Let the People do their Job

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

George S. Patton 

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been trying to carry out a task, and a manager (or someone else) has started to dictate how to do it, even though the task may fall squarely within your expertise and role description? How did that make you feel? What did you do? What was the outcome?

A number of years ago, I worked in a team of technical professionals. We had a very new manager in charge of one of the accounts that we were supporting. Invariably, he would question how the team was trying to achieve its goals, insist that all technical solutions be implemented his way, escalate to (global) management if we didn’t do it his way, and over-ride all technical advice that we provided to the client. This was done in forums where the client had visibility of our organisation, so the team often felt attacked in front of the client.

The team had a defined set of standards to follow. There was “best practice” to consider, as well as ensuring that commercial protection was provided to our organisation and the client. This manager did not take any of that into consideration when instructing people to do it his way. He appeared to operate on the assumption that he knew best. As a result, he used this knowledge to order people around.

When people succumbed to taking his orders, results were produced that did not have the best long term impact on our client or our organisation. This then resulted in the same manager taking the team to task over the outcome and further telling them how to do the next step in the process.

Not listening to him and following the set standards and procedures resulted in him questioning (and sometimes berating) the team in front of the client and global leadership. The team also felt under-valued, not listened to, and disrespected. Some of these people had been subject matter experts in their field for years and were very well-respected professionals. In my assessment, this manager was neither understanding that nor using it to his advantage.

My learning from this particular situation was – don’t tell the people how to do their job. If you have employed people for their specialist skill set, let them use those skills to surprise you with the results. Trust them, develop them, and empower them to give them the outcomes that you require. Ask yourself whether the “how” is important. If it is, explain that to the team; tell them why it is important, and let them complete the task. If it isn’t, then is there any harm in trusting the experts?

I really like the quote at the beginning of this post, but I would probably change it slightly – I would say “…tell them what you are aiming to achieve, and let them surprise you with the results”. The team will require an understanding of the outcome that is required. They will need to understand any restrictions and caveats, and they will need to understand priorities, etc.

In most cases, people will be able to work out what steps to take and how to take those steps. And, if they can’t, then are you providing an environment in which they feel comfortable asking for help? If they do ask for help, remember again that the best approach may not be to tell them what to do next or how to do it. Perhaps a more useful approach is to coach them to an appropriate solution and to ensure that you can provide them with the additional resourcing, tools or process required to complete the task.

How do you use your people to achieve outcomes? How is that working for you? What could you improve?

Bringing Out the Best in People

“In real life, the most practical advice for leaders is not to treat pawns like pawns, nor princes like princes, but all persons like persons”

James MacGregor Burns

In my opinion, leaders have one main role, and that is to bring out the best in their people in order to achieve organisational outcomes.

Right, so, how do we do that?
There are many different ways of working to get what we want as leaders, and many different methodologies, techniques and systems to help us to succeed. However, to bring the best out in people, I have one rule that I refuse to break: Treat the people like people.

This may seem obvious to you and, if it does, then that is great. However, believe me when I say that the obvious isn’t always obvious to everyone.

I once worked in an organisation where the entire senior leadership team believed that it was appropriate to thump fists on desks, yell and swear at people, and over-rule people constantly. Professional opinions were ignored rather than valued, people were expected to work incredibly long hours, and were not trusted to organise their own time. The leadership team was totally perplexed when they did not get the results from the teams that they required. No, really, they were perplexed. I, however, still cannot reconcile how bullying and blaming people could ever be considered as treating people like people.

Ok, so how do we treat people like people?
My way of figuring out how to treat people like people is to ask myself how I would like to be treated. After all, I am a “people”, so there must be something useful in that, right? For example, I don’t like my professional opinion to be ignored; I don’t like feeling disrespected; and I don’t like people making assumptions about me without first asking for my version of events. I can use all of this to shape how I engage other people – that is, I can aim to respect them, value their opinions, and always remember to ask them for their take on events before I make an assumption about their behaviour.

It might well be that the details of how I show respect are slightly different for each individual in my team. That is where my knowledge of each  individual, and my awareness of my own behaviours, come into play. But understanding how people generally like to be treated is a good place to start. If the leaders in my example above had understood that, they could have made use of some exceptional skills and knowledge to achieve some amazing results. Instead, they created poor morale, broken people, and huge staff attrition rates.

So ask yourself how you would like to be treated, and treat people like people.