From "Beat Down" to "Build Up"

Recently during a leadership workshop I was facilitating, a participant approached me at a break and told me he wanted more out of his direct reports. He wanted to know why his current approach was not producing the desired effect. While I completely believed his sincerity, it became clear why he was getting the bare minimum from his team. He repeatedly said, “I tell my direct reports all the time, ‘Don’t make me do my job.’”  As we continued the conversation, I asked him in several different ways if he saw any connection between his approach to management and the product of his direct reports’ behavior. He kept answering my questions with different versions of, “If they would just do their job, I wouldn’t have to do mine.”  I must admit I was glad when the break was over since it was clear he did not see the disconnect between wanting discretionary effort and managing through fear. I have been thinking about this conversation ever since. 

Based on our discussion, this person seemed to see his job as a harbinger of discipline, seeing fear as his main management technique. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon management style, as many companies promote employees into leadership positions without any training and development in people management or leadership skills.  To make things worse, many organizations have designed systems, processes, and policies to support (and even promote) this management style. These shortcomings in company design often lead to over relying on discipline as a main management technique. This way of managing people within an organization produces many predictable direct and indirect effects that risk the organization’s long-term success.   

“Do what I say or else!” is a management approach that emphasizes error hunting, using the position of authority as a threat, and using fear to manage people. While this approach may produce some behavior change in the short term, the long-term effects are detrimental to direct reports and the organization. These adverse side effects include bare minimum levels of performance, performers reluctant to try anything new, feelings of anger or distrust toward that leader and the organization, and high turnover. 

Leadership is not about beating employees into submission: it’s about inspiring them to become great. The building-up approach to management is the only way to create this type of excellence. It is done through the purposeful coaching of critical behaviors to build the skills and knowledge of employees. This approach relies heavily on creating a compelling goal, setting up people for success by providing the right tools and resources, training to drive exemplary performance, and providing helpful feedback and positive reinforcement to ensure sustained behavior change. When organizations and leaders are focused on the deliberate development of their people and ensure there is a high density of positive reinforcement for the critical behaviors, they will get more out of employees.

Organizations should invest in the proactive coaching skills of their leaders and create systems and processes that support this investment. By investing in a “building-up” approach, organizations will have better leaders and a high-performing workforce.     

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.