How do you maximize the work of your employees? This is a question as old as leadership itself. The answer, however, has seemed to allude most in leadership. Many have taken an authoritarian approach, with a callous attitude toward employees, not much better than considering them as slaves. They presume that the methodology of driving performance, setting quotas, yelling as often as deemed necessary, setting ever higher (and often unattainable) goals, and general dictatorship will get through to people. This thought process is often accompanied by a perception that an employee is unable to actually grow or learn, and therefore, it is the leader’s job to just get the most out of them at their current level of development, however disappointed they may feel with that level.
Real leadership will get the most of their employees, not by authoritarian command, but by using 5 E’s to communicate and equip their employees for success. You want to learn to continually:
The Myth of Authority
An authoritarian manner of leadership may well be a misinterpretation of some of the strong leaders that can be observed in history. There have no doubt been leaders in history that have taken this type of approach and have achieved what would appear to be significant results. To say that they were successful on whatever level, however, is not the same as saying that they were able to maximize the skills of those under them. In fact, to the contrary. Studies show that leaders who take this type of approach will get some results, but those results will be limited, generally within the leader’s own personal abilities or skill set, only utilizing the extra hands to be able to accomplish more than what could be done alone. The reason that their results are limited is that an authoritarian type of leadership will cause a response in people that assures that they will do only what is being asked, never thinking for themselves or exceeding expectation. It causes them to shut down thoughts or actions that may go beyond what is required. It will create an environment where people do not feel free to utilize their abilities at their fullest. They will not attempt innovation. They will not be inspired to grow. They will not seek to do anything outside of the orders they have been given, for fear of reaction from their tyrannical leader.
While my descriptions may sound overly harsh and exaggerated in some respects, the toll taken by employees under this type of leader cannot be overstated. Employees in this environment will never function at their highest levels of ability, they will often quietly drone on in misery, and typically the best of those employees will find a different job where they are actually able to utilize their skills more readily. Worse yet, it is common that when these employees leave, it is not fully clear to the higher levels of management that it was the poor leadership that drove the employee away.
So, how do you actually get an employee to perform at their peak? While there are many great writings on this subject, I will attempt to hone in on a few that I have seen to be most effective. I have also identified them in a way to make them more memorable.
A leader needs to cast a vision for the endeavor that is to be undertaken. The objectives need to be crystal clear for the employee, and they need to see their role in how the ultimate goal is to be achieved. This is more than just communicating tasks or short term goals. The employee needs to see the bigger picture and the “why” in their work. I have seen numerous leaders who communicate the minimum that they feel that they can in order to just get the employee to get the job done. They withhold information out of insecurity, because they feel that knowledge is power. What they fail to recognize in this, is that when knowledge is shared, and employees are able to grow and succeed, it boosts the leader as much as the employee. Think of yourself like a toy boat in an empty bath tub. As water is added, the boat begins to float. The higher the water level, the higher the boat. The employees are the water that makes the leader’s boat rise. As the employees grow in their abilities and effectiveness, they will actually push the leader up. The leader should, therefore, work to give the best knowledge that he or she can in communicating clear objectives. Make the endeavor crystal clear, and then give your employees room to chase it. That’s where the next step comes in.
The idea of empowerment is scary for a lot of leaders, for the same reason that offering information is. Empowerment has to do with giving your employees space to think for themselves, to be creative, to experiment, to learn, and to even make some mistakes in pursuit of the objectives. This is creation of an environment that allows freedoms wherever feasible and fosters innovation in the process.
Leaders often think that if they give employees this type of space, they put themselves and their departments at risk. After all, “what if it’s not done correctly?” Or often, “what if it’s not done MY way?” That thought is a micro-managers nightmare. For the egomaniacs, the question is, “what if that employee does better than me and gets the attention of management?”
