Employees, Ownership, Leadership and Faith

I love sports. Sports are ripe with opportunities to discuss teamwork due to the public nature of its product. Every fan can tell if a team is succeeding or failing by its performance each week. As a Jacksonville Jaguars fan I am intimately familiar with the chicken/egg argument about the performance of a manager and his employees. After all, whose fault is the team’s poor performance – the coaches or the players? The truth is that it could be either or both.

Over 250 men worked on the Eiffel Tower

Good teamwork is a two way street. A good leader can’t build the Eiffel Tower without good workers just like the best group of workers in the world can’t build a house without a blueprint. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Let’s dig in by looking at employees from the perspective of a manager. Most employees can be categorized in one of three buckets:

1. The first group “gets it”. They are interested in helping the team to accomplish its mission. They work hard and are actively looking for ways to be more effective and productive. These employees seem heaven sent for a manager. Unfortunately for them they typically end up being overworked because the leader trusts that they will produce high quality work in a timely manner.

2. The second group doesn’t really “get it” but they have high potential. I honestly think this is the biggest bucket of people in the workforce today. Sometimes these are specialists who are excellent at what they do but don’t have any interest in teamwork. Sometimes these are people that want to do a good job but they haven’t developed the necessary skills and so their work does not produce results. There are countless other types that fall into this bucket. The one thing that they all have in common is that they require significant coaching and feedback. The manager spends much of his time working with this group because of the potential. If you can just get them up to that next level it will benefit the team and the employee’s career.

3. The last bucket is comprised of the employees who don’t show any potential. They don’t appear to care about their impact on the team. They complain about anything that isn’t easy and they drag the rest of the team down. Most importantly, they don’t produce good or timely work. In this situation it’s the leader’s job to work through the system and eliminate the employee. I know that this sounds harsh, but remember, if they showed any potential, even if they didn’t have skills but had a good attitude then they would have been in the second group. People in bucket number three act like gravity on their teammates, pulling everyone else down a notch.

On the other side of things, leaders are a little more difficult to categorize but I’m game for a little over-generalization if you are today. I see them in two distinct buckets – leaders who don’t have faith and leaders who do. I’m talking about faith in your employees to do the right thing, to try their best and to succeed. If you’ve never had to place your faith in someone else’s ability to accomplish something important then you may underestimate how difficult this is. Those of you who watch reality TV can think about all of the forced partnerships on your favorite show and think about how much strife ensues when uncomfortable partners have to trust each other.

It’s extremely difficult to have faith in a person or group of people that are not you. That’s why so many leaders don’t have faith in their employees. They only trust themselves. As a result they micromanage their employees, trusting them only with simple assignments or busy work unless they are from employee bucket number one. This action prevents them from achieving things as a team at all. They don’t produce the quality and amount work that a team should produce. Instead, they only produce as much as their leader can deal with at a time.

That’s why it’s important for leaders to have faith even when it’s difficult. The quickest way to move employees from group number 2 to group number 1 is to help them develop the necessary technical or procedural competence to succeed and then present them with assignments and responsibilities that they can own. That ownership produces a feeling of responsibility that they cannot get anywhere else. By doing this, you have the opportunity to help them unlock their potential. As a leader you have succeeded when one of your employees begins using their whole being, everything within them, to achieve success. In addition, this display of trust leads to a greater level of satisfaction at work which almost always leads to greater productivity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that a leader should put people on an island with success or failure hanging on them alone. But any husband working a honey-do list will tell you that they are much more effective if the honey in question isn’t following them around telling them how to do everything and pointing out all of the ways that they would do it differently. As a leader, you need to prevent catastrophic failure. In other words, if you see that they are about to stick a screwdriver into a light-socket then there is no problem with you putting a halt to it. But other than that, the leader’s role in this situation is to act as a sounding board if the employee asks for advice. Of course they need to monitor status and make sure that deadlines are being met but they have to let the employee own the success or failure of the assignment. Then they should review the progress or finished project with the employee and help them understand the options that they didn’t take and ways that they could make it easier on themselves next time.

But what if the employee fails?

It won’t be the first time or the last time. If a failure or two is a good enough reason to lose faith in someone then we all should have lost faith in ourselves a long time ago. The leader must help that employee understand what caused their failure and give them the feedback that they need to be successful next time. Then they need to trust them with another assignment or project and give them the chance to try again. If this cycle happens again and again and you lose faith in the employee and don’t trust them with anything important then you’re wasting your time with them and you might as well do each of you a favor and cut the cord. Once again, that’s harsh, I know. I get it. But what else would you do, keep them on the team in bucket # 3, dragging other employees down while you waste your own time finding work for them that is so unimportant that you don’t care if they fail? That hurts everybody involved. That’s why it’s important to classify that employee properly. If they are still trying their best and failing because of competence then it’s the manager’s job to help them build that competence. If they are competent but have a bad attitude then it’s the manager’s job to work on that. But if they are failing because they are not receptive to feedback and they are not giving it a good effort and they are not committed to improving then they have moved into bucket number three.

Tebow and Fox

So whose fault is it, the coach, or the players? Without question, it’s both. A team with a good leader but bad employees will be better than the same team with a bad leader, but it cannot be a real winner. A team with good employees but a bad leader will be better than the same team with bad employees, but it cannot be a real winner either. The only team that can reach its potential and achieve true success is a team with both good a good leader who has faith in his employees and helps to grow them and with good employees that take an ownership stake in their work and in their own performance and success.

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Posted on January 14, 2012, in Leadership Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Jonathan, great post. I agree with what you are saying. Of course, I think more responsibility rests on the shoulder of the leader and I appreciate your emphasis on leadership. Loved the parts about letting employees fail and developing employees with potential. A good read for any leader/manager.

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