That was a question uncovered by my client a couple of days ago. “I used to see those people as people and now I see them as objects. OMG – when did I lose that…when did I change? What happened to me that suddenly getting the job done was more important than the people doing the job?” Take a moment to pause here and realize how big a revelation this could be for a leader.
It was a pivotal moment – a light bulb moment – a when-did-results-begin-to-define-me? moment. It was important because it became really clear what we will be working on.
But let’s roll the clock back. What he discovered was that some time in the past, the results of the team’s work had become more important than the team. Achievement trumped people (their growth, development and well-being) and failure was no longer an option. The tone of his leadership changed because IT was more important than THEY were. THEY became no more than a means to an end…”if you can’t do it, I’ll find someone who can!”
Here the story of how it all began to fall apart. The team came close to perfection – they delivered far more than was expected. But in their moment of triumph, the leader reminded them it wasn’t quite good enough because it wasn’t perfect. It’s like going to the Olympics and winning the Silver – since when has Silver been shabby?
So there they were – delivering excellent results and hearing about their shortcomings and not their accomplishments. That’s what happens when winning becomes the only objective. (For those of you who would quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!” – that is a simple truism that will defeat you in the end. Life’s games are way more complex than that!! In fact, read on – that’s exactly what this is about)
Back to our story. There was little celebration of milestones accomplished. Oh, milestones were noted, but praise came with the caveat that what they had delivered was never quite good enough. Some of the team decided that the message they received was not really different whether they failed or succeeded: if they failed they would be berated and if they succeeded, their success was applauded while any weaknesses were noted. So people began to leave . They defected to other teams and to other companies. The people could feel that they were seen as objects – less valued. They wanted more for themselves. Over time, our leader had changed his focus – from developing great people to delivering great results. He took his eye off the leader’s ball – the leader’s objective. Leading is about delivering results through people.
“When did I lose that? – the ability to see my people as people?” It was a great moment.
What’s the lesson? Before change can begin, honest self-examination is critical. Change requires an awareness that something is not right and an intention to make a change. The “ah-ha” was the beginning for my client. And now our work begins.