Leaders frequently tell me (or send me) stories of workplace frustration and conflict. Often these stories involve situations where people aren’t doing what the leader would like them to do.
These leaders would like advice on what action to take next.
Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know the people involved, or what the work environment is really like. I don’t know what the leader has tried already, or the factors that may be holding them back from taking action.
As a result, I ask a lot of questions about the situation before I can offer any potential suggestions.
All these situations got me thinking though … about a leadership question that often comes to mind when I hear about these various tricky leadership situations.
If You Only Ask Yourself One Leadership Question, Ask This One
OK, so here is the question that I often find myself asking when I come across a tricky leadership situation, where a leader isn’t seeing the behaviour or performance that they desire.
“Why would the person bother to change?”
It’s a very simple question.
Without trying to find the answers to this question, we will continue to feel frustrated, stressed or anxious when we don’t see the behaviour that we want.
This question is important, because it encourages you to consider the situation from the other person’s point of view.
We often judge the actions of others based on how we are ourselves.
For example, one of my own personal values is responsibility. This involves being reliable and dependable, and taking ownership of my own issues and trying to overcome them.
If I’m not careful, I can become frustrated when other people don’t show up that way. When they instead blame others, or act unreliably, for example.
That’s why it’s so important to consider the other person’s drivers and motivators when we’re trying to find the answer to this question.
Learn More: Why You Need to Know Your Values In Leadership.
It Starts With Understanding Your People
The first step to be able to answer this question is to understand what makes your people tick.
This includes aspects like:
- What drives or motivates them
- Their personal style, likes and dislikes
- Their career or life aspirations; and
- What’s going on for them outside of work.
Understanding these aspects helps you to more easily answer the important leadership question about why someone would bother to change their behaviour.
Take Note of the Word “Bother”, Because Change Is Hard
Notice that in the question, I use the word “bother”. Why would the person bother to change?
This is important, because change is hard. And to make a change, the person is going to have to make an effort.
So we could rephrase the question to be “Why would the person go to the effort of making a change?”
Your instinctive answer to this question might be “Because I said so, and I’m the boss”.
Unfortunately, if it was that simple, I’d never receive any leadership questions at all – we’d just tell people to behave in a certain way and that would be the end of it!
The Most Common Answers to This Leadership Question
The question is simple, but there could be many potential answers for why someone might not put in the effort to change their behaviour.
However, I think most of the answers fall into just a few categories. Here are the most common causes that I believe make up the bulk of the behavioural or performance challenges going on in our workplaces.
Could one of these answers be applicable to your situation?
1. There Are No Compelling Consequences to Prompt a Change
Firstly, we’ll look at the presence (or absence) of any compelling negative consequences.
Negative consequences can be important for preventing future occurrences of unwanted behaviour or poor performance. These consequences include aspects that aim to discourage a person from continuing the way they are.
I’ve seen many cases where people will continue to engage in bad behaviour because there are really no negative consequences for it.
A team member might be rude, but nobody calls them out on it. A team member delivers poor quality work, but colleagues or the leader will fix it up for them.
Leaders are often hesitant to engage in formal performance management working with their HR department, because it can take a lot of effort and may feel harsh. Sometimes leaders also feel as if they may be labelled as bullies for trying to hold people accountable, so they shy away from it.
A key word to take note of here is compelling. There may be consequences, but if the person isn’t really bothered by them, there is little incentive to change.
Are there compelling consequences in place to prevent your people from continuing their unwanted behaviour? Remember that what’s compelling for you, may not be the same as for the other person.
Learn More: Why Leaders Must Drive Consequences in the Workplace.
2. The Potential Benefits Aren’t Enticing Enough
On the flip side of consequences are the potential benefits.
In other words, what is in it for the person to make a change? And is it enticing enough? Or will it simply result in a shrug of the shoulders?
An area that many leaders struggle with is encouraging their people to take more accountability. To take ownership of what they do and to spend effort making sure the work is great. We want team members to be proactive, instead of being reactive and waiting for someone to tell them about the issues.
But… a common barrier to accountability is the absence of any compelling benefits. Why would a person work harder or take on more responsibility if there is nothing on the other side to show for it?
Potential benefits might include salary increases, recognition, training or potential interesting development opportunities. The trick, of course, is understanding what benefits resonate with your people, so you can provide them as an incentive.
Benefits don’t necessarily need to cost a lot of money, but they do need to be valuable to the person. Remember, again, that what you think is valuable may not be the same as for the other person.
Learn More: Want to Build Empathy? Use the Iceberg Model.
3. There Is a Payoff For the Current Behaviour
Another angle to consider when you’re trying to change behaviour is to think about whether there is a potential payoff for what the person is currently doing.
Here’s an example from earlier in my career.
I used to work in a company where one person (let’s call him Tim) knew everything about a particular system that was being used. When it broke, he was the one who had to fix it. People came to Tim to ask questions about how it worked, because he was the expert.
I decided that this situation was a little risky, because if Tim happened to quit or be unavailable, things would grind to a halt as he knew how to address issues with the system. Over time, he had become a “single point of failure”.
So, I started to organise handover sessions with another team member, so he could share knowledge and up-skill other members of the team. This meant we had a backup if something went wrong.
However, I noticed that Tim wasn’t forthcoming with information. He’d skip the handover meetings and hold back information from other people.
So what was the payoff that Tim was getting for this behaviour? The payoff was that he was the expert – and he was able to wield a certain amount of power because of it. He felt important and needed. Even though this also sometimes caused him to be busy and stressed, the payoff was stronger than the potential benefits of giving up his power.
What payoff could be involved in your situation?
Learn More: Power Dynamics: Are They Impacting Your Team?
Personal Challenges Can Be Stronger Than Benefits and Consequences
Something else to consider here is whether there are any personal challenges at play which may be preventing a successful change. These may include a lack of skills, fear, insecurity or a lack of confidence.
If your team member isn’t using the new computer system, perhaps they’re not good with technology and fear making a mistake. This fear may stop them from changing, no matter how beneficial the new system could be.
You may lead a very competent person who you’d like to head up a new project in your team. This person might know that if they lead this new project, they’ll need to work with senior executives in the company, which scares the heck out of them. As a result, you might see the team member step back, instead of forward.
If the benefits or consequences are greater than the fear or resistance, you’ll see change.
If not, you’ll see the same behaviour repeating.
You Can’t Solve This Problem By Yourself
If you’ve answered this leadership question and you’re still not seeing the change you want, consider the following.
You may be thinking more about your own motivations and values than that of the other person. That is, what is compelling for you, may not be for them.
There may be personal barriers that are stopping you from taking the right action. For example, you may be a “people-pleaser”, have a fear of conflict or lack confidence. Are these barriers stopping you from doing what you know you should be doing?
I like introspection and reflection, and I believe they are critical to effective, thoughtful leadership. But you can’t solve this problem only by asking yourself questions.
You need to get in the mind of the other person to truly understand where they are coming from, and what might help them to change.
And often the best way to do that, is to have a conversation.
What are you waiting for?
What did you think about this leadership question? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!