Leaders, do you want to make your workers more effective? Then lighten up.

All too often, today’s leaders feel isolated, beleaguered, exhausted, pressured, stressed. The key to being more effective? Doing less. 

Early in my managerial career, while a first-line supervisor but still doing science, I had the good fortune to read Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas, James L. Adams. At the time, this book was used as a text out at Stanford (ever wonder why those students are so smart?). Check it out if you have the chance. What becomes clear from this book and similar material, is that it is all too easy to stifle creativity, innovation, and productivity in people and organizations, and deucedly difficult to foster it.

Careful! That’s easy, as in “there are a lot of ways” versus easy, as in “effortless.” And difficult, not in the sense of “strenuous,” but difficult as in “the odds are against finding a fruitful path.”

Here are some ways by overworking ourselves, we make it harder for those we supervise to get their jobs done.

Micromanaging. You got your supervisory job because you were good at what you used to do – maybe even the best around. So who better to keep going back to that? This seems to be especially difficult for scientist-leaders. Ours is a culture that places a premium on the most talented theorists and the elegant experimentalists. Even before getting that management position, we were plagued by self-doubts, and a need to prove that our skills were not eroding, to keep up the publication rate, the impact scores. Enter management, and encounter the administrivia, and the interpersonal challenges, and the feelings of inadequacy can quickly multiply. And if you were once the super-star, who better to second-guess those who are now doing that work? Who better to set an impossibly high standard of performance?

Face it. This is really what psychologists call displacement behavior. By continuing to do the bench science, you get to delay, or maybe avoid entirely having to confront your real responsibilities – coordinating across groups, planning, etc. You also have to recognize it’s a dead end. Maybe you can single-handedly do enough research to make three people look good. But you can’t do enough to make 30 people shine, or even six. By micromanaging you limit fundamentally the scope of contribution you could potentially make. If instead you communicate the value of your group’s work to others, communicate the larger organization’s needs and goals to your group, and other such simple tasks, you can magnify the positive impact of groups of almost unlimited size.

Talking more than listening. Talking takes energy! You have to have something to say. It has to be more important than what others might have to offer, should you remain silent. The strain of actually achieving that gravitas, or the strain of convincing yourself, against the evidence in the facial expressions of those around you, that what you have to say is consequential, can quickly exhaust you.

By contrast, listening is energizing. The people around you have so much group experience! So many good ideas! And the more you listen, the more relaxed they become, the better their thoughts, and the more readily they share.

This segues into the next way you can stifle those around you…

Lavishing criticism; withholding gratitude and praise. Of all the forms of talking, criticism takes the most effort. If you’re going to belittle someone, tear them down, you have to invest enormous emotional energy in the task. And once you’ve backed them into a corner, keeping them there can be a full time job. No one can keep more than the smallest handful of people cowed. Try this on a larger group, and someone will dish out payback at the first loss of concentration.

By contrast, compliment good work, and people quickly find they enjoy that. Maybe they’ll work harder in order to earn more favor. But what really happens is more fundamental. They start to see themselves in a more favorable light. They’ll get in touch with their dignity and nobility, and as they believe in themselves they will grow increasingly more capable.

Taking credit for the work of others. For insecure managers and leaders, this is a tempting opportunity. But we should all fight it. It is especially important that you praise your people up the chain and outside the organization. Praise your people to your boss. First of all, this is the truth. Second, your boss won’t think the less of you; she’ll think you’re being modest. Praise your people to the outside world. All the hearers aren’t dumb; they’ll all want to come work for you!

I got to see these factors at work in my very first management job. One of my fellow branch chiefs used to put his feet up on the desk. Any time he had to put his feet on the floor, he’d ask himself, “which of my employees made this necessary?” When you got three marks against your name, he’d quietly move you to another group. Then, about those remaining, he’d say, “I have a group of self-starting super-stars who need no help from me.” It was God’s truth, but everyone said, “modest old Bob.”

By contrast, another group chief once told our boss and the rest of us in a meeting (I am not making this up), “You’re lucky you have me to manage this turkey farm. Without my riding herd on them all the time, they’d be useless.”

!!! Those in his group who could, fled at the earliest opportunity. It wasn’t long before some of those alumni, working in other groups, proved to be the Who’s Who of NOAA.

These are just a few examples. You can add your own or improve these!

Watch others. Do some introspection. Come up with your own list of ways to reduce your effort, improve your group’s productivity, and make the world a better place in the bargain.

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One Response to Leaders, do you want to make your workers more effective? Then lighten up.

  1. Paul Higgins says:

    This is a terrific list. I hope I’ll remember (and implement) it for a long time.

    I have one to add to the list (and I know you know it well): In general, people work hardest and accomplish the most (and are most easily retained) when they care passionately about what they are doing. The more we can ensure that our people are eager to do what they do, the more effective we’ll all be.

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