Counter-Intuitive Leadership - New Rules for Leaders

Michael Muetzel

Maybe I am like you, or maybe you are like me.

We have years of business experience. We started at or near the bottom. We worked our way up the proverbial ladder. Ok, we may have caught a few breaks, had a boss that gave us a chance, even if we didn’t deserve it. But we made the most of our opportunities. Our work ethic and our intuition have served us well. We have a quiet confidence even in tough times that we have what it takes to be a successful survivor.

Somewhere in the course of growing up as a Manager then as a Leader, we were trained to manage off the numbers. Pay close attention to details, budgets, and understanding our customers has been our internal recipe for success. Are you with me?

And I submit for many of us, somewhere in this journey, we have placed the numbers, the budget, and the management process over our people in the priorities of our leadership. After all, it worked, and if it ain’t broke no need to fix it. This culture/process has worked for decades, maybe even centuries…until now.

As you know, I have interviewed hundred of managers and employees under the age of 40. I have been blessed to share my research with some of the top name organizations in the country. More often than not, companies that really “get it.”

But I want to share my latest epiphanies with you. If we do not begin to re-emphasize our priorities to the potential of our people, these new generations and their unique characteristics might very well mess up this proven recipe forever.

I was asked a few months ago to attend and observe a management meeting with a long-time client. Like most management meetings the dynamics of the group members were interesting. Although I hate to generalize and/or make assumptions, and although there were never any formal definitions, there were leaders and followers within the group.

In the process of discussing an upcoming significant capital expense there were token objections and questions raised from the group. I use the term ‘token’, because the leaders had an unspoken alliance, and from the outset of the dialog, it was pretty clear where the “power” in the organization would steer the decision. This is where it gets interesting…

Following the “open” discussion, at the far end of the room, came a question from a meek ‘follower’ in the meeting. She asked a question that would require a lot more research to answer, and if pursued would have necessitated a delay in the process. And the ‘Leaders’ politely brushed her question aside with some patronization and a smile, and proceeded with their dialog, and ultimately their decision.

It was almost as though they asked for her opinion, and then brushed it aside. “Let’s just leave the big decisions to the powerhouses in the meeting.” As I looked in her eyes and her body language, it was clear she had received the subliminal message loud and clear. I realize this has never happened in your organization, but read on if you will because it is an interesting case study.

Fast Forward if you will to last week. As I walked in for my meeting with the normally upbeat CEO, it was obvious to me that this was not a good day. He explained to me that he had just found out that they had lost a key significant client to a small competitive organization. In fact, the competitive consulting organization was a single person. She was a little, meek, and kind of a follower-type, and used to sit at the far end of the room in the management meetings.

Like most of us Boomer Managers, he was initially convinced she was disloyal, unappreciative and borderline selfish. She stole a client, probably based on all the training and experience that his firm had provided. The CEO was convinced the client had made a horrific mistake in changing allegiances, cursed them both and looked to me for affirmation. And there I was trying to decide how to respond.

If you know me, you know I had to be honest, even at the risk of the relationship with my friend, the CEO. This was not an issue of loyalty or selfishness, but an issue of trust. Trust is the most misunderstood element facing managers today. Our employees simply do not have trust in their organizations or leadership, the national data is clear. Successful Leaders need to continually monitor and build trust, even in your management meetings. Especially in your management meetings.

Rule #1

Never ask for employee’s input unless you really plan to use it. Our intuition tells us to communicate and involve the employees even when we know what to do. We might think we are looking for their agreement with what makes the most sense to us “Lip Service” patronization worked on my Boomer Generation, we simply accepted it and came to work the next day with our good attitude. But perceived patronization will kill levels of trust with Gen X and Millennials.

Rule # 2

Organizations that have low levels of trust also have low levels of conflict (read as new ideas from unique places), in their management meetings. Our old intuition led us to believe that management teams always agree in perfect harmony. Patrick Lencioni refers to it as “Artificial Harmony,” a lack of trust in open communication. Especially our Gen X, Gen Y Managers and employees need to understand that they can offer new ideas; they can even disagree in a culture where their opinions will not be brushed aside or dismissed.

Rule #3

Our intuition tells us to simply dismiss bad ideas. But the key question is how to address an idea we do not agree with, in a way that builds trust, not in a way that tears it down. In this case, had they simply offered positive reinforcement for her comments and asked her how they might deal with the time constraints they may have kept her engaged. “I appreciate that unique question as well as your honest concern but how might we deal with the issue of urgency?” It would have been appropriate to ask her to lead or participate in the research.

Historically, your intuition has led you to be the leader you are today. But the employees are just a little different then in our past. To place and keep your organization on the cutting edge, build a culture of open ideas and leave your old intuition for budgets, markets, and process.

Michael Muetzel, author of They're Not Aloof...Just Generation X.

Copyright 2011 Author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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