Command and control. Directive. Autocratic. Stretch goals. Call it what you will, lately, I’ve been more closely observing the impact of leaders using such approaches with the people they lead. All of these things amount to pushing the people you lead and getting them to do something as you see it.

Why all the pushing?

I believe everyone gets out of bed in the morning with good intentions. People want to have a positive impact on the world, and for leaders they want to have a positive impact on their teams to help them succeed. No one wants to take an action which will actually do harm. 

Most of us were actually taught this behaviour a long time ago. Simply put, we have been raised to think pushing is how we get good results and forward movement. From what I’ve observed, it started in school, and carries over into our working lives.

When kids are in school, they start to learn life is all about achieving the next destination. Getting to the next grade level that is. Many kids are pushed hard by parents, teachers and coaches to strive for high marks. Then when they pass a grade level, there’s a short-lived celebration while sites are set on the next grade level. It leaves the kids always being pushed towards a destination, and losing too many opportunities to grow in this moment they’re in right now.

Then one day they graduate into the ‘real world.’ I remember thinking I’ve finally escaped the treadmill known as school. Unfortunately, you can guess what I found in the working world. In the working world, I believe you get pushed all the more as companies are also holding carrots and sticks over your head. It’s totally normal and expected in far too many companies that you will push yourself, or be pushed by others almost constantly.

Unfortunately, there seems to be this belief in many corporate cultures that the way to grow people is to stretch them. From my experience, it’s fairly commonplace to give teams near impossible goals to meet. Then once they sweat and toil to figure out how to do that, push them to do it sooner. Then when things go wrong, jump in to push and direct the team as if the leader actually knows more than the team at that point.

Countless leaders have tried to explain to me why they need to push people in this way. They set a stretch goal in the name of seeing if the team can find a way to pull it off. They’re confident the team will be better for the experience. Leaders do all of these things justifying their actions in the name of success. However, I don’t blame the leaders as they’re good people caught up in a bad system.

The problem is when leaders push the people they lead in the name of success, the outcomes are anything except successful. Pushing teams towards some imaginary goal may create a short term success, but have a long term cost you may not recover from.

The impact of pushing

In my study of The Responsibility Process®, I have come to see the impact a leader can have on people when they push them. When pushed by a leader who is being directive, the natural tendency for people is to go into The Control Cycle®When in The Control Cycle, people will simply strive to comply with what they’re being told. There is no growth or learning that occurs here, and there’s little independent thought happening. So the thought that by pushing a team they will grow and become stronger is misguided.

When a team is operating from The Control Cycle, it’s been my experience things will almost never work out well. On a project, the team may seem to meet their goals, but in almost every case it’ll come at the cost of people, quality, scope or some other far more important factor than an imaginary goal management created.

At first, it may seem the team is responding well to the leader’s direction as they seem to get busy running around following orders. However, before long problems will start emerging, or it may be there are terrible quality problems in what is delivered. It’ll start to become increasingly apparent the team continues to be in trouble. When this happens you will see one or more of the following mindsets emerging:

  • Lay blame – The team will admit there is a problem, and point the finger elsewhere saying it’s their fault we have such challenges. In other words, the problem is someone else, and unless the other person changes the team will see themselves as powerless.
  • Justify – The team will admit to a poor result and point to some external factor to explain why they were powerless to improve the situation. The problem is still now themselves, and unless something external to the team changes they will see themselves as being unable to improve.
  • Shame – they will just admit they suck as a team. They see all the problems as being in their control, and how they’ve been ineffective at changing. With shame, we humans have a coping mechanism known as quit which means in this case the team will seemingly just accept that this is the best they could hope for
  • Obligation – when pushed, many teams will include obligation in their mindset. In other words, they will comply because they feel they have no choice. With obligation, we also have a mindset of quit which in this case means, the team will prioritize their obligation over the quality of their work. 

Regardless of which mindset the people land on, I want you to see there’s a high cost to pushing. You might get a short-term, often superficial, success. However, you will pay a long term cost of unengaged people, low quality, poor standards, unhappy customers and more. 

When I’ve had this conversation with Leaders I find they often to go a final mindset I haven’t talked about yet; denial. In denial, I hear leaders tell me how they don’t think they have a problem as a result of pushing. They go on to explain to me how by being tenacious, throwing lots of people and money at the problem, or cutting scope they were able to deliver a good product. I know from experience being in denial is simply a way to cope, to feel better, and not have to confront some uncomfortable truths about yourself and the company. Denial is a powerful place to be when you’re not ready to confront your truths.

What I am certain about, is organizations will cease to exist if they continue to live in denial, put their people into The Control Cycle by pushing them, and not confront the truth of what is happening.

What does it mean to be successful?

There are many ways to measure success. Meeting delivering dates, staying within budget, high-quality products, and more. While these are all certainly valid measures of success and not to be discounted, not one of them will assure the future of your organization. 

What will assure the future of your organization is the people. If you look around at some of the most truly successful companies around the globe, you will find the best companies are those who first focus on the people. I’m not saying processes, technology, tools, etc are not important. Without the people, though, none of those others things will help you. So when you push your people, stop engaging them fully, and in the end burn them out you are going to lose the one thing providing the most assurance about your future.

So if you want to succeed, it’s time to start changing how you think about leadership. Rather than telling a team what to do, explain to them the outcome you are looking for. Let the team figure out the details of how to achieve it, or what needs to change to make it possible to satisfy the outcome you’re after. Whether you want to admit it or not, they know the work better than you so let the experts do it.

A common situation I bump into is when a team is asked to plan their work and come back with a delivery date. I’ve seen many leaders, tell the team that date won’t work, and tell them an earlier date in which they’re expected to deliver. This sends a message the leader doesn’t trust the team, amounts to pushing the team and at the same time puts the team into The Control Cycle. 

Here’s a way to approach this situation: When the team tells you the date, start by being totally honest and transparent to let them know if and why it’s too late. Then tell them you really need their help to meet an earlier date, asking them what would need to change to make it possible. Resist the temptation to tell them, or throw more bodies at the team. If you trust them, they will help you by coming back with an answer you can work with and form decisions around. If you don’t trust them, then you have a deeper problem which is the subject of a different post.

Start by asking for help

You are a leader. A leader is someone who can respond to things the world throws at them. Regardless of the context, I encourage you to start to notice those ways in which you’re pushing those who need your leadership. Whether it’s an aggressive timeline, quality improvements or some other seemingly aggressive goal you need to meet, start by asking for help.

I can tell you from experience, as a leader you will be far more successful and happy in life when you stop trying to push those around you. More importantly, you will see people who are far more successful and happy in their lives!

If you want to learn more about all the mindsets I’ve been talking about, and The Responsibility Process check out Christopher Avery‘s book: 

Building Great Teams

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