Do You Focus on Things Instead of People?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 9th January 2018

In the down-sized and pressurised world of work in 2018, we all face constant challenges in identifying priorities and meeting the expectations of our organisation and its stakeholders. Many leaders I speak to are finding it increasingly difficult to decide where they should focus their attention, efforts and time. It’s very tempting in this situation to retreat into a focus on ‘things’. Things like processes, systems, rules, structures, data, targets, reports and monitoring. These are all things we can control, and which make us look conscientious, focused and busy. So far, so good.

A leader’s purpose

Do you focus on things instead of people?

However, as a leader, your primary purpose needs to be leading, developing, motivating and inspiring your people so that they can perform at their peak, both individually and as teams. This should take up a large proportion of a leader’s time. If it takes up less than 50% of yours, then you should consider whether you might need to re-evaluate your priorities and think about what you are really ‘for’.

What do you focus on?

For many leaders – who perhaps see themselves primarily as ‘managers’ of things rather than leaders of people – focusing on data, KPIs, targets and all the other ‘hard’ aspects of the role can feel like safer ground. It looks like work, it looks like being on top of things and it can be seen as ‘doing a good job’, especially in organisations whose senior leaders and culture places great value on being under control, achieving compliance and avoiding risk.

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The dangers of focusing on things

The trouble is, we live in a world where change is rapid, constant and where the competitive need is to be flexible and agile. Ironically, a focus on control, systems and reducing risk in these volatile times can be extremely risky. Evidence from many studies of VUCA shows that a focus on the ‘hard’ issues at the expense of the ‘soft’ ones around people can significantly reduce your ability to respond to change. What’s more, it can make you less flexible in meeting the needs of your stakeholders and can constrain your people to prevent them from being agile and innovative also.

Why don’t leaders focus on people?

If that’s true – and I contend that it certainly is – then the obvious question is why do so many leaders tell themselves that this is the right thing to do? I believe there are a couple of major influencing factors:

  1. For many years, the qualities we have often favoured when selecting candidates for promotion into management roles have been dynamism; diligence; toughness; monitoring and measurement skills; organisational abilities and an aversion to risk.
  2. Focusing on the ‘hard’ stuff enables decisions to seem more evidence-based and enables a leader to ‘de-personalise’ their decisions to avoid the emotional component of their work.

The consequences of focusing on things

This has many implications for a leader and for the teams they lead. It can:

  • damage morale
  • reduce motivation
  • damage well-being
  • hide underlying problems
  • prevent or reduce engagement
  • put an unhelpful ‘distance’ between the leader and their people

Key questions any leader needs to ask themselves are: What is your shadow? Do your people trust you? Do they believe that you are on their side and will support them? If not, you’re missing some of the most important tools you have for achieving engagement and high performance. Worth thinking about.

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