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Overcoming Complacency in your Leadership Team

Most of your leadership should really not be in the position they are in.

It is an interesting phenomenon that many ambitious individuals are working hard to become a “decision maker” only to join the ranks of the “blockers” they so much despised shortly after attaining a position of being “in charge”.

They quickly get entangled in the grinding wheels of the system and become paralyzed by what they often claim is organizational politics. If that doesn’t suffice, any other factor outside of their control may be proposed: Lack of client budget, market downturn, hiring stop, a pandemic, global supply chain challenges and so on.

After prolonged debate and the absence of any form of execution, there will eventually be a point when the organization is cornered into taking a decision because the outside pressure is getting too substantial. At this point it’s too late for any real substantiated research, so a decision is forced on short notice.

In small businesses, this often ends up being a simple gut-based decision by the owner. In larger enterprises, too often no one wants to decide because it opens them to the risk of being held accountable for the outcomes. A popular approach is to get consultants to cobble together a business case with some educated-guess-based assumptions so that the organizational leadership has a recommended action as well as a scapegoat if things go south.

What you’ll find is, that while there are many explanations, elaborations and excuses floating around, accompanied by big claims of how simple it is to overcome this challenge, hardly anyone will have an actual plan for how to proceed.

With that in mind, here’s a truth only few want to hear: There is no (!) business challenge, ever, on any scale, for which you need more than a week to develop a plan for solving it. There may be still be some assumptions with a “tbc” in your plan, but if you’re doing it right, you’ll have a pretty solid handle on what will have to happen to overcome the hardship ahead.

This is true for organizations of all sizes. In large organizations it’s just rarely observable because top management seldomly commits to radical changes. Once they do, changes affecting tens- or hundreds of thousands of employees have been accomplished in surprisingly short time spans.

In other words: If your business is facing a substantial challenge and there are people who can find reasons why it will take weeks or even months to outline the steps to overcome it – it’s highly likely they either need strong guidance, or they are simply not the right person for the job.

If this thought process seems too radical, consider for just a moment what the implications would be if you’d be able to almost instantaneously execute once a challenge comes up:

-Skip unnecessary debates and get to developing a solution straight away

-Make informed decisions within days after significant changes in the market

-Have a management team that executes decisively and skillfully

Here comes the question that may have crossed your mind by now:

How can you as a leader increase your organizational response-ability?

In a nutshell: By developing your organization so that it excels in three key areas:

Ability - train your management and your leadership for how to make sound decisions when the chips are down, the stakes are high and pressure is rising

Ambition – guide your leadership and your management so that they stay hungry -develop their personal goals and help them establish their vision

Incentive – once your people are on a growth trajectory, there must be something for them to gain when responding swiftly and decisively. It’s your job to find out what inspirits them

While these three may appear obvious at first, once you get into the details, they are more tricky than it seems.

The key to understanding decisions under uncertainty

When facing a complex situation with unclear outcomes, most people will automatically dismiss unlikely events as being impossible (neglect of probability), interpret all outcomes to be roughly as likely to occur (systematic bias towards the mean) or even disregard the uncertainty altogether and assume that future outcomes are already determined (ignorance). The key to understanding uncertainty is the ability to identify the uncertainty drivers and to be able to conduct a structured scenario analysis.

The key to understanding complacency

Once equipped with the knowledge for assessing future developments, there needs to be a good reason for people to apply this knowledge. In most organizations you will find that decision makers defer actions as long as possible to preserve the status quo. To understand this behavior, it helps to apply a macro view on their career: The complexity involved in advancing in business, especially in the corporate world, typically quickly begins to exceed the ambitions that individuals initially were able to imagine when they started out in their career. More often than not, highly ambitious individuals will settle for a certain amount of comfort after initial promotions and the according salary adjustments. At this point, it is crucial that you as a leader proactively step in and apply empathy to gain a deep understanding of what they desire and what drives them on a fundamental level. Many will need you to challenge them as to why their progress has slowed.

The key to understanding incentives

And finally, the organization needs to allow individuals to achieve. The key to master this third theme is to understand that a) most people are driven by a complex set of motivations beyond money, power and status and b) that status can be defined in a very broad variety of ways. If you are in a leadership position, chances are that power and/or economic status are your primary drivers. This is true for many that aspire to climb the ladder to the higher ranks of an organization. The majority of people, however, strive for recognition, want a sense of purpose or simply seek a personal challenge by, for example, facing complex problems. Again, it is your responsibility to create an environment that compels a variety of different types of high performers to bring out the best in them.

Hands-down: Here’s how you can put things in motion

While managing uncertainty is a skill that can be learned, it is your responsibility as a leader to demand substantiated decision-making processes. So, it is your duty to demand, by principle, that proper uncertainty analysis is being applied when facing uncertainty and making choices. You can start habituating your team towards performing proper qualitative analysis in order to make sound decisions by leading by example and demanding your standards to be met.

Fighting complacency is arguably the most difficult of the three. One tried and trusted approach is to ensure that you are in close contact with your leadership team by scheduling regular 1-on-1 sessions with a structured agenda. This increases your chances of really getting to the gist of what’s going on in their lives and how it impacts their ambitions and goals. An additional upside of this approach is that it inherently brings a certain amount of empathy to your organization. You set the standards for caring. A logical next step for further utilizing your 1-on-1s is to inquire about your team’s teams and, if they are not yet practicing empathic leadership and are not having frequent 1-on-1s themselves, demanding that they get started right away. By requiring your team to conduct 1-on-1s and asking them to pass the demand on through every subsequent level of management, you can implement top-down change that cascades through the organization.

And finally, by having this deep understanding of your team’s needs and wants that you gain in the 1-on-1s, it will be blatantly obvious what the right incentives and motivators for each individual person are.

If your immediate thought to all of this commences in a way that sounds like:

“that all sounds good on paper, but it wouldn’t work in our organization because.…”

...then I wholeheartedly would like to ask you to read the first third of the article again.

Either way, I’d love to hear your feedback, success stories and where you struggled with uncertainty, complacency and incentives.

Enjoy the journey :).


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