Be careful what you wish for

“Why,” Henry Ford is reputed to have asked in exasperation, “when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”

Sad to say, but there are still many managers like that.  They say they want real engagement from staff and customers, yet their behaviours convey quite the opposite: that they just want automatons, warm bodies that do what they’re told and take what they’re given.  After all, automatons are less ‘messy’ than people, they are less unpredictable and more reliable, aren’t they?

So which is it?  Do you want people, with all their foibles and flaws, or well-behaved automatons?

You may be the boss but you can’t have it both ways.  What this means is that you cannot say that you want my creativity, my sharp thinking, my feedback and my participation and at the same time, infer by your actions towards me that, actually, you are not interested; that you’d rather I just did as I was told and kept my mouth shut.  You cannot say you want me to be innovative and turn me on and off like some kind of light switch as it suits you.  You cannot tell me that my contributions are valuable and then behave in a manner that demonstrates contempt for me when I contribute.  These things you say you want are not “skills”; they are part of my make-up.  They are woven into the fabric of my being.  You want them or you don’t.  You cannot tell me you want all of me at work, but then place conditions and caveats around that.  You want me or you don’t.

It may shock you to know this, but your response to me is all about you.  It is about your unconscious default position when you feel threatened, scared, inconvenienced, anxious or overwhelmed.  I know you want the best for me and the organisation, but how you go about that sometimes betrays your own lack of development and self-awareness.  So my message to you is: be very careful what you wish for.

  1. Do you really want creativity and a culture of innovation?  Be prepared for others to have ideas that you have not already had; that is the point.  Be prepared for me to say things that you might find counter-intuitive, but please do not shut me down.  Please do not tell me you don’t want to discuss my ideas.  They are only ideas and will not hurt you.  Please don’t feel threatened by new ideas or the people that brought them.  If you do, this is a leadership issue and you should probably have a word with yourself and develop some capabilities.  In yourself.
  2. Do you truly want my engagement and alignment with the wider organisation?  You will get my full engagement and attention when I know you are constantly listening to me.  By listening, I mean you shut off your internal voices and prejudices and open both of your ears, all of your heart and mind and actually listen to what I have to say.  I will know you have been listening when you make references to things I have told you or when I am visibly acknowledged.  This will generate trust, which will cause me, quite naturally, to engage with you and your vision.  It’s not rocket science, but if this seems hard, do something about your ability to really listen to others; it’s another leadership issue.
  3. Do you really want teamwork and collaboration throughout the business?  If you want me to work well with others, to value their contributions and to build on what others bring, model this yourself.  While it’s hard to measure, most of us have had experiences in our lives where we were part of something bigger than ourselves; where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, as the old cliche goes.  It’s a cliche for a reason; because it’s a human truth.  Even grumpy old Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress.  Working together is success.”  And if you find managing the divergence and unpredictability of teams and their personalities overwhelming, this is another leadership issue.  Immerse yourself in some development (NOT training) around dealing with surprise and team dynamics.
  4. Do you truly want feedback; from your customers, from your suppliers, from your associates and from your staff?  Opportunities for feedback are continual and limitless.  The thing about getting information back is that it then behoves you to do something about it.  It can be a little scary to see and hear how others truly perceive you because it may clash wildly with your self-perception.  In fact, chances are there will be something that jars, so be prepared for this.  I will know you genuinely value my feedback when things change as a result of what I tell you, so be prepared to act upon the information.  If you care enough about me, you will at least give my feedback the respect and consideration it is due and, if you hear it as if it is the truth, it may shine a light on something of enormous value to yourself and your business.  If you experience feedback as white noise, this is a leadership issue and you should probably develop some capability around standing in others’ shoes.

If you have answered ‘yes’ to those four questions, where do you suppose these things will come from?  They will emerge and develop out of the dynamics of people, not the dynamics of machines.  Poor old Henry Ford didn’t quite understand this, but he was of a different age.  If managers are to learn anything in the Knowledge Age, it is how to manage themselves in unpredictable, complex systems.  Henry Ford thought he really only needed hands, but if he was running a business today, he would see that successful organisations are the ones that deploy whole people.

