Boiling a Frog in a Pot of Human Leadership

Leadership requires flexibility and caring. How we approach and interact with people is determined by a complex mosaic of factors that are sometimes at odds with one another. What works in one situation might be disastrous in another. Trust me. I speak from experience.

Originally posted on my blog at From Drunk to Monk.

The needs of the business are of the utmost priority. If we’re hemorrhaging, then the bleeding must be stopped at all costs. Sometimes that requires a band-aid while we ask how “better” might look. That’s not to say that the needs of people are disregarded . They are always important. Great leaders make all stakeholders part of the solution. However, the acute times have a way of clarifying who is in the wrong seat on the bus.

Often times collaborative methods work just fine. When people are engaged and interested things go smoothly. We create a vision together and come up with a plan to create more excellence. We figure out how to measure if its working, we execute and adjust as required. Easy as pie and as infrequent as me watching a movie with subtitles.

There are many situations that require a different approach. This is what I call boiling the frog in a pot of accountability. This can happen when there are long-serving people that are used to thinking in terms if limitations instead of possibilities. They have been repeating the same things for so long that they have created their reality to reflect that narrative. Let’s call this guy Jim.

The things we focus on become our reality. The language we use also becomes our reality.

Compound that with Jim being surrounded by conditions that support his reality such as:

  • constant leadership turnover. The new guy always wants something different. I’ll just wait him out and keep doing my thing. It’s always worked before.
  • Co-workers that enable the kind of thinking we don’t want by actively participating in it. Misery loves company, after all.
  • The person in question not getting the support he or she needs to do their jobs. They might not have the right tools, their leaders might not clear obstacles for them or their co-workers might not be acting as a team.
When this culture is nurtured over a long period of time it can be difficult to unwind. As leaders, we don’t have a choice. It’s why we exist.

n this case, change needs to be incremental, relentless and everyone needs to be accountable. So I might start by saying to Jim, “What would it look like if we did X?” Jim’s response will most certainly be, “Impossible!” for a litany of reasons both real and imagined. Imagined road blocks are real to the imaginer.

It’s important for Jim to clearly understand a few things. The first is why his job and this particular task as so important. I like to start and the macro level bring it directly to Jim. The other thing that’s important for Jim to understand is that I want him to feel good about what he does. I want him to go home and be a great husband, father and friend. Doing a great job where you are supported in doing important things makes for a happier more productive human being.

The leaders job is to find out how things should be working. Have they worked in the past? If they did how were the conditions different than they are now? Find everyone involved and listen, listen, listen. Dig up your business processes and find out if they work or are even documented. All this information is will help define the road map on how you can proceed.

Eliminate an obstacle. Just a small one where it is simple to get a win and report back to Jim in question. Even though I might be higher up the corporate totem pole, we all work for each other. It won’t change much but it will build a teeny bit of street cred. Often times this is like peeling back an onion. One change reveals another opportunity. All the while keep talking about the vision and why it will be great when we get there.

Train the person and get them doing the task but with reasonable expectations. “We ultimately need you to do this task 20 times a day, but let’s start with 2 and see how it goes. If you run into problems then I want you to call me right away so I can come and help. I will always come when you call me.

All the while you are working on solving any larger roadblocks. This might involve getting an entirely different set of stakeholders together. You’re working on different angles of the same opportunity. We all have a role to play in making things work.

Each time one of those is solved you can excitedly report back to Jim that it’s done and celebrate the positive impact it will have on his work. Jim still won’t be convinced. But he will be starting to see that I can deliver and might be able to help him. He’ll also start to feel the gentle breeze of the winds of change. It might feel pretty uncomfortable.

If Jim’s leaders have dropped the ball in the past then its important that they are part of the solution. They might not understand the critical importance of what Jim does. They might not know how they can help. They might have written Jim off as a scofflaw. You need to educate them and hold them accountable. Jim needs to see that happening. When he sees that, his eyes will be opened. He will start to see you as an honest broker but he will also start to understand that you are not going away. The water is getting warmer but it actually feels pretty .

This process is iterative. Keep solving the problems, keep upping the responsibility and keep communicating the vision and they important role Jim has to play. Define how you are going to measure Jim’s performance of this task and explain it to him. Review results, adjust and keep moving forward.

Obstacles have been removed. Processes have been refined and/or re-implemented. Jim has been trained and understands his role and its importance. Jim’s leaders understand their role. The pieces are in place to drive improved performance and hold people accountable. The water is as warm as a glorious hot spring.

Ultimately you need to pull the trigger and get Jim to do the task the required 20 times a day starting now. You’ve lived up to your end of the bargain. You’ve eliminated enough obstacles. Conditions might not be perfect but we need to do the right thing and work through any opportunities that appear as a team.

The unintended consequences of doing the wrong thing are more expensive and catastrophic than those that result of doing the right thing.

Someone grab a lid, the water is boiling over.