Leaders of organizations are constantly challenged to find ways to be more productive, more efficient and to increase the bottom line. Leaders expect a lot from their employees, and often push them hard to achieve the desired results. For some, when the results don’t match the goals, they fail to look in the mirror; instead blaming their failures and shortcomings on their people.
It’s a bit surprising to me. 48 years into my own journey of leadership, it seems I’m only beginning to see the potential of connecting more deeply and successfully with “my” people. Most of the barriers I can see today aren’t caused by my people at all; they are obstacles that I still need to overcome inside of me. My preferences, my biases, and my reactions are often what keep me from seeing and pursuing something much greater, more profitable and more satisfying.
5 steps to growth
How do leaders get out of the trap of believing that our people are the problem? I propose five steps:
1. Becoming self-aware. Blaming others is not your ally, and it certainly doesn’t advance your greatest potential as a leader. Being present in the moment when communicating with others and putting yourself in their shoes will go a long way in gaining their respect.
2. Allow for personal growth. Having an “Aha” moment is a good start, but expanding this insight by learning new ways to think, speak and act will establish your credibility as a leader.
3. Lead by example. Taking your newfound self-awareness and practicing it over time will improve your ability to become a better leader.
4. Gain momentum. Managing by example leads to impact and creates greater relationships that produce greater results. Consistency yields credibility.
5. Repeat. My years of experience have taught me that to continue your journey of growth, you will need to repeat this process over and over again.
When I propose that your people are not the problem, I’m not suggesting they are perfect. But neither are we leaders. Giving employees the resources they need to perform, the encouragement they need when they struggle and the praise they deserve when they succeed, will help them to feel valued and help you to maximize their productivity.
Leader doesn’t have to be the focal point
I think I'm starting to get a glimpse of something bigger. Maybe it isn’t just about the numbers. Maybe it isn’t about people always rallying around my goals and visions. Maybe I’m not intended to be the center of the universe of which my business revolves. Perhaps it is more about something that transcends the things we have focused on for all these years.
In my 30s, I remember meeting Zig Ziglar, the legendary sales trainer. Zig was known for his catchphrase, “You can have everything you want, as long as you help enough other people get what they want.” The sentiment was nice, even if somewhat simplistic. I remember thinking, “I don’t even know what I want!” But that encounter really got me to think.
Beyond the predictable wishes most people have for financial stability, nice vacations and good health, I think people want to feel as if their work is meaningful and that their efforts are serving some sort of greater good. As a leader, it needs to be my focal point to help my people get the things that are most important to them.
A deeper possibility
When we start thinking “if only my people would…”, it may be wiser to challenge ourselves as leaders instead. Maybe people aren’t our problem at all. Looking at it from a completely different perspective, maybe they are the catalyst for our own journey of growth and fulfillment. Maybe they are there to help us find our way just as we leaders help them to find theirs.
When it comes to growing as leaders, can we suspend judgment around our own ideas about our businesses and discover new ways of thinking by listening - really listening deeply - to their ideas, their frustrations, or their concerns? Is it possible that there is a greater benefit to be gained by understanding what matters most to them and why?
There is so much I still need to learn. I know this because I have internal conflict between what I know is true and how I interact with those truths. I know that we need people who can respond immediately to challenges and others who will be more deliberate and careful in their response. I know that we need people who are naturally skeptical and will insist on facts or well-tested logic before giving their commitment to a big idea.
Of course, we also need people who get on board early, even when they don’t have the facts or a detailed plan. We need people who are change agents, but we also need folks who put the brakes on change until it makes sense to them and they can see a clear pathway to success. We need people who follow the rules and we need folks who challenge or, sometimes even ignore the rules. I know all of these things intellectually, but it is still hard to let them inform and guide my thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.
I have learned that we need folks with a variety of motivations for their work. We need those who are intellectual as well as those who are instinctive in their pursuit of knowledge. When it comes to ways of getting things done, we need those who are resourceful as well as those who are selfless. We need the objective and harmonious thinkers relating to their surroundings. When it comes to others, we need those who are intentionally driven and those who are altruistic.
We need both the collaborative and the commanding in their relationship to power. We benefit from those who think from a structured perspective as well as those receptive to new things when it comes to methods and systems. While I know the importance of incorporating all of these varied ways to approach a situation, my own motivations still dominate my thinking and often cloud my ability to see the value in what motivates others.
I have learned that we all have biases. We view some people, things or ideas, as better than they really are, or we may view them as worse than they are. These biases, when we understand them deeply, help us to see more clearly and discover pathways that were always there but may still be invisible to us as leaders.
It occurs to me that “my people” offer me exactly what I need to succeed; intersections of styles, driving forces, acumen capacities and emotional intelligence that can broaden my awareness and open up new pathways to success and happiness. Clearly, when I view people for all they do to enrich my life and lives of others, and the potential they have to create groundbreaking new ideas and methods, it becomes quite obvious that people are certainly not your problem, they are your solution.