Recently I conducted a performance development workshop with the senior leadership team of a local company when mid-exercise one of the managers said something that made everyone in the room laugh out loud. Mostly thinking to himself he sputtered: “but how do you make people log in and do this?!”
To be clear, the topic at hand was to the benefit of all employees: the company wants to support a culture of continuous feedback and move away from traditional performance management practices, but it’s 2017 so there’s technology involved and people do need to log in to get value out of the system.
The way he said it was brilliant though, and so was his timing, because everyone else around the table was giggling (and thinking the same). These leaders instinctively knew that the project was a good thing, but feared that employees might not immediately see it the same way. Plus, they clearly did not want to “boss people around.”
Like A Boss
Despite decades of great books and education on leadership, a manager is still a “boss” in our society. Unless you’re a parent however, you can’t really boss anyone around to do a lot of things for a long time and even then the strategy apparently does not come recommended (Woller, Buboltz, & Loveland, 2007).
This is because being the boss is about hierarchical position. Collaborating with and inspiring others to produce long-term results takes a leader that doesn’t rely on position alone, as Mr. Trump is currently experiencing. Of course there is nothing wrong with having a title, but it’s only a starting point (Maxwell, 2011).
While the leaders from our story, like many in today’s knowledge economy, intuitively understood that bossing people around is a poor strategy (or at least frowned upon), they struggled to connect the dots beyond position. It’s a gaping management wound, but one that can fortunately be fixed with a Band-Aid of sorts: a relentless focus on purpose.
Purpose, Vision, The Why
Simon Sinek (2011) wrote: “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Although I wholeheartedly agree and it nicely rhymes with the position vs purpose narrative I am putting forward, it reads like you need to be Steve Jobs or MLK to move people to take action.
The simple truth however, is that purpose is often overlooked on the project and action level, which covers 90% of the daily lives of most knowledge workers. Purpose is not just for CEOs, gurus, and life coaches. It’s critical in every (professional) moment and especially in times of collaboration or when things need to happen fast.
Ironically, forgetting “the why” slows business down: meetings last for hours, projects stall, and e-mails read like Harry Potter books. Even more, employees disengage faster than one can unsubscribe from a cringeworthy marketing email and it’s not even their fault. “How do you make them log in?” Why would they? Start there.
Develop The Reflex
That feeling of having to boss people around happens when one forgets about purpose, so develop a “why?” reflex. Whenever you or someone else tries to move a meeting, a project, a conversation thread, etc., ahead without everyone being aligned as to why, stop the circus and think, ask, and talk about purpose first.
I’m not saying purpose is a cure-all, but I see too many managers skip this step and make their lives more difficult than they need to be. I’m also not saying that some people don’t possess more natural leadership ability, but everyone can develop the reflex and positively affect their environment.
Meetings will end sooner, e-mails will be action-oriented, and employees will be challenging leaders and come up with their own ideas in line with the purpose instead of fighting “bosses” on the method. Breaking purpose down into objectives, KPIs, performance drivers etc. is important, but that will all go easier once purpose is clear.
Woller, K. M., Buboltz, W. C., & Loveland, J. M. (2007). Psychological reactance: examination across age, ethnicity, and gender. American journal of Psychology, 170, 15-24.
Maxwell, J. C. (2011). The 5 Levels of Leadership. New York: Center Street.
Sinek, S. (2011). Start With Why. London: Penguin Books Ltd.