The Investment-Based Leader’s Toolbox

Screenshot 2014-06-23 21.43.39Leaders in any organization give a vigorous “me too” when they hear the adage “our people are our greatest asset.” It’s the right answer! Yes, we value our employees, want to see them succeed, and hope that they’re happy in their jobs. But often the reality is not so positive. Several surveys have been done in the past couple of yeas measuring employee engagement. The sobering truth is that employees are disengaged because what leaders say and what they do is in disalignment.

The good news is that

When trust, values and a purpose-driven mission exist to a statistically significant degree and guide leadership, decision-making and behavior, these “enablers” give rise to a highly inspired group of super-engaged employees. (Forbes, September 2012)

The question, then, is how do we communicate and develop trust, values and purpose?

The answer is by investing in your greatest asset; the cornerstone of your organization. The toolbox for investment-based leadership will get you on the right track.

Trust starts with sincerity. Employees sense when a manager is just going through the motions. So before you pull any of the tools out of the toolbox, it’s important to consider you motives and attitude. Do you really want to invest in your employees not just because it may lead to higher productivity, greater sales, or other bottom-line reasons, but because it’s the right thing to do? Yes, you can invest because of what you’ll get out of it, but you’re putting a cap on potential.

A true investment in your employees means you have more altruistic motivations. You want to see them succeed because you care about them as individuals. You want them to grow, find meaning and purpose in their work, and set their own goals because that’s what every human being wants. We have to stop viewing employees as a means to an end and see them for the unique souls that they are.

Once you’ve committed to a true investment in your employees, the following tools will assist you in building a workforce that is engaged, committed, and eager to help you succeed.

Transformational Mindset:

According to an article in Psychology Today, transformational leadership

Originally focused on leaders who “transform” groups or organizations, transformational leaders focus on followers, motivating them to high levels of performance, and in the process, help followers develop their own leadership potential.

I believe this is where leaders need to start. Transformational leadership is a mindset and an attitude that puts leaders in the right frame of mind to motivate followers. In the words of Ronald E. Riggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College:

Transformational leaders hold positive expectations for followers, believing that they can do their best. As a result, they inspire, empower, and stimulate followers to exceed normal levels of performance. AND, transformational leaders focus on and care about followers and their personal needs and development.

Servant leadership takes transformational leadership to an even more altruistic level, emphasizing the leader’s obligation to serve followers simply because it’s the right thing to do, not for what outcomes can be generated by focusing on follower needs.

When a leader is able to focus on others and look for ways to develop and motivate them, engagement and productivity are sure to follow. It requires that a leader put their ego aside and not assume they have all the answers. Transformational leaders know that a better organization is built when individuals are empowered and have regular opportunities to engage their brains as well as their hearts.

Appreciative Inquiry:

It is said that words create worlds. The direction of our questions determines where our conversation goes, so what we ask questions about, how we phrase our questions, and what our purpose is in asking questions leads us in a certain direction.

For a leader, asking questions that lead toward positive outcomes and a thriving culture is a core responsibility. But because we are so habitually focused on problem solving and discovering what is broken, our organizational dialogue is mired in deficit-based language.

The Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle of Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny provides a framework for leaders and organizations to direct the conversation toward more positive ends while tapping into the knowledge, strengths, and passions of the whole.

Start by reading Appreciative Leadership by Whitney, Rader & Trosten-Bloom. This is a practice guide to infusing your leadership with appreciative tools that draw out the best in your employees and organization to move you toward your desired future through collaboration and leveraging strengths.

Positive Deviance:

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) grew out of the positive psychology movement started by Martin Seligman. The central idea behind POS is to identify those characteristics and behaviors that enable organizations to thrive and build cultures that reinforce these positive traits. The University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations is a great resource, providing white papers, research, and other tools.

Positive Deviance (PD) is a concept that fits into the POS frame, building on the idea that within any organization there are individuals and groups who, with essentially the same circumstances and resources, have found a way to succeed where others are stuck.

