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, team communication, data, targets, reports, external influences 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
However, as a leader, your primary purpose needs to be leading, training, mentoring developing, motivating and promoting continuous movement, 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 manager responsibilities 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, employee wellbeing, 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:
- 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.
- 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
- lack of collaboration in the workplace
- resistance to leadership training
Key questions any leader needs to ask themselves are: What is your shadow? Do your people trust you? Am I ethical, and do I work for an ethical company? How can I be a better mentor? 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 how you can improve your leadership and quality management.