Change the Context

“And, to promote the social good for the team employed by my company,” Pablo said, “I have to believe in the good inside each person. I have to create managerial systems that support that belief.”

“What you say is counter to many managerial practices,” I said. “In my travels, I see compensation systems, bonus and incentive programs that rely on greed and competition over compensation. I see team members with a narrow focus only on the next promotion, hidden agendas, backdoor politics, even backstabbing. I see a general mistrust of authority inside the company.”

“Yes, often that is what you see,” Pablo replied. “And, it is through no fault of employees. They engage in behavior to survive inside the system in which they live. If we create a system that relies on greed, we will get greedy behavior. If the only way we acknowledge contribution is by status, if the only thing that feeds a person’s self concept is a promotion, then you will get politics based on power. If you want to change the behavior, change the context in which they live.”

The Obligation

“Look, it didn’t take long after I started my company,” Pablo continued, “that there were three things up to me. No one else in the company has the obligations that I have –

  • First, I have the obligation to provide for the success of the company. It is my baby. I created it, no one else has the passion for it that I have.
  • Soon after, as headcount increased, I realized that the success of the company rested on the social good of the team members employed by the company. Without them, the enterprise would stall, and eventually die.
  • I also had to look at the larger context. I have an obligation to support and strengthen free enterprise. It is the capitalist political system that creates individual economic independence against the seduction of a centralized controlling government.

Pablo looked me square in the eye. “I come from a foreign country,” he said. “I have seen the other side.”

The Accountability of the CEO

“You survived,” I said. “I mean, your company survived.”

“We did okay,” Pablo replied. “We were essential, so we never had to shut down. Had to change a few things in the physical layout, and we had some outbreaks. We did okay.”

“Most important lesson, for you, as the CEO?” I asked.

“The most important lesson is the security the company provided to everyone who works here,” he said.

“Security? This was hardly a time of security.”

“I think it is important to understand how deeply our company affects the lives of people who work here. It impacts not only their economic lives, but their social lives. It impacts their self-esteem, and what they achieve in life.

“I remember, a year ago, when COVID was least understood,” Pablo continued. “I announced in an all-company meeting, that every one of their jobs was secure. I was out on a bit of a limb, because, by a whim of government, we were essential. You see, I know every team member goes home each and every day with either a feeling of frustration, or a feeling of satisfaction, depending on how the day went. They either feel secure or insecure, as a result of the managerial systems we have in place. We either build trust and security or mistrust and insecurity. That’s my job.”

Important Connection

“What would be valuable for you to know about a team member, as a manager?” I asked.

“Well, what motivates them. What makes them want to come to work,” answered Nathan.

“There is a story about three men who were working together, each doing the same job. When asked about their work, each replied differently. The first said that he was breaking rock. The second said that he was constructing a building. The third said that he and his colleagues were building a school in their community so their children would have a place to learn to read.”

I watched Nathan’s eyes absorb the story. Finally he spoke.

“I suppose it would be valuable to know what is important to each of my team members.”

“Why would that be valuable to know?”

“I have to find the connection,” Nathan started, “I have to find the connection between what is important to them and their work.”

“And if you can find the connection?”

“Then we are in. The sky turns blue, the flowers bloom and the birds sing.”

“And if you cannot find the connection?”

“Then the work will be repetitious, the work will be like breaking rock.”

“And?”

“And, so, I have to keep searching to make the connection.” The conversation became quiet. Nathan was searching, perhaps thinking about his own connection.

Is Money the Answer?

Nathan had some time to think this one over. Giving people more money wasn’t the answer. Compensation is necessary, but seldom a driving force for performance.

“I guess I would have to find out what people really want from their job,” Nathan answered.

“And how would you find that out?” I asked.

“Sometimes, our company puts out an employee survey.”

“And how helpful is that survey to you as a manager?”

Nathan grinned. “Not really helpful at all. The wording on the survey is usually very generic and heck, I don’t even know if the responses are from my team members or someone else’s team.”

“So, how would you find out?” I repeated.

“I guess I would have to just ask them,” Nathan finally concluded.

“All at once, or one at a time?”

“I don’t know, it is kind of a strange topic. I can’t ever remember any of my bosses ever asking me what I wanted out of my job. Maybe I should tackle this one on one.”

“Good,” I nodded. “Now let’s think about what that conversation would sound like.”

Is It All That Interesting?

“What does interest have to do with the behavior of your team members?” I asked. A smile crept across Nathan’s face.

“It’s pretty obvious isn’t it?” he replied. “When someone is interested, they sit up straighter, they pay attention, they have a skip in their step, they ask questions.”

“Is all the work that we do around here, interesting?”