PD has been used for years in the nonprofit and healthcare sectors, but has been slow to catch on in the marketplace, where the need for control and predictability get in the way of allowing deviants – either positive or negative – to forge new paths to solve problems.

But a surge of entrepreneurship may make the marketplace more open to experimentation and renegade solutions. PD believes that the solutions are within the context of our organizations, it simply requires that we give people the freedom to pursue unproven or counter-culture methods to fix things that have so far proven unfixable.

Strengths Focus:

Finally, in my investment-based toolbox I want to focus on the strengths of each individual on my team. We have a tradition of looking for the weaknesses in ourselves and our direct reports so that we can improve those deficiencies. But research, primarily from Gallup and former Gallup researcher Marcus Buckingham, has shown that most of us will never be able to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Instead, we should focus on those things we do uncommonly well and make them even stronger.

Leaders need to help followers identify their strengths, either through one of the strengths assessments on the market, or through an organic process of observation and dialogue. Once you know the strengths of each team member you can look for ways to organize and structure your team and the work that they do.

To really get the most out of a strengths –based approach is to develop a more flexible approach to job descriptions and work assignments. According to Gallup, when employees have an opportunity to use their strengths every day they are more than six times more engaged in their work.

Making the Investment in People

There are certainly more tools that an investment-based leader should have in their toolbox, but the ones I’ve outlined above will get you started on the right path. One thing to remember when committing to an investment-based approach is that there is no formula; the key is in using the tools in the context of your organization and the makeup of your team.

It’s also important to understand that it takes time to allow your investment to grow. Your staff may be suspicious as you begin to incorporate new methods of leading, especially if you’re making drastic changes in your leadership style. It may require some trust-building and patience, including patience with yourself as you try out new approaches.

Read my previous post: Investment-Based Performance Improvement. It introduces the characteristics of an investment-based approach – humility, humor, harmony, and honor. Using these four characteristics with a transformational mindset, appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, and a strengths focus will demonstrate to your staff that you are committed to their success and value their collaboration.

      

 

Not My Problem – Leading Teams to Self-Solving Dynamics

As leaders we often have team members come to us because of a relational or strategic logger jam that is impacting the workgroup. And more often than not they are looking to you, the leader, to fix it for them. So being the good leaders that we are we jump in and start problem-solving. After all, we have the insight, experience and position to push the team to resolution, right?

Not so fast! In our good-intentioned efforts to take the lead and generate solutions, we might be perpetuating the problem. The real issue is not so much the particular scenario they’ve asked your assistance with, but the underlying dynamics that, in the words of pop-psychology, create co-dependence. You come in as the hero, or the enforcer, and the team relinquishes responsibility for handling their own interpersonal and operational conundrums.

A healthy social dynamic instead places the burden of solving these roadblocks on the whole team, not just the leader. The best leaders resist the temptation to be a fixer, instead helping the team process the issue by getting to the real motivations of individuals. The team is strengthened as the leader acts as facilitator, using emotional and social intelligence to read and work through the emotional positions that are causing the conundrum.

Here are three steps leaders can take to put the burden on the group to solve its own problems:

  1. Stop. Stop talking! Resist the urge to provide solutions. Slow down and get perspective. Expediency does not typically lead to lasting solutions. If you struggle to do this, you may want to evaluate your own motives – why do you feel you need to fix things for the group?
  2. Ask. Your first task should be to get group members to open up. Ask probing questions to uncover the meaning behind the meaning of the roadblock. Go below the surface to understand assumptions, biases and motivations. Avoid blame, foster respect, and look for the positive. Help build appreciation.
  3. Relinquish. Let go of your own solutions and allow the group to find their own way out. Keep asking questions to clarify the direction, and facilitate to keep dialogue focused, but remain silent about the direction you recommend. Why? Because you will perpetuate co-dependency and the group will continue to look to you and not themselves, which is inefficient and non-empowering.

