Big Box Consulting Firm articles are always insightful and interesting. Usually filled with relevant data points and research that complements our Proudfoot boots on the ground consulting experiences and research. But occasionally, the Big Box articles provide more incite and rile than interest. That was the case with an article on ‘employee purpose’ I read this weekend.
If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us it’s that people can change in the beat of a heart — people at every level. It also taught us that we need to bring more heart to our businesses. Few would argue that. People don’t just want it, they need it. And from our (Proudfoot) experience with clients, even fewer businesses were let down by their people during these unprecedented, unpredictable times. People stepped up (again at every level) to make change happen, and swiftly. There are so many lessons to be learned from this past year to help us perform better in the coming year(s).
But. If there is also one thing I’ve learned (and it has started to cheese me off) — some (not all) Big Box Consulting Firms are spending too much time making jabs at management. They write of “short sighted managers” and they give reasons for change based in fear — if you don’t do this, that will happen. I call this manipulating use of fear a Flying Monkey and I advise against using these Monkeys. Ever.
Perhaps these Big Box firms only focus on the top echelons and therefore think it’s OK to push these sharp pointy sticks up their executive client noses. After all, don’t the guys at the top have thick enough skin and get paid to take the jibe, to cope with the odd snipe?
And don’t get me wrong. I think there are always lessons for management to learn, and in this case, there is a huge need for managers at every level to learn how to manage-to-engage since helping people find their purpose or find their cause worth getting out of bed for, is a big part of engagement. When they do, our transformation stats and engagement survey outcomes will improve and with it, our business results. After all, it is our teams who must lift us out of crisis and bring us to safety. So we do need better outcomes.
But when the Big Box firms send out a study that draws the conclusion that management’s culpability is the root to all this evil at work, it worries me. Purposefully or not, they end up using their surveys of what people think and their insights on business transformation and employee engagement, to provoke dread more than inspire change. Quite simply, the articles practice what we don’t want to preach. Change through fear.
Surveys and research are not my beef. Motive and intention is. I don’t believe that the majority of managers and leaders are self-serving, that they wake up in the morning with out the motive to engage their people, and without an intention to want to be a great leader? In my experience over the past 35 years in consulting and from the 50,000 client engagements Proudfoot has completed (to throw just a few stats behind my comments), most people including management, get out of bed wanting to do the right thing. But we’re all human and learning as we go. There are so few people who have cracked the nut on how to manage to engage, particularly while managing through crisis. It’s something we all need to spend time learning and practicing.
I believe this so strongly, I wrote a book on it during lockdown — Manage To Engage published by Wiley just this past month (March) of this year. Why? Because I fundamentally do not subscribe to the views that managers are purposefully not addressing the people issues in business which is what you sense when reading the latest survey releases on finding purpose at work, from one of the Big Boxes. It feels like they are pushing a culpability button when you read phrases like “employers (and who is an employer really, but the management and board that makes it up?) are needing to ‘step up on providing purpose’. They go on to say “executives haven’t given individual purpose of their employees much thought” pointing a finger squarely at the intent of management. Rather, I think managers struggle with the how. While I agree time should be spent on this, I don’t think it’s a lack of desire.
I think it’s time to stop the pot shots embedded in these survey results. Shouldn’t we have our hands outstretched rather than our fingers pointed, and provide a bucket load of empathy for what managers at every level in business today must face? It’s time to do what we know is required in transformation and engagement efforts and understand what is preventing managers from addressing engagement. Rather than give more reasons managers will fail if they don’t ‘take notice’ of the survey results. We need to crack the nut on capacity and capability of management, to crack the nut on success in transformation, results and helping people find meaning at work.
I’d much rather read what I’m hearing from the many senior executives I and my teams speak with across the globe each week, and the hundred of managers and leaders our Proudfoot teams work with and support through our client engagements each day. It doesn’t matter what industry we speak with, managers, not just executives, are talking to us about their struggles to keep all the balls in the air and each plate spinning while they also need to better engage, enable and energize their people during these times. What we hear and what we see, are a lot of people wanting to do good by their people but struggling to know how. They ask us to help they and their teams crack that nut — the ability to lead transformation, achieve their numbers, and engage people in worthy work. In brief, to manage to engage.
