When people don't want to be led
By: Jennekin Dicks
As first published in the May 2016 edition of Leadership HQ Magazine.
Leadership is and always will be about change, but what if people don’t want to change?
Let’s face it - it’s unnerving when people passively refuse to slot into the positive flow. When they stand and stare as you passionately deliver your clearly mapped vision. It can be infuriating when people get stuck. You need them to move, but no matter how hard you lead, they keep digging their heels in. To make matters worse, deep down you know you’re not supposed to be phased by their reluctance. You must lead fearlessly, unfailingly, inspiring them to overcome themselves and leap to where you point. Because that is what a great leader does.
Or is it?
Sometimes we have to stop. Put aside our own angst about what we want to see changed and achieved. Step back and survey all that is around us. Look. Listen. Understand what we have created to that point and what it is like for the individual to function within it.
Sometimes we focus so hard on the completed future picture, that we forget we don’t yet have those puzzle pieces in hand. We only ever have the ‘now’ pieces and we have to look at them and understand them to have any kind of meaningful grasp of the exact change that is needed to achieve the future picture we desire.
I have a handy little trick I use with my closest clients when they feel the solutions to their internal problems are beyond their control. It’s wonderfully effective – I even use it on myself (as confronting as I know it is).
Here’s what you do: think about something in the future that you really want to achieve. Imagine it in all its glory. Maybe it’s something new. Maybe it’s been built on what is familiar now. Can you see it? Great. Now smash it. It’s gone. Everything went pear shaped on the way there and you lost that outcome completely. And guess what? It’s entirely your own fault. Now answer this question truthfully: What are you doing wrong right now that will lead to that failed outcome?
And right there you have an uncluttered view of what must be done in your ‘now’ picture to achieve what you want in the future.
This is a powerful exercise to apply when you want to understand how your own leadership impacts on the dynamic within a business and therefore people’s readiness to follow. (Incidentally, it is equally powerful when applied to the dynamics within a marriage, parenting and other relationships.) If we don’t first address possible dysfunction in our own approach and action, we’re missing an opportunity to create the very thing that will support the engagement of people in following where we want to lead them, scuppering the journey to the success we envisage.
This is not rah-rah. This is real stuff. One of my clients was frustrated with staff not taking responsibility where they really should be - constantly asking for information or confirmation where they had the capacity to deal with it themselves. He made responsibility clear. He delegated efficiently. And yet nobody changed their habits. It took an enormous toll on his own productivity and made it near impossible for his small business to grow. He knew he had hired talented people. He knew that they liked and respected him. Why would they not listen??
We ran the hypothetical Your Business Failed and It’s All Your Fault exercise. When he took this honest, inward look, he realised his staff had been working in an environment where there was very little structured communication. Although regular, the unstructured communication was rushed and often unfocused. This created uncertainty, which breeds more questions and interruptions. So we decided he needed to implement a simple weekly meeting (with a carefully crafted agenda) and he had to be absolutely diligent in making it happen every single week, even in his busiest weeks. In those meetings, he made a habit of answering questions very carefully and clearly, mentoring the whole small group as he went and openly praising good decisions and actions reported there. It worked. People felt both supported and valued. Their confidence in their own decision making ability grew and the stream of interruptions reduced to only the necessary ones.
Another client was having a struggle with engaging team leaders in cost management on design projects. They acted like it was simply not their problem. In the end, she squared up to the real issue – top management was acting like it wasn’t their problem either. There was no diligence in analysis of outcomes, no mentorship and no follow-up. We addressed those issues and team leaders started finding themselves in a positively changed environment where they were both learning and consistently being held accountable for their growth in cost management - which made them want to change positively to keep up.
I love these stories about the inner workings of businesses and how it must first be understood and then evolved to make great things happen. Small steps to clear the way for your people to take giant leaps with you, making your leadership the impactful journey it was always meant to be.