstrating this?

MANAGER: He’s probably gotten jaded or bored or just not that great of an employee.

ME: Is it possible that it’s not all him and that some other things may have contributed to it?

MANAGER: What do you mean?

ME: Well, do you let people take initiative? Do you let them make decisions?

MANAGER: Of course I let people make decisions. They just have to run them by me first. Then I tell them whether it will work or not. If I think it’s going to be a problem, I tell them what to do. It’s pretty straightforward management stuff.

ME: How do you think what you just described might have planted the seed for this commitment and initiative problem?

MANAGER: I’m not sure. I mean, I told you that I let them make some decisions, I’m not a dictator, I leave my door open.

ME: Can I share an observation?

MANAGER: Sure, go right ahead.

ME: Well, it sounds to me like you have created an environment where your employees can’t actually make decisions because you have to be part of all of them. For them, it’s a bit like being a kid with a hovering parent who won’t let them do anything on their own, they just want to go away so they can spread their wings. I don’t want to sound too presumptuous but I can only imagine Fridays here are like the last day of school and Mondays are like the first day in jail.

MANAGER: Okay, wait a minute. I’m a manager, I manage, that’s my job, and I can’t just let them make decisions and do things without putting my stamp on it, it would be chaos. Oh, and of course Fridays are happier, aren’t they everywhere? I mean, you’ve got a couple of days off coming.

ME: Yeah, you’re right, everybody looks forward to the weekend but we can make the workplace better so that the week is fulfilling too.

Now, as far as being a manager, manager is a title and everything a manager does isn’t about managing, especially when it comes to people. You see, management is about control and while there are many things in the workplace that need controlling, like schedules, budgets, systems, processes, etc., things change drastically when we talk about people. You can’t control people. Try as you might, people can think and decide to do things differently no matter how much you tell them what you want. People have tried very hard over thousands of years to control people and they just can’t do it. Some people would rather die than be controlled, literally, look at the history books. What people need is leadership, and leadership requires influence, inspiration, and guidance not monitoring and telling them what to do.

MANAGER: Oh, here we go, a leadership lesson.

ME: Yes it is, but I asked and you said yes. Besides, what harm can it do to try a different approach?

MANAGER: Okay, I get that. What should I do?

ME: It’s just a minor adjustment, I am going to suggest something small but something that could make a big difference. First, when a problem comes up, instead of giving your employees your view, start by asking them what they think is causing it. Get their opinions and observations. I mean, they’re the ones out there fighting the fires, they know best why things are the way they are. Next, ask them what they think would fix it. Get their ideas and if they have good ones, sing their praises and tell them to get on with it. If they have a bad idea that might cause problems, point it out, just do it as a question like, “How do you think that might impact ‘blank’?” You can fill in the blank with customers or a system or whatever you think might be negatively impacted. If they don’t see the connection or are not getting it, ask them if you can share your thinking. The point here is that, as much as possible, you want to get them to think and see the bigger picture not just wait for you to jump in every time something comes up.

You see, your job as a manager isn’t so much about telling people what to do, it’s really about leading them by helping them think and do for themselves. Just think about it, if all of your team members could think and do more themselves without you, you could spend more time on all of the other things you have to do. And, they would be more productive and more engaged. They might just start coming to work because they want to not just because they have to.

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