What is Leadership, Really? Part 1: The Dilemma

By September 22, 2012 Leadership

Part 1 of 4

What is Leadership? Part 1: The Dilemma

Are you in a position where you are responsible for the behavior of others? Many who have been in this position, whether it has been as a parent or in the work place, have found this to be a daunting and frustrating responsibility. For many in today’s workplace, they are given responsibilities within a process, the overall success of which depends not only on their own efforts, but also on the cooperative behavior of others working in concert. Whether you are the manager with legitimate responsibility for the process, or you are one part of an interdependent whole whose fate is joined together with and jointly dependent on the performance of others, we can find the behavior of others to be a source of frustration in our lives and a potential barrier to success.

In many cases, our frustration comes from a flawed understanding of behavior and change, which leads to unrealistic expectations of others. We often hold others to a standard that we ourselves can’t attain. Maybe that last statement strikes you as harsh. Maybe you feel that you go out of your way to “lead by example”, not asking anything of others that you yourself aren’t willing to do. If this is the case, then good for you! However, even if this is true, it doesn’t invalidate my assertion above. Allow me to explain.

If you are one of the frustrated masses described above, you are in the position of wanting others to change their behavior. If no change were necessary, then you would not be frustrated. The frustration stems from the fact that you need (or want) these others to do something different than they are presently doing – you need (or want) to change their behavior. As it turns out, it is when we set out to get others to change that we stub our toe with false expectations – expectations that are the result of inaccurate assumptions about what factors are necessary and sufficient for creating that change.

Specifically, we begin with the assumption that we are dealing with Rational Man.

The assumption of Change of Rational Man is made up of two parts. First, we assume, in order for Rational Man to change, Rational Man must first understand and agree with the Reasons for Change. Essentially, we believe that, before we can get someone else to truly change, we should attempt to get “Buy In” for that change. Secondly, in order for someone – Rational Man – to change, they must also understand and be able to perform the new behaviors required by the change. Some training might be necessary to ensure that the person has both the capability and capacity for the new behaviors. This leads us to the following conclusion – if someone understands and “buys in to” the need for change, and if they have both the capability and capacity to perform the new behavior, then the change will happen. Except that this assumption is fundamentally flawed, a fact of which I am confident that I can prove to your satisfaction, and will do so shortly.

The vast majority of organizational change initiatives are built on these assumptions. The field of change management recommends building your change initiative on these assumptions. If you want to create change, then you must put together your communication strategy to tell people why the change is necessary. And you must explain to people what behaviors are expected of them in the changed process. If necessary, you may need to provide training for these new behaviors to make sure that everyone is up to speed and equipped to play their new role. Sound familiar? And yet, even when all of these efforts are made, rarely does the change take hold.

If you have been the “target” of such a change initiative, your typical goal is to end up as survivors of yet another “program-du-jour”. We adopt the mindset that, if we just hold on long enough, everything will get back to normal. If we are lucky, we may even be able to have a little fun along the way, and manipulate the process for our own benefit. The entire premise of the comic strip, “Dilbert” is based on these dynamics.

The “Louder! Longer! Meaner!” Cycle

If, however (and more pertinent to the present context), you are in the position of trying to get others to change, this is most often an exercise in frustration, and we can find ourselves falling in to the trap of committing an error in judgment that social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. This essentially means that we interpret the reasons for our failures differently than the way that we interpret the failures of others. When we fail to accomplish our own goals, we tend to explain it away based on circumstantial difficulties. For example, when we are late for work, we are quick to point to circumstances beyond our control to explain the outcome. We lost power in the middle of the night, and the alarm did not go off. My car got a flat tire. There was an accident on the expressway, and traffic was backed up and at a standstill. On the other hand, when others are late for work, we are much more apt to explain it based on personality attributes – that person is lazy, or they are irresponsible, for example. These attributions become even more prominent and pronounced when the undesired behavior is persistent, and this can lead to an escalation of frustration, as well as an escalation in the severity of the tactics that we use to influence the behavior of others.

More on that later, but for now, let’s return to our efforts to change others, initiated based on our firm belief in Rational Man. We start out by explaining what we need, and why we need it done that way. We remind others when they forget. We ask nicely. We retrain. Still nothing. Then we start to get frustrated. Our “reminders” become a little more terse. Sarcasm may start to tinge our words. We stop asking, and start making statements. We begin venting to our peers, friends and spouses about “those people”. “They know what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, and yet, they won’t cooperate.” We may begin to imply negative outcomes for others if they don’t comply. And then our implications may become more and more explicit. We get caught up in what consultant, Aubrey Daniels, has called the “Louder! Longer! Meaner!” cycle.

Chances are, you have been on both sides of this fence at various times in your career, and you can recognize the “truth” in both perspectives. But this fact, in and of itself, does not lead to any reconciliation of our dilemma. In order to do that, we will have to expose the flaw in the Rational Man assumption of the requirements for change. If you have any doubts about the inadequacy of these assumptions, the following illustration, which I have anecdotally found to be universal, should put your doubts to rest. My example has to do with the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of New Year’s Resolutions.

Rational Man and New Year’s Resolutions

When I have talked about the Rational Man assumptions for change with groups, I usually ask the members of the group to raise their hands if they have ever made a New Year’s Resolution. Typically, almost every hand in the room goes up. Next, I ask the members of the group to raise their hand if they have ever kept to their own satisfaction a New Year’s Resolution. Typically, almost no hands are raised, and, when someone does raise a hand and I inquire as to the nature of the resolution that they kept, the answer is most often something to the effect of “I resolved never to make another New Year’s Resolution.” Apparently, this experience is not mine alone. This past year, as I was watching one of the network morning shows over the holiday season, there was an “expert” on making health and fitness changes that asserted that more than 80% of all New Year’s Resolutions have been abandoned by February 1st.

So, let’s think about this for a minute. Why are New Year’s Resolutions so ineffective? If we apply the Rational Man perspective, this will prove insightful. Is it because the maker of the Resolution (you) didn’t understand the reasons for the change? Of course not! If you didn’t understand the reasons – the need – for the change, you wouldn’t have made the resolution to begin with. Typically, the things that we choose to tackle in a New Year’s Resolutions are the things that we KNOW will have a huge beneficial impact on both our own quality of life as well as for those we hold most dear. So the problem isn’t one of a lack of buy in. Next, we might ask if perhaps there is an issue with not knowing what, when, or how to do what is required to make the change. I would contend that, in the vast majority of cases, this is not the problem either. Typically, we know exactly what needs to be done, and, in fact, the required behaviors are well within our abilities.

We have debunked the Rational Man assumptions. When we make a New Year’s Resolution, both of the Rational Man assumptions are clearly met. We set out to make a change, the reasons for which are clearly understood (and also clearly benefit us), we know exactly what, when and how to do the required behaviors, and they are well within our capability. Nothing stands between us and making the changes we most desire EXCEPT ourselves – and we can’t make the change. How, then, can we impose these same, insufficient expectations on others? Simple. We can’t. Doing so simply leads to failure. Something more is needed.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t tell people why you need them to change, what you need from them, when you need it, and train them as to how to do it. Certainly, you should. This, after all, is what you would want if someone is asking you to change. What I am definitely saying is that this, in and of itself, is not enough. Put another way, while the Rational Approach to change is necessary, it is not both necessary and sufficient for accomplishing the change. What more is needed?

Continue to Part 2: The New Lens

Jonathan KrispinJonathan Krispin is a speaker and consultant based in Valdosta, GA, working primarily in the areas of strategic planning, business process improvement, organizational development, and leadership development. He is currently working on a book on leadership that adopts a trans-disciplinary approach.

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