When I was in primary school, a police officer came to speak to our class.
He said the vast majority of any population will not commit crime unless they forced into an extreme situation. Then, he said, most of us would justify what we needed to do in order to survive. It seems research from across countries, and cultures, bears out this truth.
The vast majority of people will do the right thing if their environment is safe.
I just wish I had recalled that talk when I started my career.
As a newly-qualified accountant I was put in charge of a team who were vastly more experienced than I was. To make matters worse, I fell for the trap most new managers do. I managed by task.
My team were right to feel frustrated and unhappy. Mostly they didn’t want to interact with me, but when they did, I was overwhelmed with their to-do lists and gripes. This limited time for my own tasks.
I learned the only guarantee we have when we manage people by task is a longer to-do list.
My zeal to manage by task was misguided and doomed to fail. Because most people under almost all circumstances will do the right thing.
What I needed to do was pay more attention to the environment we were in.
Manage the environment, not the task.
The simplest way I found to shift my focus from task to environment was to ask is there anything I could do to help. I’ve found this question is hardly ever answered with people wanting to hand back tasks. Almost always we will be told about the one or two things that block tasks from being completed.
It is up to us as leaders to address blockages. In doing so we begin to change our environment.
When I shifted my focus onto shaping the environment, I started to find that the tasks – once the sole focus of my attention – began to take care of themselves. In fact, whole chunks of work disappeared because those same people felt empowered to change the way they did their jobs. The team felt more valued. Creating a positive environment shows we trust people to get their job done – and that we care.
Focusing on our attention on the work environment is not an excuse to neglect procedure or the many jobs that need doing. Nor does it mean things don’t, or won’t, go wrong. Leadership is full of challenges and always will be. However, when change is required, or when an issue arises, it so much easier to tackle in a positive environment.
It took me too long to appreciate that people don’t come to work because they want to be managed. Almost everyone I have worked with has been more than capable of managing themselves. Most people come to work to make a difference and find fulfilment in their career.
Jeff Miller is an experienced Chief Executive Officer, business strategist and communications specialist. Jeff has led organisations for over 20 years and enjoys writing about his experiences, both good and bad. He loves helping people, and organisations, achieve their full potential.