In my many interactions with business owners and senior managers over the years I would maintain that the single greatest challenge facing most of us tasked with the oversight of a business or organization is leadership and specifically, our understanding how to motivate our people. Getting them to do the things we want done, how we want them done and when we want them done is always a challenge. Most of us hate this part of our role as leaders and are very creative in finding ways to avoid it. Of course this might be why morale and retention are such major issues in the American workplace and why turnover and job dissatisfaction are at all time highs. I am strongly of the opinion that people can amaze and astound you with what they can accomplish, but this never happens by accident and never happens in an environment where we are discouraging innovation and where we withhold our trust. Expecting our people to soar when we dissuade them from spreading their wings seems like an expectation just waiting to go unfulfilled. People, our staff in other words, can take us anywhere we choose to go but only if we encourage them to push the limits, only if we promote initiative and only in an environment of trust.
One of the most common complaints I hear from business owners and from senior managers is that our people have no initiative and have to be constantly pushed and prodded to do the things we ask. Initiative is one of those incredible behaviors that we just never get enough of but it is also one of those things that has to be nurtured so when I hear a business owner or senior manager within an organization complain about a lack of initiative from his or her staff members, I immediately want to understand why this is the case and what are we doing as leaders to cause it. As leaders we are entirely responsible for the work environment and if our staff members are unwilling to go that extra mile and unwilling to challenge convention and reach a rung or two higher, then we as leaders have done or said something (much more than once) to discourage this most desirable of human behaviors. Only people who are confident and who have been encouraged will expose themselves by pushing beyond our expectations or by suggesting a better path. If the majority of our staff is unwilling to take that leap, then we as leaders have failed.
As leaders, tasked with delivering the broad expectations of the organization, it is certainly reasonable for us to approach our job, our every effort, with a sense of urgency. Very literally, we are responsible for each task, every procedure and all efforts that make up our areas of responsibility. The pressure that comes with this accountability is significant. Trusting others to complete these tasks is a frightening prospect for many of us but the impracticality of our doing everything ourselves requires and in fact demands that we bite that operational bullet and delegate effectively. This is the very essence of leadership; our moving the masses toward the accomplishment of our goals and hopefully beyond. To whatever degree we are able to do this will determine our effectiveness and success as a leader.
Human beings are a challenge. They are unpredictable, they suffer mood swings and it is difficult knowing what you will get from individual to individual, from day to day. They are tough to understand and with so much on the line in our own efforts, it is difficult to trust them to do the things you ask them to do. As difficult as it might seem, trusting in your people is exactly what I am going to ask you to do.
That initiative we had talked about earlier is an indication of confidence and I can promise you that if you have not created an environment of trust and empowerment, your people are not going to think about showing much initiative. It is never about you actually coming out and saying you don’t trust your people but your micromanaging them and monitoring their every action, step and inclination will communicate that lack of trust just as surely as you bellowing it at your people at a weekly staff meeting. People who feel under a microscope never feel trusted, never feel confident, and as a very direct result, rarely show initiative. A lack of initiative is a sure sign of a leadership structure that is stifling, repressive, hostile, and untrusting or any combination of these. A work environment that is lacking in trust is one that will always underachieve, always suffer turnover, and one that is dysfunctional at the top. The saddest aspect in this is that many of us will defend our position and our lack of trust by blaming our staff members. “They just don’t get it” or “This is so important that I just can’t trust them to deliver the results I am looking for”. No matter how you wrap that, it is wrong and like a coach blaming his team for the loss, you are blaming your people for your failure as a leader. Your micromanagement is destructive to your team and denies your team members the growth that comes with ownership and success. If your people are lacking the skills to succeed, then I would suggest that you train them but denying them the opportunity to grow and improve and get in the game is a sure-fire way to develop a culture of underachievement, low morale and lack of initiative. Unfortunately, some will fail, but when appropriately trained and armed with our reasonable expectations, most will succeed and strive to exceed our expectations. Showing faith in our people (even if we don’t really feel it) is a great way of showing confidence in them and encouraging their very best effort in every undertaking.
I recall a situation in a large organization I was working with, where the senior manager was blessed with a highly experienced and capable staff. This particular manager came from an unrelated field and I am guessing as a result, felt insecure in his ability to properly manage the areas with which he was tasked. His approach was to question, double check and re-verify the minutia of the things his staff did on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. It is certainly commendable for any manager to approach their areas of responsibility with a sense of urgency but in this case the manager’s insecurity and intense attention to the details was perceived as a lack of trust. Senior staff, with from ten to fifteen years on the job, are not used to being audited and double checked on a daily basis and the actions of this manager took a highly motivated and capable team and turned them into a defensive rabble, more concerned with their own ‘i’s’ being dotted and their own “t’s” being crossed than with the broad organizational priorities and goals as well as being more concerned about making mistakes than with innovation or initiative. Trust is a very powerful thing that gives our people the confidence to move forward and to grow. A lack of trust makes most of us unconcerned with what is going on in the next cubicle and wondering about what we have done wrong.
Leading is tough, there is no doubt about that, but in any business, in any organization there is nothing more powerful, nothing more cost effective or reliable than motivated, appropriately trained staff, who are well led and encouraged toward success.
Leaders lead with a stubborn insistence toward accomplishment and an undying faith in their people. You can trust me on that.
About the author:
Brian Canning is a regular contributor to weLEAD and a business analyst working in the federal sector. For the past thirty years he has worked in the automotive repair industry, most recently as a leadership and management coach with the Automotive Training Institute in Savage, Maryland. After serving as a tank commander with the 1st Armored Division in Europe, he started his career as a Goodyear service manager in suburban Washington D.C., moving on to oversee several stores and later a sales region. He also has been a retail sales manager for a large auto parts distributor, run a large fleet operation and headed a large multi-state sales territory for an independent manufacturer of auto parts. His passions are history, leadership and writing.
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