I see men and women who get up in the morning wanting to do a great job but are overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what they must face each day. I see people who are astutely conscious of the need to better engage & bring purpose to people. They simply don’t know how to address what can seem like a complex, difficult journey that in the past was the remit of HR or Training — rather than built into the DNA of all management. They want to be great leaders and like everyone, need coaching and guidance to get there. With everything they have coming at them today, I get that they may not be focused on what’s rightly needed. But I think the more appropriate view is to help leaders determine how to manage to engage their teams and show empathy to those leaders while developing their capability and helping them find capacity to do it. It’s not a culpability issue.
Going back to my original problem statement — management’s culpability in not bringing enough purpose to the workplace, I really believe is the wrong lens to look through. So, let’s look briefly at a few things that come to mind if you look through the empathy lens:
– Let’s spend less time pointing fingers and talking up the culpability of leadership and instead start actioning up capability and creating capacity for managers asking ‘how do we build capability and capacity into their days to better to manage to engage?’
– Let’s also stop using flying monkey power with management giving all the fearful reasons why they need to change, and instead spend much more time working on what is preventing managers from doing what they know is right? If you use Flying Monkeys with management, won’t that just roll down hill into their teams, making it even more difficult for leaders to manage to engage? Doesn’t it reinforce a broken model of thinking facts will change people?
– Let’s instead look for the power of small. While the pandemic may be global, not everything needs to be a global response, bigger than Ben Hur. Sometimes small is where you need to start. For example, rather than trying to get managers to focus on why the company is good for the planet, consider the learnings from climate change — start by talking about the smaller chunk of ‘the weather’ because climate change just seems so insurmountable and difficult to get ones head around, but the weather we can speak to in small increments. In that spirit, why not learn more about your team members to see what actually does engage them or might engage them better, in their work? That Little League coach who loves to see others develop — is she doing the same at work? Maybe she should? Maybe if she coached your night shift that would help fulfil that need in her to see others grow, and stir up her cause. Maybe it would give her purpose.
- Let’s introduce practical new behaviors that will help managers bring rhythm to their day and enable them to see how they can better engage their team members:
- Practice 1.5.30 — Checking in (not up) routinely with your teams (once a day (1), once a week (5), once a month(30) — enables you to learn more about them.
- Going #HeadsUp helps you see what’s going on around you and within your team.
- Active Management behaviors help you see what needs improving to help remove the barriers preventing your people from being successful.
All four of these are sets of behaviors that when practiced correctly and together, engage people. Much of it helps you discover what your people like about their work — and provide the sneak peaks into what may create a cause for them, a higher purpose than the sum of their job description, could be a natural part of your work, as a leader.
Ok, so in some instances, with newbie managers and team leaders you might need to spend time on your research data. But let’s not use it to beat people over the head. Let’s not become logic bullies. Let’s also not use data to think it will initiate change. Facts and data rarely do. Instead, learn from the data and let’s rapidly move on to what counts — demonstrating pragmatic solutions, leading the way, role modeling and helping people develop new behaviors and skills that will manage to engage — helping people see the need to change rather than telling them they must change or their people will leave.
Looking at it this way, you are more likely to get the multiplier by addressing some of the other things people are yearning for in the workplace — connection, freedom to act, the opportunity to bring their best selves to work, as well as that cause worth getting out of bed for.
You as a direct line manager help people find the ‘reason they get out of bed every morning’. You have the greatest impact on people’s day — directly or indirectly. And that’s the healthy side of business that so few managers feel they have the capacity to focus on but most want to. Seldom is it lack of aspiration. More often it is a lack of being able to act given the days feel shorter and shorter as the tasks to accomplish get longer and longer.
The conversation of ‘finding time to act on their thoughts around people, purpose and engagement’ comes up so much more regularly with our client’s today. Because of this, and perhaps I’m Polly Anna, I would have to believe managers are spending time thinking about this but struggle to know how to do something about it. They know looking at the healthy side of business is as much a part of their job as managing productivity and profitability. But often times, they have yet to feel there are simply enough minutes in the day.
When you spend time learning and practicing how to manage to engage, you’ll naturally start spending time on the heart that people want to find at work. The more we empathize with managers to encourage them to do that, the more we engage in conversations with managers about this, the more we remove the things that prevent them from practicing this, the more we will find out how important most managers really do think it is.
Lesson learned? I need to check in with my team and make sure we are never seen to lose our empathy for our clients. It’s why we’re not the Big Box Consulting Firm model. We want to be on the ground, working shoulder to shoulder with client teams to make a difference to them. And if that’s the case, you cant start by throwing potshots. Our job is to draw conclusions from evidence at the workplace, determining what the root cause is for results today, and then acting on them to improve everyone’s world. Managers and employees.