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Why Task-Oriented Leaders Lose Talent

Article by John Grover on September 12, 2019
John Grover
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It's 2002. I’m 26 and fired-up. I have a brand new MBA diploma on the wall and have been promoted to my first management job leading a small consulting team. I’m ready to win. I have a sense of urgency, and I know exactly how to get results: I’m going to grind! I’m going to load everyone up with work, bill some amazing numbers, wake up tomorrow, and do it all again.

Five months into my new leadership post one of my best engineers, Todd, comes into my office and with tears in his eyes, sits down and says, “I just can’t do it anymore John. I feel like I’m in a meat grinder with no way out. I’m so stressed out; it’s affecting my health and my marriage ... so I gotta leave.”

At the height of a RECESSION? I think, “WOW, that's weird. This hurts, but we’ll snap back, I have another ace engineer that can step up.” Well, guess what happened? That’s right. He resigned too only a few weeks after Todd. That’s a third of my team! OUCH.

I was learning some lessons: 1) my employees have lots of options of where to work. 2) You can’t put up great numbers with a team that doesn’t exist! What’s most embarrassing I didn’t even know these awesome engineers were stressed out to the point of quitting!

A lot of time has passed since then. Even still, I ask myself questions like, what kind of leader are you? Is leadership all about being laser-focused on the tasks at hand, watching the bottom line, ROIs, and making damn sure everyone is doing what they should be doing? No way!

Most leaders I meet agree that the ability to execute and get sh-t done (GSD) is a key driver of success for leaders today. But I’d suggest that it’s the single-minded obsession over accomplishing tasks efficiently can also become a leader’s downfall, resulting in unintended consequences for the individual, as well as for their teams.

Task-focused leadership needs more

The high levels of efficiency that allow task-focused managers to be effective in short-term situations often come at the expense of long-term performance. Being too task-focused can make your teams feel a bit dehumanized. That’s an energy killer. People positive leadership activities, like building relationships and engaging in discussion around meaningful work, can easily get neglected when things get real at work. But mostly I think task-focused leaders often choose to avoid spending time on these important conversations because they don’t actually understand how they might lead to results. So lets talk more about how being balanced leads to even better results! Hear me out --

Operate with Radical Candor

In her book Radical Candor, former Google exec. Kim Scott makes the case for personal connections at work and gives us some ideas on how this can be done. She identified two dimensions that, when paired, will help you move in the direction your looking for, towards the “Radical Candor Zone”.

 

 

The first dimension, “Care Personally”, is about being more than all business at work. It’s about sharing more than just your work self, and encouraging everyone on your team do the same. It’s not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform a job. To have a good relationship, you have to be your whole self and care about each of the people who work for you as a human being. Let’s get real, work is not just business it is always incredibly personal.

The second dimension, “Challenge Directly”, involves telling people when their work isn’t up to snuff—or when it IS; when they are not going to get that new role they wanted, or when you’re going to hire a new person from the outside “over” them; or when the results don’t justify further investment in the passion project they’re working on. Delivering tough news, making hard calls about who does what on a team, and holding a high standard for results—isn’t that clearly the job of any manager? But challenging people generally rubs them wrong. It doesn’t seem like a good way to connect with someone or to show that you “care personally.” And yet challenging people is often the absolute best way to show them that you care when you’re the person in charge.

Radical candor is what happens when you put “Care Personally” and “Challenge Directly” together. Radical candor builds trust and opens the door for the kind of communication that helps you achieve the results you’re aiming for.

Effective leadership is about balance

Great leaders are able to balance task-focus with people-focus (inspiring, developing, and connecting with others). Highly task-focused leaders tend to have tunnel vision in their drive for results, rather than applying a broader lens that recognizes the need to sometimes “go a little slower to go faster”. Leaders who balance task- and people-focus are equally driven and also strive for results, but they keep the broader organizational needs in mind. They also recognize that it’s not just about being efficient — it’s about being effective.

There is some interesting research being done on the effectiveness of people positive leadership. Specifically regarding inspired teams. Bain & Company recently conducted a study that indicates that the most energetic employees — who we would call “inspired” — were more than two times as productive as a merely “satisfied employee” and 50% more productive than an “engaged” employee. While the path to employee inspiration clearly requires multiple approaches, people-focused leadership is certainly in the conversation.

I’ve seen task-focused leaders operate from a position of fear, often displaying controlling, or perfectionist behaviors that can alienate others and be dis-empowering to their teams. Some might feel like “If I let go of control and empower others, they’ll mess things up and I’ll look bad.” Other task-focused leaders believe that “If I don’t work this intensely, I won’t be successful.” These limiting mindsets keep managers in a “doom loop” of high task-focus and low people-focus, where they doubled-down on what they did best — getting sh-t done.

If you sense that you may be overly task-focused, here are some countermeasures:

Engage in self-awareness and reflection. Notice in real-time when you are being impatient or moving too fast. This provides an opportunity not only to be more present but also to improve your self-awareness. Ask yourself reflective questions to help gain insights into what’s driving your behavior, such as “What am I trying to avoid?” or “What’s my fear in terms of slowing down?”

Ask for help. Ask the key people you work with how well they think you balance your task-focus versus your people-focus. Ask them to quantify it: “Out of 100 points, how would you rate my focus on tasks versus people?” You can also ask, “What could I do to demonstrate greater people focus that would be meaningful to the rest of the team?” If you’re concerned about your colleagues being candid with you directly, a third party such as an executive coach can collect this feedback for you.

Identify awesome ways to focus on people. Incorporate the feedback you receive to identify some regular practices to implement, such as having regular career development conversations with direct reports, eliminating distractions during these conversations so you can actually focus on the other person, or having drinks with a colleague to get to know each other beyond work. These efforts should be genuine and not forced, even if you feel a bit awkward initially. Sincerely asking about others’ personal lives can make others feel valued, and not like a means to an end (nobody likes to feel like an object exploited for profit).

Examine your thinking, and find a role model. I love the idea of creating some safe experiments to collect information that disproves the limiting beliefs that are driving your behavior. This might include talking to others who are good at balancing task-focus and people-focus to gain some insight into how they do it and how this balance has contributed to their success.

To be clear, achieving results is vital for any leader, team, or organization to succeed, but without sufficient people-focus, your success will be limited at every level. You, like many action-oriented high achievers, detest low performance. Why else would you be reading this article? Given that, here’s your challenge: What actions are you going to take to improve your “People Positive” leadership today?

 


 

John Grover is the Chief People Officer and Owner of Endsight. John received his MBA from the University of Phoenix, a bachelor's degree from Auburn University, and earned technical certifications from both Microsoft and Cisco. He was also recently accepted into Harvard Business School's Certificate of Management Excellence program. John is a lifelong learner, constantly pursuing expanding his understanding both inside and outside the classroom. In addition to being an avid mountain biker and surfer, John is dedicated to reading over 50 books a year to improve himself as a leader, father, husband, and athlete. He is also passionate about empowering others to do the same. In the last year, John has written over 60 articles on such topics as leadership, company values, and learning.

Tags: Culture, Leadership

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