It is 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning and Jim’s alarm rings. He can’t believe it. Already? Fortunately, he has another alarm set for 6:50 a.m., so he silences his phone and tries to sleep some more. But of course, he can’t fall back asleep. Another work week is ahead of him. The same old subordinates who just don’t get it, and the same old boss who has unrealistic expectations. Gosh! Why does it have to be this way, he thinks. He finally gives up his attempts to catch another snooze and reluctantly rolls out of bed.
Sounds familiar? You’ve probably either been there yourself or know someone in this state. Going to work becomes a lifeless exercise – a necessary evil. What are the chances that managers and employees in this state of existence can cope with the demands of today’s hyper-connected era where speed is everything? How agile might these people be? While this state of undetected work-depression is a common phenomenon, managers are still largely clueless about how to address it. In fact, the way they do address it is counter-productive. Let’s look at it.
When someone is not excited about their work and their work environment, they tend to do the minimum required to survive on the job. Even if they work hard, it is forced and therefore not fully spirited. Naturally, the results delivered are equally unimpressive. And what do managers do to address this? They impose tighter controls by way of more measurable KPIs, and regular follow-up sessions. In some cases, they diagnose the problem as an incentive or skills deficit, and therefore throw a bit more money, threats or training at it. In other words, they manage the situation closely.
Now, imagine yourself in such a state of work-depression. Imagine your boss coming after you in the same manner as described here. How would you feel, and how would you respond? If the job is important to you because of financial reasons, you’ll probably pull up your socks just enough so that the boss can see improvement. But if you are convinced that the situation is hopeless, will you be truly engaged in your work? Will you bring entrepreneurial ownership and agility to work with you just because your boss demands it?
Now, recall a time when you were truly excited about something? You had a vision for something and could not wait to get started. Once you got started, you completely lost track of time and worked tirelessly until the task was completed. This is exactly what happened to me when I was writing my first book Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders a few years ago. I had decided to quit my corporate job and breakout on my own. I saw the book as my launch platform and was convinced that a successful book would give me the credibility I needed to embark upon a leadership consulting business. With that clear picture in mind, I worked round the clock for a full year and completed the book. I struggled hard for another few months after that, often facing loads of rejection before eventually landing a book deal with a reputable publisher. During that very trying period, I never gave up or allowed myself to get disheartened. I strongly believed in my work, knew it would make a difference to the world, so I continued relentlessly until I succeeded.
Consider another example. This is the case of Angela, one of my subordinates. I noticed a lag in Angela’s performance and wanted to help her get back to her usual sense of urgency and ownership towards her work. Upon speaking to her, I realized she was unhappy with the big project we had assigned to her. She simply could not see why she should be the one doing it. When I probed further, I realized she could not see the connection between the project, and what she really wanted to do in life. Angela was passionate about helping people become more self-aware, and in turn become better leaders. She was steeped in the usual methods of leadership development – psychometric assessments, coaching, and skills training, and generally received good feedback from her clients. The project we had her working on involved research on how the world had changed in recent years, and what organizations needed to do differently to create leaders of the future. Angela saw the research project as an academic exercise - something that kept her away helping real people via coaching or training.
Once I understood Angela’s root concerns, I took time to explain to her why existing methods will not succeed in the world of digital disruption, and that if the company could uncover new ways, not only would we be more successful compared to our competition, we would be in a much better position individually to help our clients. When Angela finally understood and grasped that alignment, she was able to shift focus and worked extremely hard to produce groundbreaking research (and practical insights) in record time.
So, what changed for Angela and me in these two instances? How were they different from Jim’s case? It wasn’t a change in management style as practiced by Jim’s boss. It wasn’t about short-term carrots and sticks either. Both Angela and I became agile because we could clearly see a larger purpose in our work. We were convinced that our work would make a meaningful difference, and that inspired us to work relentlessly with a great sense of ownership and agility. Once we were self-motivated with a sense of purpose, we did not need to be micro-managed. We were alive with hope. In my case, a mentor had helped me see the light, and in Angela’s case a few years later, I was able to help her similarly.
Bottom line: To increase leadership agility, managers must get better at linking the work with what an individual really wants to do – get them to see and believe the larger purpose of what they need to do. For someone to get a on a bus willingly, the intended destination of the bus should be appealing to a traveller.
Close supervision combined with carrots and sticks gets compliance, not motivation and agile performance.
For that, you need to address the why rather than the how, and help employees make the shift from competence to consciousness.
*Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia