Overcoming Leadership Myopia

Howard Behar and Michael Lee Stallard

American leaders need to wake up and smell the coffee. Research from two well-respected organizations makes it clear that we have a big collective blind spot that’s dragging down productivity, innovation and economic performance. Earlier this year, a Conference Board research report showed that job satisfaction is at the lowest level since the organization began measuring it more than 20 years ago. The report went on to show this has been a long-term downward trend rather than a temporary decline due to the Great Recession.

Another well-respected organization, the Corporate Executive Board, came out with a research report last year that showed 90 percent of employees are either not aligned with organizational goals or not engaged and giving their best efforts. It’s nearly impossible to pull out of difficult economic seasons when nine out of ten employees are just showing up for the paycheck. We need everyone to pull together in the same direction to lift us out of this slump. What can be done?

Gradually over time, America has become overly obsessed about managing tasks. In our quest to produce results, we have lost sight of the importance of engaging people. As human beings we have emotions. We have hopes and dreams. We have a conscience. We want to be respected, to be recognized for our talents, to belong, to have autonomy or control over our work and our lives, to experience personal growth, and to do work that we believe is worthwhile and in a way that we feel is ethical. It’s how we are wired. When we work in an environment that recognizes these realities of our human nature, we thrive. We feel more energetic, more optimistic, and more fully alive. When we work in an environment that fails to recognize these realities, it affects our ability to become engaged and deliver sustainable results. It’s also damaging to our mental and physical health. All the Six-Sigma, Lean, benchmarking and metrics in the world won’t help us lead people if we fail to recognize these realities. Leadership is all about the human experience.

We need to recognize that emotions have a disproportionate effect when it comes to inspiring people or burning them out. An earlier Corporate Executive Board research report showed that emotional factors were four times more effective than rational factors such as compensation when it came to motivating human beings to give their best efforts. Emotional factors include whether people feel connected to their supervisor, their colleagues, their organization’s vision, mission and values, and their day-to-day work. When managers invest time to develop connections with and among people they become real leaders who people want to follow.

Little things matter when it comes to connection. As a manager, do you invest the time necessary to get to know the people you work with as human beings rather than always interacting with them as human doings? Do you get people together to inform them about matters that are important to them? Do you ask for their opinions and ideas to improve business results and do you consider what they say? In addition to getting people together to discuss the business, do you get the people you lead together regularly for social time to connect? They need that too! There are a number of management gurus who bad mouth meetings but we know from our experience that meetings and face-to-face conversations are indispensible for connecting with people, aligning them with strategy, and inspiring them to give their best efforts.

SAS Institute, the world’s largest privately-held software business, was recognized this year as number one on Fortune’s “Best Places to Work” list for 2010. Jim Goodnight, CEO and co-founder of SAS Institute, created a culture where the work hours are reasonable, employees work on a beautiful wooded 300 acre campus in Cary, North Carolina and they work in offices rather than cubicles. SAS Institute extends an array of benefits to employees that is second to none. Goodnight regularly sits with different groups of employees in the company’s cafeteria and he hosts informal “Java with Jim” gatherings to answer any questions employees might have. Knowing that he could weather the Great Recession better than employees, in 2009 he promised there would be no layoffs. Goodnight told employees that there would be no raises either and asked them to help reduce costs. Employees responded by cutting costs in excess of six percent.

What’s so impressive about this is that Goodnight is not a natural connector. He’s an introvert with a Ph.D in statistics. He would be the first to admit that he’s not the glad-handing or warm and fuzzy type of leader. But he does prides himself on being rational and he knows that SAS’s culture clearly provides a competitive advantage. With a 30-year track record of revenue growth, and employee turnover and associated costs a fraction of SAS Institute’s competitors, he has the data to prove it.

To be an effective leader requires a commitment to serve your organization’s mission and the people you are responsible for leading. Both are essential. Individuals who don’t demonstrate that they care about people will never be true leaders and, frankly, have no place in a position of leadership. They may be successful for a short time but eventually they will fail. Leadership failure happens when people stop giving their best efforts and stop communicating so that leaders don’t hear the facts they need to hear in order to make optimal decisions.

Leaders at the top of organizations have some work to do, too. They would be wise to put processes in place to measure managers on employee engagement (i.e. their ability to connect) and hold them accountable. When leaders fail to meet the standard, help them with coaching, mentoring, education and development. If they prove to be unable to connect with the people they manage, they shouldn’t be in leadership roles.

In addition to the right processes, leaders from the top down need to embrace the importance of conversation and be patient to develop a consensus on issues that are important to employees at large. Conversation and consensus are the only way to develop the strategic alignment and employee engagement necessary to achieve sustainable superior performance. When issues are pushed through to get “buy-in” rather than communicated with an open mind to find the very best solutions, those individuals whose ideas have not truly been considered start to feel like outsiders and many become indifferent or work to sabotage the organization’s efforts.

For individuals and organizations to thrive again, we must be intentional about balancing the time we spend managing tasks and connecting with the people in our organizations. Too much time spent on one side or the other is unhealthy and leads to poor performance. When we invest time connecting with people they give their best efforts, focus on the right tasks, and help one another. They are also more willing to share their knowledge and opinions. In an environment of connection, decision-makers are better informed and the organization’s internal marketplace of ideas fuels innovative new products, processes and business opportunities. This is what we desperately need right now to get us out of the Great Recession and to ensure a bright future.

Howard Behar is the former president of Starbucks North America and Starbucks International. He is the author of It’s Not About the Coffee. Michael Lee Stallard is president of the leadership training firm E Pluribus Partners, author of changethis.com’s Connection Culture Manifesto: A New Source of Competitive Advantage and primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out.

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12 thoughts on “Overcoming Leadership Myopia

  1. Thanks David! Really appreciate it.

    Although Howard and I didn’t get into this, what bothers me as an American is that we are exporting our unhealthy work cultures via globalization. I empathize with countries that don’t want such cultures forced upon them. Ironically, today’s work environment is inconsistent with the values America has traditionally aspired to live out such as valuing people as human beings rather than seeing them as means to economic growth. What has this materialism and self interest led to? Today, Americans are the most addicted, most obese and loneliest people in the world.

    As a Canadian and expert on leadership and employee engagement, I would love to hear your perspective on this.


  2. I quite agree Michael, and in the questionnaire that I designed to measure organization’s Knowledge Management climate, alignment and passion are constructs I am looking at.

    This week I had a job interview and what was stunning clear to me was the interviewer’s stolid focus on the “plumbing” rather than the people. When I tried to emphasize the engagement side of social networking and how this fitted into a Community of Practice model, the interviewer grew restless and stiffened.

    No surprises that I didn’t get that particular job 😉

    Engagement doesn’t mean showing up at the company Christmas do or attending the BBQ, it means that one can be passionate about what the company does, feel right about how they behave, and feel attuned to how they think.

  3. Great post. Just had a conversation today with a scholar who said that psychologists did the test of the personality traits of the “corporate person”, and behaviours align with personality disorders straight from the DSM-IV that correspond to sociopaths and psychopaths!

    There are serious implications for enterprises, managing people, and also selecting them and rewarding them. Which may go a distance to explain just why so much dissatisfaction at work these days. But also for whole societies that reward and elevate this kind of behaviour above others!

    This all foots with research I did a few years ago on risk behaviours and compensation practices in Finance, and the kinds of personalities elevated in today’s corporations. British Journal of Psychology published a study that showed higher than average narcissistic and authoritarian personality disorders in corporate executive cadres. I wouldn’t have needed the Brit Psych Journal study to have smelled that one after 25 yrs in global business!

    In the end, the shareholders lose! They pay out more in legal fees, lose money, and economic value when whole brands get wiped out like Lehman, Bear Stearns, Riggs Bank, etc. They also have to hire more people to watch their backs, which I know for some LLP investors who are some of the biggest “money as speech” advocates of “free markets”. They know clever people are out to steal from even them, and can! They can afford to pay independent auditors and private investigators to protect them, yet they persist in forcing this light touch de-regulation through bought Congressmen on everybody else who really do need their hard earned money earned from real wages (not “unearned income” from tax games and hidden subsidies)!

    RE: your comment above “inconsistent with the values America has traditionally aspired to live out such as valuing people as human beings” …I am not so sure reading the authorized biography of Andrew Mellon and Cornelius Vanderbilt etc. that those ever really were our real values in this country. Those may have been the values the Middle Class were told to believe in, or needed to in order to survive in a much more interdependent mode! But, the real owners of our economy??? History says something otherwise, including the misanthropic policies the real money is backing (and buying) today under generations of Justice Departments and SCOTUS…

    This is the kind of inside joke to which Niall Ferguson could have been referring at a PEN World Voices Festival conference on the economic crisis a few years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the thick of the meltdown in 2008/2009. I went ballistic from the Gallery! In response to Krugman arguing that Keynesianism is what built America (i.e. constant war spending for heavy industries like Mellon’s interests using Mellon’s very own Income Tax to pay for it)…and that New Deal social safety net valuing families and human beings saved US style capitalism in the 1930s, while the rest of the developed world imploded in social unrest and attendant political manipulation by overly powerful vested interests in weak democracies, Ferguson could chortle over and over again that “that is really NOT what built America!” Referring it seems to the mysteries of the Plutocratic powers to exploit legislatures, etc…Seems some maybe more clued in than others as to what really built America (or what errant narrative they want all of us to believe)!

    Anyway. Great post. Hopefully 80M Baby Boomer parents will be able to right this ship for their 100M Gen Y kids they’ve created quite a mess for through a combination of sins of commission and omission! Fun fun fun as we peel away the onion like you’re doing, and Humpty Dumpty stays splayed on the pavement!

  4. The 20 years spent as a professional HR person, I have first hand many leaders from many professional areas; who did not have a true feel for people, because they were so focused on the bottom line for a company. I honestly believe what you say is true. If you take care of showing respect, empathy and compassion for those who bring in the money for a company, people will be more than willing to show support for a company’s goals. They will honestly work hard to make a company successful. The idea that people need to be in fear of losing their job and they will work harder to keep the job is a fallacy. Walking on egg shells only makes a person anxious and nervous and does not produce quality work. As a result, the employee fails to perform to the highest expectations. It does all begin at the very top. The company’s leader should be setting the example – walk the talk. To do otherwise, is setting up the company for failure. Next time I interview for a job, I will be asking how much do you want the company to succeed and how do you value your people? That person’s response will determine if I will work for that particular company.

  5. Howard and Michael,

    What a great article! People Management skills need to be developed and rewarded in Corporate America. Charles Feltman, author of the Thin Book of Trust, explained that caring about others in personal way creates a deep level of trust with others.