Nearly twenty years ago I made a personal commitment that if someone I respected recommended I read something that I would. The result of this is I’ve been exposed to a myriad of ideas, theories and concepts which are contradictory to what I already ‘know’, believe and think. It’s been horrible! Facebook knows how bad this is, which is why they usually only ‘feed’ you info consistent with your pre-existing beliefs. Even worse, an idea, particularly a truth, won’t easily slip back into a box just because it’s inconvenient.
This has caused me professional consternation for over a decade! I believe we ALL have a deep-down desire to leave the world a better place, and how we’re supposed to do that is our calling. The area of impact I’ve been led to is helping businesses become more successful and enjoyable places to work, and I’m called to do it by providing useful and effective leadership development, management systems and coaching.
But there’s a huge problem, and if you google ‘leadership’, ‘management’, ‘motivation,’ or ‘coaching’ you’ll see (or more likely you already know) that there are significant (and I by that I mean HUGE) differences in what learned experts believe are the fundamental requirements in creating successful businesses where people enjoy working. To make it worse, I greatly respect (and by that I mean am in complete professional awe of) the thought leaders proposing these vastly different theories.
So here’s the lay of the land: On one side, we have a management system I was ‘raised on’ – Organizational Behavior Management (OBM). Here, we define key behaviors, measure them, and provide feedback charts letting people know how they are doing. Managers are trained to manage the behaviors and provide reinforcement for the desired behaviors. The idea is that when people are doing (and getting recognized, appreciated and reinforced for doing) the things that lead to organizational goals, the company is successful, everyone is given the tools to perform better, and hard work is rewarded. One caveat is that you can’t cut corners when implementing it or you waste a lot of time. Figuring out what and how to measure is a process. But when done correctly, OBM works. I’ve seen it work in multiple industries and environments.
Which brings us to the second hand. I probably would have hung out my shingle running OBM applications forever, if I hadn’t experienced firsthand the transformational power of servant leadership, which on its face seems to be in direct opposition to OBM. It was so powerful, though, that I remain compelled to teach leaders how to put their people first – even (especially) when it seems counter-intuitive, because that’s where, if you’ll forgive the terminology, miracles happen. (Unfortunately, I have also seen this misapplied, often with tragic consequences for both the recipients and the businesses itself). But this lit my fire to become a student of a style of leadership and positive psychology that focuses on strengths. It’s affirming, powerful and also very effective.
But there’s more, and here’s where the dilemma becomes excruciating! There are some credible and fascinating books that, while they don’t call out OBM in particular, indicate that behavior-reinforcement systems will not get results like creativity, innovation or other more difficult-to-measure but highly desired effects (as an aside to this, I’m pretty sure the research refutes those particular arguments if non-tangible reinforcers such as autonomy and preferred tasks are used, but that’s a deeper dive than I want to take here).
But reinforcement theory aside, there is a compelling argument that basically says you should just hire great people, treat them like adults, and let them do their jobs. Proponents of this argue that most of the energy we expend managing time, attendance, and the like is a waste and if we focus on only the results and let people use their own ingenuity and creativity they will get there. I personally love this, because it’s how I would want to be managed, and I do think 99% of HR rules exist because of one the exceptions. And honestly, it’s a heck of a lot simpler than an OBM application, so let’s do this!
The crux of my dilemma is that I believe them all! But like so many tools, each is necessary and not sufficient to get the results you want.
For example, hiring great people and letting them do their job only works well when you have people that have either already done the job in question, are in the top 2% of exceptional individuals that don’t need guidance, or when it’s abundantly clear to everyone in question what they need to do to achieve the results you need (and what the desired results are, specifically of course). Barring that, it’s just too likely that you’ll waste resources, continually reinvent the wheel, or even go out of business (albeit with very high morale). I have seen companies who were very proud of hiring superstars and letting them do their job, but due to a complete lack of tracking anything, basically had to gauge by their checking account whether they were ‘successful’ or not (which was problematic, as they also didn’t track receivables or payables).
Similarly, a senior leader who doesn’t want to do their people’s thinking for them is like a coach. It’s an excellent approach when the people in question do have the answers within them. For first time managers, or people who really don’t know what to do, it’s a frustrating experience that usually leads to very unproductive behavior at best.
And because they seem so completely irreconcilable, it’s taken me quite a while to figure out how all these (highly effective) ‘arrows’ fit into one cohesive quiver. Both have their place in making companies the very best they can be – assuming owners and senior leaders want a business that is successful, profitable and positively impacts the people that work there in ways beyond just earning a paycheck.
Here’s how I see it working together:
I think organizations, and employees, exist on a spectrum (similar to the situational model proposed by Blanchard and Heresy). The most successful organizations will use performance measurement but not be enslaved by it. Smart leaders will always understand, explain and measure both the results AND the actions that lead to the results. When we do see results but not the actions, we’d be very wise to look at this. Was it a fluke or an innovation? Let’s not force everyone to conform to a box because it’s been successful to the exclusion of entertaining new and better methods.
On the other hand, without measurements and recalibrations, we’re not setting people up for success, and we’re creating environments ripe for favoritism, perceived inequity and possibly even where the ends could justify means that are incompatible with organizational ethics and values.
It’s been a long and frustrating journey, but I finally feel like the puzzle has come together and I (and my clients) are that much stronger for it. I’ve listened to experts that cautioned me not to ignore pieces that didn’t fit, or refuse to examine beliefs that contradicted my past. This has resulted in a , much richer tapestry of techniques that ultimately allows for much stronger and robust organizations. So take THAT newsfeed!
Carrie Maldonado is the founder of Today’s Leadership Solutions, a Seattle-based consulting firm focused on helping organizations, leaders and job seekers to identify workplace solutions that work. As a certified executive coach, organizational development expert and resume writer, Carrie consults with small to medium sized businesses on OD, human resources and recruiting solutions in addition to providing career coaching to managers and executives in transition. Carrie can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org . Please visit www.todaysleadershipsolutions.com for more info.