My bottom line

May 18, 2009

Tonight is the first meeting of another 3 week course in organizational behavior. Even though this is my bread-and-butter course, I only get to teach it in the summer because of my other teaching obligations. But I LOVE this course because students are continuously surprised about the power and relevance of the material. There are very few courses where students can walk out and apply the material in their lives today.

Early in my career I was fortunate to be in a small group meeting with the president of the Academy of Management. Someone in the group asked him his advice on how to become a better teacher. His response was simple – have something “to profess”. Belief in and care for the message matters, and people respond positively when you speak from your passion.

Here are some of the main things I “profess” when I teach organizational behavior:

· We usually only notice the behavior of other folks at work when they have done something wrong or unexpected. When that happens, we automatically search for an explanation for the behavior we just observed. Our knee-jerk reaction will be to blame the individual, but the real explanation for the behavior will always be a combination of some things about the person (e.g. personality, attitudes) and things about the system or process (e.g. training, staffing, equipment) which they do not control.

· System or process factors, more than person factors, are the strongest drivers of behavior at work. But it is easier to blame people than to fix systems. If you want to be the most effective leader you can be, stop blaming people and fix your systems.

· People are an open book. Over time, if we know what to look and listen for, people will reveal to us their personalities, attitudes, and values. But for this to have value, we have to be informed observers. If we can’t “read”, we will miss the story. We need to understand our people so that we can encourage them to partner with us to fix our systems.

· Personalities are relatively fixed and stable by the time folks get to us as adults at work. We can’t change people’s personalities, so don’t even try. But we do want to understand personalities, first our own, then the personalities of those we work with, so that we can adjust the thing we have the most control over – our own behavior.

· Attitudes, on the other hand, are not fixed and can have a strong effect on performance. We need to listen for specific attitudes (e.g. satisfaction and commitment) so that we can take specific actions to change those attitudes. The most effective ways to change employee attitudes are always found in changes to the system (e.g. job re-design, better training, and a change in rewards).

· Purpose is powerful. Make sure you and the folks you have been given the privilege to lead clearly understand why their work matters.

· Do the right thing. This is the most basic definition of leadership. Yet reasonable people can and will disagree on the right thing to do, usually because we have different missions. When this disagreement occurs, remember the purpose.

· As a leader or follower, strive to be a resource, not the source. Always be thinking in terms of “how can I help?”

· Create interdependent, not dependent relationships with people at work. Whether leader or follower, strive to be a partner and not part of a superior-subordinate relationship. Partners give 100% effort to their work, but they also see it as part of their responsibility to always be looking for ways to improve the system or process they are working on. The paradox of partnership is that even if we are not invited into partner a relationship that does not relieve of us the personal responsibility to behave as partners.

· There is no substitute for performance – it is our fundamental responsibility at work.  Unless and until we assume full responsibility for ourselves, we force others to assume responsibility for us. We can never be true partners at work until we assume full responsibility for ourselves. There is no blame.

· There is no substitute for caring. Trust is fundamental to our effectiveness as leaders. The most important thing people want to know about when they are deciding whether or not to trust us is our intentions toward them. Over time, it is pretty clear by our words and deeds what we really care most about – ourselves or the people we have been given the privilege to lead. We get a fundamentally and sometimes radically different response from people when they know we care about them. You can’t fake this either.

Wow, that was more than I thought it was going to be! But there is so much more. People do fascinating things at work, and organizational behavior helps us understand why we do the things we do.

And only with understanding do we have the opportunity to create a unique future for ourselves and those we have been given the privilege to lead.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Bret, I like your attitude. And I am in 100% agreement with your principles, especially the belief that there is no substitute for performance (results).

    Leadership appears to play a vital role in your thinking. Aspects of it are mentioned 8 times in the post.

    What do you mean when you use the word “lead” or “leadership?” In other words, what’s your definition for leadership.

    I’m curious how your definition contrasts with mine — which I learned early in my career from my mentor Jerry Weinberg — Leadership is the ability to create an environment in which everyone is empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problems.

    This definition is positively delightful to me. Helping to create that kind of (empowered) environment is my bottom line.

  2. Steve: I like your definition. Environment, inclusive, open to change and improvement. It is also not leader-centric – anyone could practice leadership with given that definition.

    I have two definitions I like, one is in my post. Do the right thing is the first thing that comes to mind. But reasonable people can disagree on the right thing to do, that’s why purpose is so critical.

    The other one is from a guy named Daft. Leadership is an influence relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their shared purpose. Influence, relationship, change, purpose – I things I see as the core of leadership. This too is not a leader-centric concept.

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a very thoughtful post! I always welcome your insightful comments. Bret

  3. Thank you, Bret.

    I hadn’t heard the definition by Daft. I like it.

    As you point out, both the Daft and Weinberg definitions hold that anyone can provide leadership to solve a problem, which is an aspect of each definition that I cherish.

    Another aspect of the Weinberg definition is that leaders follow, which is part of empowerment, another person’s leadership for solving a problem when that person has more skills than they do.

    Leading by following — an idea that turns most people’s definition of leadership on its head.

  4. Steve: I like your thinking a lot. In many ways we are on the same page. Thanks! Bret