Updated: Jun 12, 2018
This article is part of the Writing to Mary and Jack series.
Dear Mary and Jack,
We have arrived at the last of the three pillars of leadership, the Team. About how to put together and manage a team, more was written than I can read and remember. So, I will focus on the core: why authentic performance can only be inspired, not extracted.
Authentic performance is not just performance that complies with the objectives set at the beginning of the year. It is performance that not only delivers exceptional results but does it in a way that positively and deeply impacts everyone around, creating a sustainable thrust.
As you embark on your journey as a first-time (or second time) manager, you may feel the tension between the task at hand (Your Challenge) and what it will require from the team. You are effectively the mediator of a collective effort aiming at successfully tackling the Challenge, and effort always means some form of pain.
I invite you however to depart from the notion that leaders are people who accept to exert pressure on others so that they do what is needed, pain or no pain. I invite you to consider instead that true leaders are people who on the one hand constantly remind their Team of the Challenge and the Circumstances, and on the other hand, inspire them in such a manner that they willingly engage in effort, despite the pain it causes them (Working long hours, stress, tiredness, etc…).
Does it seem trivial to write that performance should not be extracted, whipped, out of a team? Yet, the usage of leverage, to extract performance out of people rather than inspire it, is still very frequent [i]. By extracting I mean using any form of psychological pressure or manipulation, however subtle. Physical coercion is not acceptable nor legal in most countries anymore, but that does not mean that coercion has disappeared. It has very often morphed to assume subtler forms.
The most commonly intended form of leverage to extract performance is money, and so I will tackle this particular example, but social status, or employment security works just as well…
As has been many times written, if you define your expectations from people in terms of complex behaviour (I would like you to engage in meaningful conversations with clients) rather than discrete actions (I would like to you to carry these rocks from A to B), you can no longer buy performance with money. It’s a fact of science, but it runs very much counter to what many believe.
It’s not that people are reluctant to be paid well of course, or that they won’t try harder if you pay them a higher salary. It’s just that behaviours are deprived of their authenticity if you monetize them. This loss of authenticity goes far deeper than the vague suspicion that we may have towards people who engage us with ulterior motives. For proof of it (Besides my own experience), I take a very interesting scientific study which reveals the risks of putting a price on behaviour. In the Israeli city of Haifa, an experiment was conducted where a fine was imposed on parents who picked up their kids late from day-care [ii]. The fine was not onerous but was not insignificant either.
The fines resulted in a near doubling of the number of parents showing up late. Intuitively we believe that lateness should have abated, for fear of the fine, or at least stayed identical. But it increased. So we need another explanation. The parents may in fact have taken the fine as the price of lateness, and instead of considering their own lateness as an inconvenience to the day-care centre employees, willingly entered the trade of paying a fine for more flexibility on their time.
Now before the fine was levered, preventing parent lateness was done mostly by upholding social norms of good behaviour: It is rude to show up late, because it inconveniences the day-care staff, and parents would then self-discipline. The introduction of the fine took away social norm from the equation and replaced it with a transaction. It became acceptable to show up late, provided you paid the fine.
Money does drive behaviour, just not in the way we think. What it does, is taking social norm out of the equation. It removes the question of whether what we do is right or wrong, and replaces it with a market decision, that is whether we can afford it or not. This is in itself not good or bad. But it begs caution to apply it in the right context.
Knowledge workers are more and more required to execute tasks that involve judgement. It is not only about how we do things (How do I sell this product to this customer), but as well whether it is right to do it or not. Every wrongly sold pair of shoes will be returned, triggering return policy costs for the shoe store. Every wrongly sold software solution will trigger a loss of reputation for the software vendor that will impair their ability to grow.
And this gives us a useful pointer to how to inspire employees. If what we expect is a certain behaviour, then leaders need to explain it, not only in descriptive terms, but also in moral terms, and open the discussion in the Team about what is right and wrong. If Sinek is right and if we need to find our Why to inspire our team, then surely it lies where our deepest held beliefs are, our vision of the world, the good life and what virtues and qualities are worth rewarding.
Do you think that moral debate has no place in a modern workplace? Like Michael Sandel, I think it has a central place, even in a team of 5. From the fake clean diesel Volkswagen emissions scandal to the Presidents Club scandal, there is rarely a week that does not show an example of failure of moral debate in professional activities. It is all good to be outraged and sad after the scandal has burst open. But it does not satisfy me to think that these are organisations led by bad people. We are all bad in our own ways. What I see rather, are organisations that have forgotten how to openly talk about ethics, and start behaving unethically because of this.
Now once you and your team have agreed on the fundamental virtues that will be rewarded, all you have to do as a leader is live by it. As Stephen Covey rightly put it:
You can’t talk your way out of a problem you behaved yourself into.
In other terms, if your team is behaving in ways that are not conducive to solid performance, you will of course look at process, incentives, office atmosphere and working conditions. But the first question you should ask is: Did I behave myself into this problem? Did I show the wrong example? Your Team will hear your words, but they will trust your actions.
For better or for worse, leading by example is not just the best way, it’s the only way.
So why not try?
[i] A strong body of science is starting to emerge on the limits of financial incentives in a knowledge economy. I highly recommend the work of Dan Ariely on this subject, for example: The Upside of Irrationality, The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, 2010, Harper/HarperCollins Publishers, 325 pp.
[ii] See at this subject the summary of the experiment, Gneezy, U and Rustichini, A, 2000, A fine is a price, Journal of Legal Studies, 18 pp. http://rady.ucsd.edu/faculty/directory/gneezy/pub/docs/fine.pdf