Exploring leadership – one conversation at a time


How much of your time and energy in the workplace is given to doing the thinking that belongs to someone else? How much would be too much? It does not take long to realise that using even 5% of our time to do someone else’s work would be too much. And yet, most of the leaders I ask this question have said that they spend more time than this thinking through things that someone else actually has ownership of – many of them significantly more.  A crucial question that I encourage the leaders I work with to develop a habit of asking themselves has thus become, “Who should be doing this thinking?”

The answer to this question does not, on its own, create the shift required to ensure that we are able to work more efficiently. It does, however, open a window to thinking about some of the elements that are necessary to do so, and there are a number of these. We will explore a few in the following paragraphs.

Shifting Beliefs

To begin with, what role do our beliefs about what works in order to get things done play? What role do our beliefs about the capabilities of those I lead play? We know that beliefs drive behaviour, but we seldom spend time interrogating the validity of our beliefs. Where do our beliefs about what works in the workplace come from? I find that too many managers are stuck in paradigms that worked quite well 15, 20 and more years ago when the workplace was less complex, change did not happen quite as fast and the workforce was more compliant. Right or wrong, more autocratic styles which required little thinking from anyone but the person being reported to achieved fairly acceptable results in those contexts, and to some extent they still do.

Most managers in the workplace today have either always worked this way or have only seen this type of style in their role models. The truth is that we are still able to hit deadlines and targets with these styles, but at what cost? Besides the stress of constantly having to drive productivity and solve others people’s problems, we will seldom enjoy the benefit of the kind of performance that truly engaged people are able to deliver. Despite the fact that we have a deluge of books, white papers and dissertations that cite research showing  that today’s workplace calls for a very different approach in order to motivate employee engagement, the shift is slow. The underlying beliefs that drive our way of doing things are not challenged unless we actively engage in thinking to surface these and explore them honestly.  What will it take for you to do so? How will you follow through to make the shifts that will lead to better efficiency?

Create the setting

Another element that requires examination is what it will take to create the right kind of setting to ensure that everyone does the thinking that belongs to their role. At the top of my list here is the question of ownership. Only in a setting where there is both clarity and accountability with regard to the processes, etc. that everyone owns will it be possible to ensure that everyone is doing their own thinking. Questions that we as leaders need to explore here include: Who has ownership of which processes? To what extent does each person have clarity on what they have ownership of? To what extent are they clear on when and how they are required to give account for that ownership? To what extent are those processes aligned with our business objectives and how aware are those who have ownership of this alignment?

A vital aspect of creating the right setting is to make sure that we have truly entrusted others with that ownership. This implies letting go of any need or desire to control, resisting the temptation to solve other people’s problems and resisting the temptation to ‘do it myself’ to make sure it is ‘done right’. There is a real leadership challenge wrapped up in this as it calls for different behaviours to what many of us may be used to. We opt too often for managing people in an effort to ensure things are done the way we want them to be. What we really need to be doing is leading people and creating a setting that both empowers others and ensures that they are held accountable to manage those things that are theirs to manage.

Leadership conversations

A third element emerges as we explore all of this and that is the need to change the nature of our conversations in the workplace. I believe that a large part of the reason that we do not see significant shifts in style and culture in the workplace is because authentic leadership conversations are missing.  One mindshift that helps to correct this is to think more about the ownership we have entrusted others with than the tasks we want to them to complete. The days in which leaders knew everything that was necessary are gone. We are now called on to lead in a way that ensures that everyone is doing the thinking we need them to. An important part of our role is thus to make sure they are equipped and willing to do the thinking about the tasks.

What would an ownership conversation look like? As we explore this question it helps us to think about what truly belongs to our role. It will also help us to decide on what conversations are required in that role, when they are required and what approach to take. If we are not going to do the thinking that belongs to someone else then those conversations are likely to be far more about asking than telling. To what extent are you skilled in conducting that kind of conversation? What will it take to get there?

The question is…

What would happen if everyone who reported to you truly took ownership of their roles and you knew that they were carrying the accountability for every aspect of what had been entrusted to them? I hope that the picture that emerges as you contemplate the answer to that question will inspire you to take up this leadership challenge. The next time someone walks into your office and says, “I have a problem,” ask yourself, “Who should be doing this thinking?”


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