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January 2020 – Question of the Month

January 06, 2020 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

Question of the Month: To grow someone at work, does a leader need to promote her, move her to another job or give her new responsibilities?

Answer: Clearly there are opportunities for a person to grow from all three of these. But there is no need to either move a person or reconfigure her role in order for her to grow. Leaders enable their people to grow on a continuous basis in their current jobs through helping them when they get stuck; helping them to view their jobs differently (the means and ends switch); helping them to focus on and build their abilities (by the leader watching the game and giving feedback); and by setting them tasks which keep them in their learning zone.

  1. They help their people, when they get stuck, to move forward.

What this means is not necessarily that the leader helps a direct report whenever he is struggling with a problem. On the contrary, letting a person grapple with an issue can often result in greater learning than the leader jumping in to assist him. What this actually means is intervening when a direct report has got himself into some kind of victim state. When the person has ceased to take accountability in the situation, that he is in, is focusing on what he is “getting” which he does not want/ not “getting” what he does want, and believes that someone other than himself or the environment in which he operates is to blame.

Whenever a person is in a victim state, the will to learn and grow is not engaged. The role of the leader here is to help his subordinate to get out of this debilitating frame of mind, to focus his attention forward and regain his sense of being in charge of the situation that she is in.

There is a very simple but powerful process which leaders can use to do this called the Gripe to Goal process, which is outlined in detail in the book Legitimate Leadership (2012) – page 216-231. The skillful use of this process makes masters out of erstwhile victims. It does so now.

  1. They help their people to view their jobs differently – the means and ends switch.

The conventional view of a job is that it comprises a number of tasks which are done by a person in order to achieve some defined outcome. The purpose of doing any task, in other words, is to achieve a result.

Legitimate leaders help their people to change, not the content of the jobs, but how they view their jobs. They help them to make a means and ends switch; from viewing themselves as the means to do a task to seeing the task as the means to grow them.

Specifically, they assist their people to see the opportunity which exists whenever a task is done to strengthen a particular ability; to develop or enhance a particular competency that they would like to work on.

All tasks have within them the possibility for ongoing learning and growth but only if the person doing the task uses the task as such. Every time I run a Legitimate Leadership Introductory workshop (which I have done at least 1,000 times) I can either view it as something I am doing to deliver on a client commitment or as yet another wonderful opportunity to hone my facilitating ability (I don’t profess this too often – since a client said “so you mean that you should be paying us, not the other way round?”)

Similarly, every time a debt collector picks up the phone, she can, if she chooses to do so, use the call to enhance her influencing ability. Even a subordinate from hell can be a blessing if he is perceived as such by his manager, who views each difficult conversation that he has with him as a means to develop what is a key leadership competency – that of confronting or dealing with conflict.

In helping their people to see their jobs in this way, leaders effect a change in their relationship with their direct reports from a traditional reporting to a coaching relationship.

In a reporting relationship, the person is there to produce a result, not enhance his ability. The routine interactions between manager and direct report are therefore typically centred on progress against agreed tasks.

In a coaching relationship, conversations between the parties include content which is not in a conventional reporting relationship. Part of what is discussed is the person’s progress against a specific competency and the aspects of his job which provide the greatest opportunity to further strengthen the person in terms of his ability.

  1. They help their people to focus on and build their abilities by watching the game and giving feedback.

For most people, if they receive feedback at all, it is infrequent, formal and in the context of an annual or biannual performance appraisal. The feedback moreover is generally not very helpful. It is not consistent with the basic rules of good feedback: specific, behavioural, owned by the giver, balanced and soon. Most importantly, it does not provide the person with clarity in terms of exactly how to do better going forward.

This is despite the fact that feedback from a person who is both trusted and respected is one of the most powerful development tools available to managers in any organisational context.

Legitimate leaders obviously take the opportunity to give their direct reports feedback in their regular one-on-ones with them throughout the year. In addition to this, they help their people to focus on and build their ability by, as frequently as possible, making time to “watch the game” and give feedback on what they have observed.

Like a good sports coach, they help each of their direct reports to focus on and work to improve only one aspect of themselves at a time.

The purpose of watching the game is to identify what specifically the person needs to learn which will further improve his ability in terms of a particular competency.

The reason why the leader needs to watch the game is because competencies – like listening, influencing, empowering – are still too global. In terms of listening, for example, does the person need to learn not to interrupt? To be fully present? To be more sensitive and empathetic to the feelings behind the facts?

Only by seeing the person in action, observing and asking questions, can the leader garner the kind of information that can then be used to convince the person of exactly what he needs to work on next to further enhance his ability.

When leaders watch the game and give feedback well they will know that this is the case simply because the person whose game they have been watching will be asking them to come again soon.

  1. They help their people to grow by setting them tasks which keep them in their learning zone.

Honing an ability, any ability, takes time. The 10,000 hours of practice required to achieve real mastery, posited by David Levitan, is generally seen to have validity.

An extraordinary investment of hours, however, is not on its own enough. People can work at something for most of their lives, being good at what they do, but not exceptional. It is necessary, but not sufficient to put in the hours.

In addition what is required for excellence in ability is what Anders Ericsson termed “deliberate practice”. By deliberate practice is meant concerted, repeated and focused engagement with the intention to improve.

Legitimate leaders do not simply implore their people to go out there and work on improving a particular competency. Rather, they determine specific task(s) which, when performed, will put pressure on each of their direct reports’ current learning needs.

The best task(s) are those which stretch the person beyond their current abilities. Task(s) which require the person to stretch just out of reach of their current level of ability to place the person in a learning zone. Task(s) which are in the person’s comfort zone, on the other hand, fail to extend abilities since by definition they can already be done easily.

Activities which are too hard are also not conducive to growth in ability because they engender panic rather than learning.

Conventional managers assign tasks on the basis of getting the best result now, not on the basis of enabling growth in their people. Legitimate leaders break the habit of keeping people doing the things that they are already good at. They put the task at risk to grow the person. They do so by pushing their people into their learning zone by giving them tasks which will grow and challenge them. They then support them so they do not fail.

By consistently helping their people in these four ways, they ensure that their people continue to grow and never stop growing.

Wendy Lambourne
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