“How to Lead Stupid People” as an article title… Offensive, right? Who would think that the people that work with them are stupid?
Well read these statements:
“I was just promoted into management and am shocked at how stupid my employees can be. I give them directions and then they do 18 things I didn’t want. I’m getting really frustrated and curt with them. How do I make sure they do tasks the way I want them done?” – Actual question sent in by recently promoted manager (Source)
“My organization has tripled the number of employees I supervise, and I’m exhausted with how many stupid mistakes they make. I make every effort to train them, and yet they still manage to misunderstand nearly everything I say. How can I make the job to clear to them and not waste so much time with their mistakes?” – Yes, another real question sent into a newspaper! (Source)
Not only do people think that their direct reports are stupid, they are also willing to ask for advice about them… And “experts” are willing to answer.
But take a different look at the equation:
What if the reason that a team is “stupid” has more to do with the person in charge than the people on the team?
People Are Only As Stupid As Allowed
We are the masters of how we interpret the world. That’s why people can see the same glass as half full or half empty – the glass isn’t different, the perspective is. It’s a phenomenon called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a trick our brain plays, only looking for evidence supporting our preconceived notions or strongly held beliefs.
In one my first real jobs, my first manager struggled to identify three positive attributes in my first quarterly review. Right after that, I got the opportunity to do the same job for another leader in the organization. In three months, I was given a huge project to reduce attrition in a key area. It was successful and I was promoted to manager of the group.
- Was I smarter while working for the second manager? No.
- Did I make mistakes and fail while working for the second manager? Absolutely.
But for manager two, I was a capable and resourceful employee. For manager one, I was a total screw up. I didn’t act differently work any harder. The difference was in their perspective…
Do you think that the people who “work for you” are brainless? It likely has more to do with your view of them than their performance.
If Your Employees Are Stupid, That’s On You
Teams are only good as their combined abilities. Leaders aren’t always given the opportunity to pick the people, but they can shape a high-performance team culture. This culture encourages people to step up or step out. Either is fine, as long as everyone is rowing in the same direction.
During a promotion, I “inherited” a team that wasn’t doing so well. I interviewed the team. They were passionate and diligent about doing a great job, but the previous manager assumed their jobs were mundane and they must be “simpletons” (his words, really). He also didn’t deal with a single performance issue.
I took the following actions immediately:
- Started to promote the wins of the team
- Met with all the business partners to realign goals and projects
- Had a tough conversation with the person that was not performing their duties
The team’s performance turned around dramatically.
On Leadership and Culture
Did the team change? Not really. I didn’t rejigger their processes. It was really a matter of what I thought of the team. It’s the notion of “shadow of the leader.”
Essentially, the team will emulate the leader’s actions, and will be a reflection of the leader’s perception of the group. Think about a person you were in a relationship with that didn’t work out, then they end up great relationship. It’s likely they didn’t really change much.
What’s more likely is that they found someone that saw their inner greatness.
You shape how the people around you show up. Unless you are in a war zone (and research tells us sometimes even then), you control how great people show up.
You Can’t Fix Stupid, But You Can Fix You
What does this all mean for the stupid team that you are forced to lead?
It means if you think you are leading stupid people, look in the mirror. The likely cause of the collective stupidity of the team is that you haven’t answered/addressed some very important questions:
Do you really know what the team does?
- Not just the “they process form 47” level, but the impact on the end customer or bottom line – if you can’t clearly articulate that, then how can your expect your team to know the impact of their actions?
Do you know how your team impacts and interacts with other teams?
- Part of overcoming the label of “stupid team” is understanding the interactions between teams.
Do you know what motivates your team members?
- Not the fluffy stuff, but the underlying motivation – this insight enables you to see why they act the way they do.
Do you know their strengths?
- Far too often, leaders don’t really know what their team members’ strengths are – they constantly give them either crappy, mundane work or tasks they struggle with. I’m 5′ 1″ tall – if my manager gave me the task of being the center of a basketball team, I’d fail no matter how hard I worked.
Do you know what they want to do with their careers?
- Its vital to know what folks want out of the time they are working. Is it to be the manager, to get a paycheck, or to start his or her own business? All of those are awesome. This gives you insight into how you can work with them to achieve those goals and frame tasks or projects. You will really have to think about why you are assigning things (and to whom) when you’re assigning them.
Are the people on the team you have the privilege of leading really stupid? Probably not. A team being “stupid” has more to do with the leader than the members of the team. Everyone is masterful at something – it’s just a matter of finding out what.
- A leader actively looks for the greatness in each and every person on the team.
- A non-leader just complains that the team is ineffective because the people on their team are stupid.
Which one are you?
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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders™
Anil Saxena is a President & Senior Consultant Cube 214 Consulting
He helps organizations create environments that generate repeatable superior results
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