One last note on turning over the responsibility and accountability to the group: it may take time. With our culture’s obsession with sense of urgency and expediency, this process may seem time-consuming and inefficient. But as the adage goes, “if you don’t have the time to do it right, when will you have time to do it again?” By creating a dependence on the leader, the group becomes a drain as it relies on the leader to step in any time a roadblock arises. But if the leader trains the group to process its own issues, it will eventually become independent and high-performing.

Appreciative Leadership – Positively Powerful

We are all familiar with Dale Carnegie’s advice in How to Win Friends and Influence People. First, he says, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming more interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.”  He talks about making others feel important by becoming genuinely interested in what they have to say, developing the skill of asking questions to draw others out.  One statement in particular is profound as we consider the type of leadership that really makes a difference: “If you and I will inspire the people with whom we come in contact with to a realization of the hidden treasures they possess, we can do far more than change people. We can literally transform them.”

That’s the power behind an emerging leadership model called Appreciative Leadership. In a book by Diana Whitney, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and Kae Rader (Appreciative Leadership, 2010), the appreciative path of leadership is laid out in a compelling case for a positive approach to leadership that builds on the momentum that’s already been created, what they refer to as the “positive core.” Appreciative Leadership was birthed through Appreciative Inquiry, an organization development tool that focuses on what is RIGHT with the organization instead of looking for problems to solve.  David Cooperrider, of Case Western Reserve University, introduced Appreciative Inquiry in the 1980’s and it is gradually gaining traction as a relevant model.  Whitney et al built their leadership model to coincide with Cooperrider’s assertion that

Organizations are centers of human relatedness; they’re living systems, alive with infinite imagination and the capacity to connect to a full and rich omnipresence of strengths. This problem-analytic set of traditions can be traced to the machine metaphors of organizational life, to Taylorism and scientific management, and it helps lead to some incremental learning and improvement to find out everything that is holding a system back, but it won’t make the breakthroughs that we need today. (ASTD interview, 2009)

Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Leadership are the next era in the evolution of management thought. In an August, 2010 article Cooperrider describes a trifecta of change emerging in organizations: a strengths-based revolution, Appreciative Inquiry, and positive organizational scholarship. People are ready for a positive change, a shift from negativity to hope. Appreciative leadership in organizations starts with the kinds of questions we ask. Currently the focus in organizations is on the question, “what’s wrong?”

Many of us are so entrenched in the problem-solving mindset that we evaluate every situation around us for the problems they present. We become judges everywhere we go. At a restaurant we criticize inefficiency, consider the empty glass in need of a refill, read condescension into the server’s tone.  If we manage people we judge our employees for what they contribute to the problem or what they contribute to fixing the problem. We become glass half-empty people, viewing the world around us with a lens of disapproval and start generating solutions to dispatch the problems quickly and efficiently.  This negative lens skews our relationships as we focus on what’s not working, what we wish was different about the other, what we believe they need to fix.

Appreciative leadership is a worldview that turns the judging, problem-centric world upside down and starts asking “what’s going well here?” If we can create habits of positivity we begin to see the world differently. Whitney and colleagues describe an appreciative mindset whereby we “hold each and every person in positive regard…treat all individuals positively…believe that everyone has potential. “  Seeing people in this light allows leaders to address situations as a starting point that can be a building block for future success.

Leaders say it all the time, “our people are our greatest asset,” but do they make decisions that way? Do they ask questions that way? I’ve worked for too many organizations that view employees as easily replaceable commodities rather than individuals with untapped potential. In the problem-centric worldview a value is placed on each person relative to their problem-quotient, or how much of a problem they are.  The appreciative leader, “through their words, actions, and relationships…start waves of positive change rippling outward, often to destinations unknown (Whitney). Dale Carnegie was on to something that’s taken nearly a century to take root on a large scale – tap into the hidden treasures of individuals – their positive core – and see how they truly can become the cornerstone of your organization’s success.