How Can We Be Better Leaders?

Ordinary organizations are built on the work of people who don’t get paid very much, don’t receive sufficient respect and are understandably wary of the promises they’ve been hearing for years. Why is it surprising to bosses, then, that some workers respond to this arrangement by doing as little work as possible? Yet some employers abide by the notion that employees are distrustful and are so used to being overworked, in response, these leaders start implementing tests, measurements and demerits. It seems counter-intuitive to take a risk and trust your employees to lead. Similar to how we assume most kids only want to do the bare minimum in school, we conveniently conclude that only an insignificant amount of kids have the desire to actually learn.

It is the struggle between “these people are dishonourable.” versus “these people can be dishonourable, but will not.”

Too often, though, the pessimistic (yet strangely portrayed as objective) leader sees an action obscured as distrust which undermines all good intent. Soon, the leader loses patience and reverts to the test-and-measure, trust-no-one, scientific-management tradition of dehumanizing the very humans who make the whole project work. But the truth is: we all want to do a good job. We want to be proud of our work. We appreciate being engaged. We thrive when we have some measure of control over our day.

Imagine you’re a delivery driver, and you have to meet a quota of 20 deliveries a day. You rush from the first moment to the next. By any form of tangible measurable metric, you are incredibly efficient. Chances are, you will cut a few corners here and there with the end goal in mind. Now imagine the same scenario again, but this time you downsize the quota from 20 to 15 deliveries a day. Instead, you are tasked to spend your ‘down’ time doing things your customers will actually remember you and the brand for. Be it writing a personalised note or going out of the way to get an extra bouquet of flowers for a special occasion, you pay more care and attention in what you do. Overall, that buffer will earn both your employees’ and customers’ trust. It can only happen when you allow yourself to trust.

The mistake occurs when we over-index on the easily measured short-term wins and forget to account for the costs of system failure. Sometimes all it takes is for one grumpy pre-caffeinated middle-aged man to be served with speed, but not grace.

I believe we need to introduce civility. It isn’t about table manners, but creating a safe environment for everyone to speak in. It is possible to develop a workplace where things actually work, where meetings don’t paralyze progress and where decisions are not made in short term urgency to declare martial law and abandon the principles that built the organization in the first place. The obvious challenge is freedom. It is less about the freedom for employees to plan their days and projects, but more about the freedom for employees to be accountable in trying out new things, to go all the way out to the edge and to be held responsible for launching things that may or may not work.

However, the real challenge is recognizing that not everyone embraces freedom.

Some people want safety and respect. They want to know what the work rules are. They want a guarantee that the effort required is both predictable and rewarded. They seek an environment where they won’t feel pushed around, surprised or taken advantage of. On the other hand, some people want challenge and autonomy. They want the opportunity to grow and inspire the people around them. They seek both organizational and personal challenges by solving interesting problems.

Do we know what exactly are our employees seeking at work?

It is one thing to be uninformed, and another to be ignorant. Uninformed is a temporary condition, and it can be fixed more easily than ever. But ignorant is the dangerous situation where someone making a decision doesn’t care about his or her lack of knowledge. Commonly misused to describe someone who disagrees with us, being ignorant, also known as the intentional act of not-knowing, comes with a high price. If you continue to build aisles of the store so narrow that shoppers cannot browse without getting their butts brushed by other shoppers, no matter how awesome your products may be, your company will go down one day. Similarly, if you continue to ignore the fact that you’re not bringing generosity and vulnerability to the table, no matter how awesome your products may be, your employees will never work as hard as you. Simply put, an enlightened leadership creates a safe space for everyone, including the leader, to improve and deliver. Surprise surprise, there is also a need to hone the ability to lead.

There is a fine line between fishing and doing nothing. We would like to think that we’re fishing, but the truth is we don’t have the line.