ARE YOU PEOPLE SMART ENOUGH?
Often, it’s attitudes, not attributes, that shape team dynamics and results
Success is usually thought to be built on a combination of personal attributes such as intelligence, technical knowledge, street smarts, hard-won experience (built on failures from pushing too hard), guts and tenacity. Universities offer a vast array of academic knowledge, information, insights, concepts, theories, technology and debate. Company education is usually focused on producing detailed knowledge about products and processes, including the ability to navigate the organizational labyrinth.
Tick the boxes on all of these and you are set for a rapid climb up the corporate ladder. Once the organization recognizes your talent, however, it will start to expect leverage from your personal abilities. Leverage means not just what you can individually contribute, but your capacity to get contributions from others placed in your charge. As the old saw goes: “All of our troubles in life walk on two legs and talk back.” Welcome to management!
And yet, even if you are a powerhouse, a total workaholic, pounding out 100 hours every week, your five staff members working 40 hours a week are doing twice as much as you are. [By the way, if you are putting in 100 hours a week, we need to talk!]
In your promotion to management, you were recognized for your personal qualities, which quite frankly, you are depressed to discover are not universal within your team. Armed with this knowledge, you might become a Theory X manager, who sees the glass as very much half empty. You become a legend at finding faults and shortcomings within your team. You perceive them as useless. They can’t be trusted, they are lazy, they make mistakes all the time, they don’t take responsibility and they lack the required commitment.
Or you might become a Theory Y manager, who sees the glass as half full. As a Theory Y manager, you see your people as decent, capable, honest, doing their best and wanting to succeed.
Douglas McGregor, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, developed the Theory X and Theory Y models of workplace motivation, which conclude that the way you see your team influences what the team becomes, i.e. it’s attitudes, not attributes, that matter most. Uh oh!
This means we really have to be more careful about our own attitude than worried about our staff members’ attitudes. We should be walking around looking for the ten things people are doing well rather than the one thing they are not doing well. Leveraging strengths is more effective than trying to minimize weaknesses.
“Gotcha,” however, is a popular pursuit for bosses. They really enjoy finding fault and spending their time whining into their beers about what a pitiful deck they have been dealt back at the office. Could they themselves be part of the problem? Impossible, they believe. Why, they are in this position of leadership, accountability and responsibility because they are superior! If this is you, by the way, get ready for 100-hour work weeks. You will have no leverage and will have to do all the work. Delegation will be but a distant dream.
Here is a simple hint for how to look for the good. When wandering around, tell your team the things you think they are doing well, and ask them what they think they could do better. Here’s another idea. Make your team members happy about doing the things you suggest. Sounds simple, but how does that actually work?
Normally people think they are busy enough already, thank you very much, or they are deep in their comfort zones with the way things are done at the moment. Long live the status quo. Usually the boss’s suggestion means more work or doing things differently – and neither are particularly attractive for the average employee.
So how do we get people to engage? Instead of giving orders we can ask questions. The self-discovery process that results when employees look for answers leads to greater ownership and commitment to the execution of the task.
We can break tasks down to smaller pieces (“Eating the elephant one bite at a time.”) and remember to “praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement” (Dale Carnegie Principle #27). It’s all very well to wait until the completion of a task to tell people they did a good job, but what effect might we have on the outcome if we recognize and appreciate their efforts from the start?
We can follow Theory Y and assume our people are competent, serious and capable, and treat them and communicate with them accordingly (Dale Carnegie Principle #28). Given raised expectations, many people will rise to meet them.
We can also acknowledge our own mistakes before criticizing others. If we reflect that we are asking people to step out of their comfort zones to do new things or do things in new ways, how smart is it to whack them whenever they make mistakes? There are always going to be differences in performance between doing something well-practiced and doing something new. That is the messy process of innovation.
We are all the embodiment of our own mistakes. We have all gained our work and life experience by having been able to discern what works and what doesn’t, mainly by finding out the hard way. We have to appreciate that our own teams can’t be expected to be perfect at the beginning. Shock, horror—they will be just like we were at their level or stage! So we should share the mistakes we have made to show that we understand the learning process, and are committed to improving as a team. We can then plumb the depths of what was good and explore what we need to do better.
And actually, how we handle mistakes is a keenly watched spectator activity. We are all expert “boss watchers”. We can discern the slightest nuance in tone, body language, mood and energy. Public hangings were a popular pastime once, but we have moved on. Some managers missed that email – publicly humiliating staff members over shortcomings is guaranteed to kill their engagement, as well as that of their colleagues. These “hangman” managers are usually Theory X types who have become expert fault finders rather than “good finders”. They forget everyone is watching!
Once upon a time, the idea was “praise in public, punish in private”. But to complicate things, not everyone appreciates being praised publicly. This is especially the case here in Japan, where everyone learns early that ”the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. Nothing like a gushing boss, telling the team how great you are, to make you stick out. Japanese employees have learned that this breeds jealousy, complaining behind your back and possibly retribution, all of which are best avoided. A client brought in our training, and one of the younger guys got with it and really started to perform. Two of his senpai took him out the back and gave him a belting because he was making them look bad. Urban myth? No it happened, a good reminder that we all should take a good look at our own behavior and possible consequences!
Bosses need to be smarter – adopting a “one size fits all” approach to any aspect of business is likely to limit upside, and can very likely have negative consequences as well. In motivating employees, it’s worth considering that some want public recognition and others want to hide – the boss’s job is to recognize who wants what and to deliver that (where appropriate). If I were to suddenly ask you about what motivates your staff members, would you know the answers? If not, maybe it’s time to get to know your people better!
Being smart is not enough. We have to be “people smart” and that is a learned skill available to all, regardless of rank or stage. Congratulations on becoming smarter!