For those to whom empowerment is a scary concept, it’s time to think about how not empowering your people is actually limiting you. If your employees are not given the freedom to think freely and creatively, you are left with all innovation having to come from you. Because those moments of true innovation are likely to be few and far between, your business area is conceivably going to go months and years at at time in maintenance mode, only changing those things that are forced upon you by higher levels of management. If your employees are not given freedom to learn, even by their own mistakes, there will be a limit to their abilities to think beyond where you already are. No new thought produces no new innovations. Ultimately, you are not going to be successful in moving anything forward effectively, or at minimum, not quickly, if you do not learn to cultivate an environment of empowerment.
For an employee to be truly effective, they need to be engaged in the work. Engagement has to do with a person’s readiness to apply themselves and be productive in line with the objectives. It is a sense of connectedness with the work being done. It often flows from empowerment and an understanding of the endeavor. Therefore, from the perspective of the manager, the first two will be a higher priority to establish. Engagement goes beyond those, however, in causing an employee to be active and invested in the work needed to accomplish the objectives, and there are additional factors that will help an employee be engaged.
Environment matters. The environment is a product of many factors, some of which may be controlled by the manager, and some that cannot. The environment includes everything from the actual workspace to other people’s attitudes. The manager’s job is to create an environment conducive to engagement by providing appropriate tools and resources, as well as approaching work with positivity. When it comes to those elements that are beyond your influence, always focus attention on those things that may be controlled.
Meaningful work matters. For work to be meaningful to an employee, it should be in line with objectives (the endeavor), interesting to the employee (in line with their motivations), and play their strengths. A manager’s job is to understand an employee’s strengths and motivations in order to best connect them to work that they will find to be fulfilling.
So, I realize that I might sound like a cheerleader for saying this, but if you are enthusiastic when you go to work, it’s going to help your employees to be as well. Enthusiasm is not only lacking in many work environments, but it also highly undervalued. Enthusiasm is a huge aid to engagement, for yourself and for others. It fosters an environment that is pleasant and causes people to actually want to come to work.
While some might not be able to relate to what I am saying, many can relate to the opposite environment. Many people live their whole lives in misery. You would think that they actually like being miserable, or at a minimum, they don’t know any other way. They approach work as a drudgery that they will just have to do until they are ready to retire. They hate their work. They hate their lives. They hate everything, and they let everyone else know it. They aren’t satisfied with just being miserable themselves; they want everyone else to be miserable with them. They suck the life out of everything around them, and they evaporate engagement from those they work with. Don’t let that be you. Choose the side of enthusiasm.
Many leaders function from a perspective that all employees have limits to their capability, and they often even assume that their employees have already reached those limits. Therefore, they minimize their expectations of people. They unconsciously, or even consciously, believe that what they are currently getting from their employees is all that they will ever get. This may even lead to the erroneous conclusion that if their department is going to function at a higher level, they will need to add other resources.
To have higher expectations of a person does not require you to turn into the tyrannical leader described earlier. In fact, if you don’t have higher expectations of your employees, you will not be the effective leader you could be, because by default, you are limiting their opportunities to grow. The distinguishing factor is in how you set and communicate your expectations.
Set your expectations based on reality. You can stretch your employees, but unrealistic expectations will cause them to break under the pressure. Give them goals that require a stretch, but are still within their reach. Give them goals that require them to learn, but that are just one learning step beyond where they are. In other words, you don’t ask a runner who just completed their first 5K to now run a marathon, and you don’t ask someone who just finished elementary school to now take a college course.
Make sure that your realistic, high reaching expectations are not only clear to you, but clearly communicated to your employees. Then, work to hold them accountable to those expectations.
Start the Journey and Stay the Course
Learning to maximize the efforts of your employees is not accomplished in a day, nor is it a clean formula that can be readily applied exactly the same for every person. It is going to take work on your part, and it is going to take a lot of practice. Choose a place to start, and get started. If you don’t succeed immediately, evaluate your results, and adjust your approach, and keep working on it. Take one element at a time and work to master it. Stay the course, and continue refining your efforts. Leadership is a life-long pursuit, and it is worth every bit of effort you put into it.