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Are You the Worst Leader in the World?

Jul 25, 2008
The question I am most often asked by managers is: 'Why won't they do what I want?' This is usually followed by: 'And why don't they work harder?'

As leaders and managers, we often assume that, if our employees really wanted to perform better, their performance would just increase. We assume that people's ability to boost their own performance is totally within their own control.

This is just not true. Decades of research into motivation and performance don't back this up. Jobs can actually restrict performance, for instance. Think of a production line where the performance of any single worker depends on the speed of the whole line, not on any one individual's performance.

Second, the systems in place may hamper productivity. In many office and managerial roles, what people do may be restricted by the daily or weekly work cycle or specific technical procedures.

Problems also arise in situations where, to do a better job, people need more materials, resources or authority, or where certain things need to be done in sequence.

But there's an even more important message motivation research has for us. Frankly, the biggest single hurdle preventing our people from increasing their performance is - us. We, as the leaders and managers of today, have the most deadening impact on the performance of our teams.

For me, the worst leader in the world is the one who adopts the so-called 'scientific' management style, first described over a century ago but still much in evidence today.

The worst leader's sole concern is 'efficiency'. They believe efficiency will drive up performance. This manager finds suitable people for the job and trains them in the most efficient methods for their work. This manager then creates a pay system so that workers can get more money by doing EXACTLY what managers tell them to do as FAST as possible.

This sounds good to the efficiency-focused mind, but takes little account of human psychology. The worst leaders would be surprised to learn that they could get more out of their people.

They assume that people are basically lazy and that work is distasteful to them. They assume that people are motivated by money. They assume that there must be detailed work routines and enforced milestones to ensure anything gets done.

These assumptions lead to the ''What gets measured gets done' mantra. (I'll go along with it up to a point, but not to the extremes of the worst leaders in the world.)

Fundamentally, the worst leaders believe that people will perform to the required standard only if they are closely controlled. I call this micro-management and it's the most debilitating disease ever to afflict managers anywhere. Even if you drag people 'up to' the required standard you'll never get people to over-perform.

Today, in most world class businesses, there is an understanding that money is NOT the primary motivating factor. The worst leaders need to understand exactly how to motivate teams of people. Threats and coercion may win you compliance in the short term, but it also kills commitment.

So what can you do? We know that people largely want to feel useful and important. They want to be recognized as individuals and not as cogs in a machine. They want to feel they belong to a team or unit that has a significant purpose. They want to feel they have meaningful goals that they have had a hand in setting.

Just think about your own motivation for a second. What motivates you? Is it just the money?

What's worse is that most people could perform at a much higher level in the right environment. They would probably admit that they're playing well within their limits. And it's their bosses that are restricting them.

So ask yourself what boundaries do YOU set for YOUR teams?

Are you the worst leader in the world? Do you ask 'Why don't they do what I want?' assuming that it's your people that have to change? Or are you a great leader, who asks 'How can I learn more about what motivates people?'

The answer is in your hands.
About the Author
If you want the leadership success you deserve, get the leadership training you deserve. Download more free articles and leadership training videos from Steven Sonsino, an international business school professor and author of the Amazon bestseller "The Seven Failings of Really Useless Leaders"
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