A multitude of ice cream flavours

Lessons learned series: People make their own choices

This is the third in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #3, stay tuned for the last one:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

As a leader you can create a “circle of safety” as Simon Sinek would describe it. You can create the conditions for trust, change, growth and optimal performance.

Then you need to get out of the way.

However, not everyone will respond in the same way. Some people will continue to respond in ways that are unproductive or not conducive to a high-performance environment.

Here’s a scenario: you’re a new leader of a team. You signal that the department needs to develop some new processes; to be more data-driven in your efforts. You can’t go by “gut” alone any more, you need evidence that your work is aligned to the strategic plan, that your department was helping to move the needle in advancing the interests of the organization.

You ask each direct report for a yearly plan, backed up by data. If data isn’t being collected, you want to know what your team needs to do in order to get it.

One of your direct reports does not submit their plan on deadline. No explanation, no request for information or extension.

Except for the fact that you have everyone else’s plans, you would have questioned whether you had actually made your expectations clear in the first place.

During the subsequent one-on-one, it comes out that your direct report has never actually written a yearly plan before. So you provide some guidance and a template that you usually use, plus some resources they could find on the internet. You extend the deadline by another week.

At the end of the week, you got a two-page summary of work already done, but it doesn’t include any goals, metrics, measurements, key messages, or budget, all headings in the template you had provided.

This is a composite, generalized, anonymized scenario of course, because a variation of it is something I’ve seen a number of times.

During one of these times, I turned to a mentor/colleague for advice.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “You can provide no support at all, or all the support possible, but you have to understand: people make their own choices.”

There could be many reasons why your direct report didn’t respond: you had a short time to establish trust and a comfort level, perhaps not enough time for this person to feel like they could ask for more help or training. Perhaps the task was beyond their skill level. Perhaps they felt they had been promoted beyond their abilities and didn’t want to admit it. Perhaps they just hoped you or the problem would disappear. Who knows?

If you have time and your employees are willing, it’s worth delving into some of those reasons, because in most cases, they can be overcome.

In rare cases, they can’t be overcome, and your employee is completely unwilling to step up. In that case it’s time for some personnel changes.

In the end, we cannot control others, we can only invite them along for the journey. Whether they choose to come along is, ultimately, not for us to decide. In those cases, we have to allow for others to make their own choices.

Photo credit: “Once upon a Time” ice cream flavours by Ruth Hartnup on Flickr, used under Creative Commons (CC-BY 2.0) license.