Nathan was quick to reply. “Not really, I mean some things are interesting, but some things are repetitious and only mildly amusing.”

“So, as a manager, how do you keep someone’s interest in a role where the tasks are repetitious and only mildly amusing?”

Nathan had to think on this one. “I’m not sure. I mean it is hard to be interested in some of the assembly work we do.”

“So, if it is difficult to raise someone’s interest, how do you get them to sit up straight, pay attention, have a skip in their step and ask questions?”

Nathan searched his mind for a response, but came up empty. I asked an opposite question. “Let’s look at the other extreme. How do you keep someone from actually resenting the work that you have them doing?”

Nathan’s brow raised, “Well, they do get paid.”

“Yes, but they could take your money and still resent the work that you have them doing?”

“More money?” Nathan floated.

“You could even give them a raise and they might still resent the work that you have them doing? How do you raise the level of interest in tasks that may be repetitious and uneventful? How can you, as a manager, turn the tide of resentment for that type of work?”

Breaking Dependence on the Manager

It was late in the afternoon when I stopped by to check on Nathan. We agreed that he would circulate with his team, asking a variation of one simple question –

“When things are going well, and your job is going well, how do you do what you do?”

“That’s a great question,” I said. Nathan was beaming. I could tell the response from his team had been positive.

“It’s funny,” he shook his head. “When they describe how they do what they do, sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they get it almost right. But since I gave them the chance to tell me first, when we talk about the almost right stuff, it comes a lot easier. They are much more willing to listen.”

“So, what is the lesson for you?” I asked.

“It’s not so important that I be right, or that I be in control, whatever that means. What is important is that my team members are thinking about what they are doing. They are thinking about what they are doing that is right and thinking about what they are doing that needs improvement.”

Nathan stopped cold. A new niche just opened in his thinking.

“It’s like before, they just depended on me to tell them what they were doing wrong so they never had to think about it. They knew that if they were doing something wrong, they would get a lecture from me and that would be that, so they didn’t have to think about it. When I stop giving the lecture and ask them, they suddenly begin to think.”

Tell or Ask?

“I think, when I tell people what to do, acting like a big shot, that does not create trust,” Nathan started. “In fact, I don’t even have to act like a big shot to be perceived as a big shot.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“It seems that no matter how tactful I am, or how I sugarcoat it, when I tell people what to do, I sound like a critical parent.”

“That is quite a discovery,” I remarked. “So, how do you tell people what to do, without sounding like a critical parent?”

“I don’t think I can. I can’t tell them, they have to tell me.”

I knew Nathan was on the right path, just curious if he was putting it all together. “What do you mean?”

Nathan thought for a bit. “Instead of telling my team member what to do, I should ask them how they intend to accomplish the task at hand. Instead of me telling, I want them telling.”

Nathan waited for my response, but he didn’t get the advice he was looking for. “So, let’s go try it out,” I said.

Before Anything Else

Nathan waited for me in my favorite place, the coffee room. “What are we going to talk about today?” I asked.

“You said we were going to talk about the Prime Directive,” Nathan responded.

“Which is what?”

“My role, as a manager is to add value to the decision making and problem solving of my team members.”

“And you were going to bring me a list of ways you could do that.”

“Indeed,” Nathan announced, proudly producing a single sheet with several items on it.

“So, look down your list and pick the top three items that make sense to do first,” I directed.

Nathan was proud of his list, but he had not considered that some things made sense to do before other things. Finally, he spoke. “Well, I have twelve things on my list, but the thing I need to do first isn’t on here.”

“Which is?”

“I think before I do anything, I have to create a sense of trust. In fact, without a sense of trust, none of the things on the list are possible.”

“In your meetings, you invited Rachel, Edward and Billy to run certain parts. Does that create trust or distrust?”

“Well, trust,” blurted Nathan.

“So, you have already started to build the trust that is required to be effective. What’s next?”

A Manager’s Focus

Nathan survived his next meeting. No one walked out. It was a productive ten minutes. Maybe his team was going to give him a chance.

“Now what?” he asked.

“Prime Directive,” I stated flatly.

“Prime Directive?”

“Bring value to the decision making and problem solving of each team member.”

Nathan’s face became a jigsaw puzzle. “What does that mean?” he asked.

“Look, Nathan, there are a number of things that are required of an effective manager. Some things you do will work against you. Some things will work for you. Remember the Prime Directive.”

I detected a glimmer of understanding in Nathan’s eyes.

“You are a new Manager. You were a successful supervisor, but your focus needs to be different, now. Over the next 24 hours, I want you to make a list of what you think your role is, related to the Prime Directive.”