By Dave Crisp
As mentioned in the last week's review of David K. Hurst’s new book, The New Ecology of Leadership, Mary Kay Follett wrote, nearly 100 years ago, about many of the issues we struggle with today.
Hurst quotes her: “Leaders think they can substitute new ideas for old before they have changed the action tendencies, habit systems, of people. As this cannot be done, revolution after revolution fails. The first thing a normal class of (leaders) should be taught is that behavior must be changed through experience, that it cannot be changed through the impact of ideas.”
Ideas, of course, are fast and easy to fire out on a moment’s notice. And the one thing many companies are loath to afford their people is time. Time to think, to test, to learn, to apply. “Just do it,” as Nike insists.
This is a message few leaders seem to have learned in 100 years. Applying it could save us untold hours of wasted effort and vastly improve results. Having served in an organization that sent out a new strategy from head office nearly every month, I can attest to this absolute truth. People at least need considerable time to digest, see leaders actually model the behavior that’s been ordered, decide to act, muddle through mistakes in implementation and finally develop some skill of their own... if they decide to act on new ideas at all.
It’s far better for managers to be in the fray helping teams actually evolve strategy, building toward better skills with the skills they have. Dishing out orders doesn’t work well, easy as it may seem.
This is ironic, of course, since all of us trade in promoting ideas about what everyone else, including leaders, should do. At least I can claim, as Hurst can, to have spent quite a few years on the firing line guiding experiences for myself and others that, I hope, actually did change ideas by first establishing new habits.
But now? Yes, I’m primarily an ideas person. My defense is my hope that some of what I mention gets tried so people experience for themselves results they can incorporate into their own management of others. At least I’m not ordering anyone to do it.
Increasingly over the years we’ve recognized, and now most of us have experienced, the growing complexity and resulting greater demands of organization work. A report from Corporate Executive Board highlights how a much larger sample of workers, when asked the same questions in 2002 and again in 2012, say they don’t have sufficient time to do their work.
The increase from 32 per cent to 55 per cent in that decade is distinct. Of course, some will always say they don't have time, and never have, but in apples to apples when you push the numbers to more than one-half as a result of growing complexity of collaborating with many more people over wider geography and more matrixed organizations, you have to conclude something needs to change to help people cope. Floundering in overwork is a sure recipe for lower success levels.
We desperately need practical models of how to reduce work yet improve results. Helpful headlines accumulate every day, whether followed widely or not: “Want to change the world? Try taking care of yourself” or "Are you too stressed for success?" are among many that contrast with tales like the 2009/2012 ebook Inside the Giant Machine by S. Kalpanik et al. It reveals one stark instance of the awful work overload and brutal management style common at all too many companies, even highly successful ones with money that makes such stress unnecessary — in this case Amazon during his years there.
Signs that people actually model the needed behaviors are encouraging. The Young Professional's Guide to Managing, a new book by Aaron McDaniel — who reached vice-president early at a Fortune 100 company — recommends 10 skills young managers need.
All 10 deal with people: managing talent, culture, buy-in, empowerment, development of team/people, recognition (not just money), and doing these with multiple generations in the workplace. Only at the last does he actually headline results — "driving results," and then adds "through others."
The problem is we know it takes a lot of drive to succeed at things. Sometimes that means exceeding what appear to be human limits... for a period of time, though it’s not clear how long anyone can stand it. Inevitably we all need rest breaks from such overwork. In the early 1900s (Mary Parker Follett’s time), laws were introduced to prevent overwork of rank and file staff. Today those are taken for granted, but we’ve found lots of ways around them by classifying people as exempt... managers, even temps.
It will never be as easy to put limits on what people want to do more or less voluntarily to get promoted or earn more money, the recent reports of gross overwork of unpaid interns — with one even working himself to death — certainly indicate things are not fixing themselves. That’s what we need leaders to recognize: They can’t stand back and let people voluntarily overwork without ultimately hurting results.
If leaders truly spent time closer to the front lines, immersed in the "context" (to use Hurst’s key word), it’s hard to believe they would continue driving people beyond their capacities — a practice that destroys ability to be creative and innovative when pushed too far, key requirements from everyone.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
This isn’t new, but clearly forgotten since the dawning days of management by the numbers, from on high, for the benefit of owners and CEOs first and above anyone else. Can we hope our up and coming leaders will recognize the weak returns of the older approach?