The shelves of America’s largest bookstores are overstocked with new books about leadership. It has become a national preoccupation keeping management consultants, corporate trainers and public workshops on leadership very busy. America is hungry for leaders and there appears to be many different interpretations of what a leader is. There is no consensus about what a leader “is,” and almost nothing about what a leader is supposed to do.
This confusion is created by the large number of leadership theories being promoted by theorists, publications, and consults. Any company seeking to turn its managers into leaders is going to find a consultant or workshop that suits their taste.
If you browse the bookshelves at Borders, you are mesmerized by the catchy titles and enticing themes of books purporting to teach you how to become a “leader.” Leader is an auspicious word that connotes skills and abilities that are noble and worthy of pursuit. There are so many choices, you don’t know which book to read. It is hard to decide if one or the other book is right or wrong. They all seem to make sense, but it seems that a good leader has skills, assets, traits and abilities that are superhuman. Can one realistically expect to learn how to do and be all these wonderful things?
The intent of leadership development is to train leaders to deal with people in ways that lead to improved profitability. As mundane and mercenary as that sounds, it is true. The purpose is to develop people who can influence others to perform at high levels. Behind all the leadership consulting and training and writing is the intent to increase a manager’s skill in eliciting high levels of performance from subordinates. All the noble words and high-sounding language seeks to provide manager and supervisor with rhetorical skills (often referred to as motivational skill)—to improve how well they induce employees to meet and exceed organizational performance goals.
I have some good news for anyone confused and demotivated by all these choices and theories. Several organizational psychologists spent many months following and observing managers doing their jobs—in the field, on site. They shadowed them everywhere and recorded everything they did; they were trying to discover what effective managers did that ineffective managers did not do and vice versa. If a leader is someone whose subordinates outperform and over achieve—consistently and predictably, then we need to see what these managers do and say that is different. We don’t need theories, we need facts. How do effective leaders behave? And more importantly, can we observe them performing the behavior that is linked to their success?
It is generally accepted that the use of positive reinforcement tends to increase employee willingness to exert effort, but if it is not delivered properly, reinforcement comes across as staged and manipulative. Research findings indicate that the best way to deliver positive reinforcement is naturally and casually, during a work dialogue with an employee about their job. Short verbal comments that verify good work, improvement, or some other valued added behaviors are superior to longer scripted “compliments.” Saying things like, “looks good,” or “that will work,” or “let’s keep that up,” all serve as reinforcers if delivered in the context of a “give-and-take” work discussion.
In addition, supervisors and managers who “monitor” employee progress and check with employees to see how thing are going have better performing units than those who don’t. For one thing, it provides more opportunities to make positive or corrective comments about the employee’s performance, and there is a definite correlation between the number of times employees get consequences (positive statements about value added behavior and results or corrective comments about things they need to change or improve) for their work and how well they perform. You can’t say positive things about good work if you don’t know it happened. That’s why the best leaders tend to do a lot of work monitoring; they stop and look at each employee’s job—doing visual inspections and asking questions about progress.
These research results tell us that these management behaviors seem to get results irrespective of other leadership traits or skills. That is, supervisors and managers who check on their employees, review their work, discuss their performance, make positive comments when appropriate, and make corrective comments in a balanced, give-and-take dialogue, have high performing departments irrespective of personality factors that leadership theories describe as essential to good leadership.
This is not a free ride to leadership excellence, but it provides hope for managers who would otherwise not fit into the leader paradigm described by theorists or who feel they cannot change themselves to align their abilities with those experts require. An average manager or supervisor can begin to improve their effect on employee performance today by simply taking the time to stop by and check in with the employee, review the job, have an honest discussion about the good, the bad and the ugly and watch as performance improves. This type of work-related discussion has proven effective for safety, quality, and overall performance improvement.