Furthermore, if you ask for these things, if you invest in developing these things, be prepared to get them.  Be also prepared for the messiness that comes with them.  When working with a client to catalyse a culture shift around having more robust conversations about performance throughout the business, we warned them at the outset that they would get what they asked for; and lo, when these conversations became more prevalent, there were some on the senior executive team who were less than pleased to be on the receiving end of some powerful feedback themselves.  If innovation, engagement, teamwork and feedback (and all that comes with them) are inconveniences or they threaten your sense of control, do some work on yourself.

That last bit is really important: while you are growing and nurturing a culture where these things come to life, while you are actively providing opportunities for people to develop their own capabilities, you must continue to develop yourself.  Notice your own responses to people as they bring their ideas, their passions and their ‘messiness’ to work.  If you find, for example, that your default response when people propose ideas contrary to your own is to shut them down and pull rank, you probably require further capability development.

Remember, that of a leader’s behaviours, it is the unconscious and informal that people watch and derive most meaning from.  If your words say one thing, but your actions say another, people will lose trust in you and realise quickly that you are not truly interested in the whole contribution they make to the organisation.  Down goes engagement when staff understand that you just want their hands and not the rest of them.  Similarly, if you tell your customers that you want to hear their feedback, but nothing changes as a result, you lose the trust of your customers.  Down goes the customer experience when they understand that you just want their money and not their hearts and minds.

So which is it?  Do you want me?  Or do you just want my obedience?


5 thoughts on “Be careful what you wish for

  1. John-
    After we talked yesterday I was hoping this post might find its way onto your blog soon. I couldn’t agree more with your cautionary tale here. I thought your story about a client wanting better feedback and review was a great application as well.

    There is a bit of leadership issue overarching this entire post in some way. You touch on it a few times – the confindence of the leader. I think there are “leaders” that have been in an old system of positional leadership for so long that they struggle with these tyeps of development. When approaching this type of developmental change, you have to take assessment of the leadership ability in the organization. If we help create this cultural shift, is there the proper leadership inplace within the company to keep it going? Does the organization have leaders that can actually lead people (novel concept), or are completely dependent on positional authority and the maintaining the status quo.

    These are incredibly difficult questions to ask, but they’re important. I’ve witnessed great development happen within organizations, only to be squandered by leaders that where not ready to get what they asked for. Great post. Thanks for sharing.

    Micah Yost

    1. Thanks again for contributing Micah. I may over-dramatise a bit when I write, but essentially the point I’m trying to make is the one you mention, which is around leader confidence. Everything I was considering in this post was around the role of the leader and what a great opportunity it is for leaders to develop something new in themselves. While cultures don’t live or die on the actions of one person, it is fool-hardy to consider an organisation’s culture without seeing how pivotal the role of the leader is. Any leader worth their salt would, I believe, take a natural interest in their own personal development. I have seen too many organisations struggle with HR or L&D or people issues because of the leader’s blindspots and their unwillingness to look at them.

  2. John
    Thanks for your excellent article – I only wish I had written it. I think it also helps to reinforce the idea that ‘management technology’ i.e. the practices used to get the best performance from people, is severely antiquated. Every other ‘technology’ has been rapidly changing over the last 1- 50 years, but the way people are managed (are conditioned to manage) is still pretty much the way ‘Good old Henry Ford’ did it. It will be interesting to watch as 20 -30 year olds encounter the ‘pair of hands’ mentality, I think they are more honest, direct and less likely to tolerate an ‘I’m the boss’ culture.
    Cheers Hamish

    1. Hamish, thanks for your input. Strangely enough, you popped into my head earlier this morning so it’s good to see my telepathy is functioning well. Despite this Victorian mentality that we still labour under, I think we are on the cusp of something new emerging in our organisations. I think a lot of advances, particularly in the area of neuroscience over the last decade, are doing a lot to shift people’s thinking. Hopefully they shift their thinking (and their attitudes and behaviour) quickly enough to manage the younger generations in the workforce. I would certainly love to get in front of more organisational leaders who say “I’m ready to make that shift.” Cheers, John

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