My friend, Dr. David Ulrich, is a highly respected thought leader, wonderful person and perhaps the world’s top HR consultant. Dave once taught me that effective performance can be seen as a function of the quality of an idea times the employee’s commitment to make it happen (EP = QI x C). One hundred percent commitment to a good idea will often result in higher performance than 50 percent commitment to a great idea.
Leaders, especially technically trained leaders, often get so enamored with sharing insights aimed at improving the quality of an idea that they forget about the impact these insights might have on their employees’ commitment to execute the idea.
When I asked one new Fortune 100 CEO what he had learned about leadership in the past year, he sighed and sadly noted, “My suggestions become orders. If I want my suggestions to become orders, they are orders. If I don’t want them to become orders, they are orders anyway.” While this learning is especially true at the CEO level, it is an important caution for leaders at all levels.
I then asked him to name the lesson that he learned from me that he felt was the most useful. He smiled and replied, “You helped me understand one lesson that not only caused me to become a better CEO, it also helped me to have a happier life. The lesson was simple. Before I speak, I need to stop, take a breath and then ask myself, Is it worth it?’” He went on to note that half the time he asked this question, he decided, “Am I right? Maybe! Is it worth it? No!”
As leaders, our first reaction upon hearing an idea from direct reports might be to say, “That’s a great idea, but” and then add our brilliant insights. What we fail to realize is that our attempt to improve the idea might do more harm than good. If we aren’t careful, the idea will no longer be their idea. It will become our idea.
As an executive coach, it has taken me years of experience – and several failures – to understand the power of commitment. When I was much younger and very naive, I foolishly believed that my own wisdom was the key to helping my clients achieve positive, lasting changes in behavior. As I became more experienced, I began to realize that their commitment to improve was far more important than my insight. The learning “hit me over the head” when I realized that the client who had taken the least amount of my time was the client who was seen as improving the most in a 360-degree assessment from co-workers.
Since achieving this learning, I have given up in my attempts to make executives change their behavior. I now only work with successful leaders who want to change their behavior. I have realized that the most important commitment to change has to come from inside my clients, not from inside me.
The next time you are working with a direct report or team member and you start to “improve” upon their ideas with your insights, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”
When communicating with direct reports, don’t just ask for understanding – search for commitment. Listen to the tone of their voices and look at their faces. When describing a project, ask the employee to rank their level of enthusiasm for executing the plan. Ask a simple question, “How can we work together on this project in a way that will lead to your highest level of commitment?” Listen to their ideas. Be willing to trade off some of your insights on content to gain their commitment and enthusiasm.
This lesson doesn’t just apply at work; it applies at home as well. Have you ever seen a Little League parent barking directions at a child playing baseball? What emotions did you see on the face of the child: enthusiasm and commitment, or embarrassment and resignation? Although the parent might be helping the child understand the mechanics of hitting, they also could be ruining the child’s commitment and love of the game.
As Peter Drucker sagely noted, “Most leaders I meet manage knowledge workers. These are people who know more about what they are doing than their boss does.”
As Lao Tzu said, “When a true leader’s work is done, the people will say they did it themselves.”
When managing knowledge workers, keep this thought in mind: If they don’t believe that they did it themselves, it probably wasn’t done well.
This article was first posted on Marshall Goldsmith’s blog. Marshall Goldsmith was a speaker at the AHRI National Convention in August 2014.