Thursday, March 12, 2015

Work with Who Your People Are, Not Who You’d Like Them to Be

Guest post from Dan Gregory and Kieran Flanagan:

Traditional models of leadership have a rather judgmental flavor to them – they tend to favor the triangular shape and place those of us who are leaders at the top, with increasing numbers of obedient minions beneath us as we track down through the layers of the hierarchy to the poor wretches who support us at the bottom.

However, as anyone who has endeavored to manage people in the past decade can attest – this model of leadership rarely shows up in the real world - certainly not in the modern age of business.

But these flat models of organizational culture are not merely the result of political correctness taken to ridiculous extremes, they in fact reflect the new employee, one who is more demanding and critical of the performance and capabilities of their leaders.

In other words, if we wish to lead, it is we who need to lift our game.

So what does this really mean for the leaders of today? Are we all doomed to be the buddy-leader, the father figure or matriarch who’s “more like a friend than a parent”, or is there something more significant in play here?

We’d suggest that this is an opportunity for greater leadership, not less. In other words, leadership today is less likely to be positional or organizational and more something to be earned. This, we contend, is rather a good thing.

In many ways, the freedom and increasing professional promiscuity of modern workers means that titles like “the boss” are less to be relied upon than merit. Not that true meritocracy is at hand, but it certainly looks increasingly like a nod in that direction.

So how do we become the kind of leaders modern workers will follow?

Leadership in this new paradigm requires a greater understanding of what drives human behavior, what makes us buy and buy in. Of course, leaders have always relied on their charisma as one of the tools of persuasion, but persuasive intelligence alone is not enough, today’s leader must also possess mental agility and deftness with behavioral strategy.

In other words, rather than leaning on traditional tools like motivation and discipline, leaders must learn to embrace process and systems design that create a bias towards success.

Gallup’s Global Workforce Engagement Study reveals that virtually half of the workforce is not engaged in the work that they do – almost 20% are actively disengaged. This kind of research is the kind of thing that sends HR managers into a panicked frenzy as they try to bolster internal morale and lift engagement scores.

But if we’re completely honest about it, a very large proportion of the workforce will never be engaged in the work that they are doing. For many, a job is just a job!

But this is not necessarily as disastrous as it initially sounds. What it does mean, is that we need to design the work we do in such a way that employees can deliver the results we want, regardless of their engagement levels. After all, even our best employees have off days, get sick, have fights with their significant others or worries about their children, parents or pets.

But we seldom take these human factors into planning our strategies as leaders, instead planning for ideal conditions when average conditions are more likely.

So, what are the nuts and bolts of this kind of leadership?

1. Firstly, ensure that there is a clear articulation of ‘What’s in it for them’
Human beings are rather more driven by self-interest than we’d like to admit. And yet, most leaders and managers are too busy outlining what they want, what they need, what they require, that we forget to create buy in by anchoring our goals in line with the values of those we lead.

2. Understand that fear drives us
On either side of action there is fear. Change, even good change can seem threatening to our staff and our ability to allay fears and create confidence and certainty is a benchmark for all effective leaders.

3. Make failure more difficult
We’re all familiar with the acronym, K.I.S.S. But true strategy doesn’t just make things simple, or even easy; it also makes failure more difficult. What this requires is an understanding of the friction and breakage points in our processes and a willingness to make the path to productivity smoother.

Rather than simply expecting our teams to be more effective and productive, today it is incumbent on those of us who lead, to make success more achievable.

Dan Gregory & Kieran Flanagan are behavioral researchers and strategists, specializing in behaviors and belief systems–what drives, motivates and influences us. They have won business awards around the world for Innovation, Creativity and ROI working with such organizations as Coca-Cola, Unilever, News Corp and the United Nations in Singapore. They are passionate advocates for the commercial power of creativity and a return to more human engagement, cultures and leadership. Published by WILEY, Kieran and Dan’s new book Selfish, Scared & Stupid is available in paperback RRP $22.95 from

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