The skills that got you here won’t make you successful here.
Here you are, in charge of leading / managing / coaching the work that you used to be responsible for doing. Doing was easy. And you were good at it. SO good in fact that you’re now in charge of it.
You’re discovering that being in charge of people doing work that you’re great at is a whole lot different than just doing the work that you’re great at. There are different skills involved. And a different mindset. And it’s all kind of a mystery.
So you do what any rational human being in your position would do — you focus on what you know. On what you’re good — no, great at. And you dive headfirst into the work. You use all kinds of fancy leadership cliches to justify what you’re doing.
This is leading by example.
I’m a servant leader.
It’s better to show than to tell.
But the truth is, you’re not leading at all. And you’re confusing your team by doing the work for them. If their job is really your job, as evidenced by your behavior, then what the heck is their job?
Stop. Take a breath. Zoom out.
The best first step you can take is to stop focusing on the work itself, and start focusing on the people who are actually supposed to be doing it. Stop fixing issues, and start asking your people about the issues they’re fixing. Stop doing, and start noticing, recognizing, and appreciating.
It’s hard. We’re not naturally good at it, and we’re not trained to do it.
But if we want to get better at noticing, recognizing, and appreciating the contributions of others, at helping others understand their value so they can engage at their highest level, we have some habits to break. And some new ones to establish.
For many of us, fault finding is one of those habits. Many of us have a natural drive to find what’s wrong and fix it. It might even be why we pursued a technical career in the first place. But even for those of us who didn’t come with that predisposition, our education and training have developed this skill into a habit. A habit that has served us well all our careers, until now.
So a skill (fault finding) that has served us very well in one area of life (technical work) is getting in the way of our success in another (leading).
We’re not alone in this. Many elite athletes struggle outside of their sport because of their intense competitiveness. Same for accountants and their insistence on precision. It’s part of the reason soldiers can have such difficulty returning home from war — habits and patterns of thought that helped them survive on the battlefield can get in their way in other aspects of life.
We’re not alone, and we’re not hopelessly stuck either.
It is possible to train our brains to form new habits. It’s possible to train ourselves to turn off the problem solving, to turn off the fault finding, and to turn on recognizing the contributions of others.
Most of our employees are willing to give more of themselves to their work if they know that they’ll be appreciated for it. They’re willing to give more discretionary effort if they know that they’ll be recognized for that contribution, even if it’s “just” with a simple “thank you.”
First, we have some habits to change. We need to turn the “fault finding” and “problem solving” habits into showing appreciation and recognition for the contributions of others. Simple, but certainly not easy.
One fundamental way we can do this is to establish rules for our own behavior. Write them down, and commit to following them.
Here are a few possibilities.
1. Thank 1 person at the start of a meeting. Pick a regularly scheduled meeting that you host, and set a rule that the first thing you do in that meeting is thank someone for something they’ve done. This might sound like, “Before we get started, I’d just like to thank Kate for her leadership last week on the project re-plan. It’s really going to help us get back on track for the next management review. Thanks Kate. Who has other thank you’s?” The first time you do this, maybe the first few times, nobody will speak up. Crickets. They’ll wonder what the heck you’re up to. Keep doing it, and they’ll catch on that this is an expectation.
2. First email of the day. Set a rule that your first email of the day needs to be thanking someone for something. Before you even start reading new mail, hit the ‘compose’ button and send someone a thank you note. Some of you out there are even clever enough to program your email system to pop open a new email with the subject “Thank You” every morning.
3. Compartmentalize. Many of us find ways to “turn off” work in the evenings so that we can focus on family / personal time. Do the same with your 1–1 meetings with your people. Set a rule to “turn off” fault finding when you walk into the 1–1. You’ll also want to make sure to consciously turn it back on when they really need your help with a technical task. There’s a difference between really needing your help and just wanting to fill you in on what they’re working on. Learn to recognize the difference and respond appropriately.
4. Use “When… then…” statements. Studies show that if we think ahead of time about a time and place that we will do something, we are much more likely to follow through. Use this to learn new habits. These can be specific or general. “When I see Sam at lunch today, then I will tell him how his efforts are helping with…” “When my partner cooks dinner, then I will tell him/her something about it that I really enjoyed.”
Breaking old habits is hard, and learning new ones might be even harder. Try setting a couple of these simple rules to help, and then watch the impact it has on your team’s results.
Take a deeper dive into the concepts of appreciation and recognition at work with these other posts from Management Matters:
The Key to Productivity and Happiness at Work Might Be Right Under Your Nose
5 simple ways to remember to say thank you.
The first thing to get right about recognizing and rewarding your people.
Recognition and rewards are not the same thing, but lots of us act like they are.