At the risk of stating the obvious, leading is hard.
“Dealing with people,” wrote Dale Carnegie over 80 years ago, “is probably the biggest problem you face.” Bleak as it may sound, the challenge of leading is just that: People.
If anything, it’s gotten tougher. The once reigning champ of leading people at work — wage increases — now displays a “very weak” link to motivation, satisfaction, and performance. Even more pointed, a 2016 study from Fidelity found that 58 percent of millennials prefer “improved quality of work life” over financial benefits.
So, what does work? In short: people want to be treated like people especially at work.
Thankfully, leading like a human comes down to three habits you can start practicing today.
Commitment and the power of ‘well done!’
When Stanford business professors James Baron and Michael Hannan concluded their expansive eight-year study of over 200 tech startups, one finding emerged. Their goal was to determine the most successful managerial style. To do that, the duo created five models: engineering, star, commitment, bureaucracy, and autocracy.
Despite mainstream wisdom, Baron and Hannan discovered that the “commitment” model — which relied on “emotional or familial ties of employees to the organization, selection based on cultural fit, and peer-group control” — outperformed its counterparts on all fronts. In fact, not a single of the commitment organizations they studied failed.
Leaders can build commitment through a host of methods, but the most uncomplicated answer lies in one we often overlook — encouragement.
In Baron and Hannan’s study, encouragement lay at the heart of each commitment organization. Likewise, Duke behavioral economists Dan Ariely validated this finding through a series of experiments at Intel. Compliments — nothing more than a simple “Well done!” from the boss — increased productivity 34.7 percent more than monetary bonuses over a one week period.
Because while cash led to initial boosts in motivation, feelings of entitlement immediately followed. Compliments, on the other hand, sustained. Gratitude is arguably the single most beneficial human emotion. That’s true day to day as well as when your people make career decision with long-term consequences.
The thing is, compliments and commitment don’t happen by accident. They take intentionality: a deliberate focus to look for what’s right and call it out. “Praise and gratitude,” says Katie Melissa, CEO at Starbound Marketing, “are always more effective than criticism. People inherently want to feel appreciated and important.”
This is all the more vital when the people you lead struggle and stumble. As Jeremy Miller puts it, “A word of encouragement during a failure is worth more than an hour of praise after a success.”
Autonomy and the freedom of ‘less’
The second avenue to humane leadership is a favorite among forward thinkers. Unfortunately, it’s also the most counterintuitive. Daniel Pink — in both his TEDTalk and book-length treatment — lays out the comprehensive benefits of autonomy:
“According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, enhanced persistence, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.”
Autonomy means freedom, and freedom stems from the little word “less.”
Starting out in a career or new environment, structure fuels performance. But as time progresses, what top performing team members look for is autonomy and trust. “If you want to run an immature team,” explains brand strategist Leonard Kim, “keep a tight structure. But if you want to attract the best of the best to follow you, then loosen your grip.”
In other words, leading more demands leading less… or at least leading less hands on.
Micro-management breeds resentment, which why the most practical place to start is with less meetings. Estimates on how much time meetings wastes range from 25 to 50 percent of our total working hours. Too often, those meetings are little more than veiled attempts for leaders to flex.
Whether small, large, or even one-on-one gatherings, this desire to exert control stems from the fear that the people we lead are going to make mistakes. But as Ed Catmull, founder and CEO of Pixar, points out:
“Failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy … dooms you to fail.”
The other alternative is to transform necessary meetings into genuine human gatherings. In the delightfully titled Meet Is Murder, James Graham outlines “Holacratic” meetings, which leaders like Tony Hsieh, C.E.O. of Zappos, and Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Medium.com, have embraced:
"Each Circle holds a weekly or biweekly ‘tactical meeting’ for progress updates and a biweekly or monthly ‘governance meeting.’ A governance meeting starts with a Check-In, or rather (according to Holacracy literature) ‘a space for every participant to call out any distraction and get present for the meeting.’"
Intentionally limiting oversight can sound scary. But that’s why easing into it with less meetings or your own adaptation of the Holacratic system works so well.
Agility and the people ‘closest to the problem’
Our final method comes from the unlikely worlds of car manufacturing and software development. “The agile methodology,” as Charles Duhigg explains in Smarter Faster Better, “emphasized collaboration, frequent testing, rapid iteration, and pushing decision making to whoever was closest to a problem.”
Essentially, agile leadership blends commitment — namely, collaboration and relational ties — with autonomy — flexibility and decentralized decision-making. Agile leaders entrust responsibility to their teams knowing that humans naturally reciprocate that trust with passionate, long-term commitment.
At the big-picture level, the applications of agile are everywhere (though rarely under that title). Words like self-management, trust, transparency, and personal responsibility appear over and over again in the annual lists of “best companies to work for.”
The quickest way to go agile, however, comes from the last phrase of Duhigg’s definition: “pushing decision making to whoever was closest to a problem.” This can be as small as budgetary discretion or it can be momentous: giving each person full control over halting production (a story Duhigg chronicles).
The rise of remote working makes agility even more crucial. According to Polycom’s recent study of 25,234 workers — The Changing World of Work: A Global Survey — “nearly two thirds of the global workforce take advantage of anywhere working.” That’s a 343 percent increase from 2012: 14 percent compared to 62. The more dispersed your people, the more hierarchical structures become productivity killing bottlenecks.
Agile, in contrast, prioritizes tight cycles of feedback not with internal leadership, but with external users and customers. By giving teams direct access to real-world testing, whether they’re building an app or selling an stove, human-centered leaders empowered the people “closest to the problem” to act.
After all, in the words of Clinton Senkow, Co-Founder and COO at Influencive: “If you don’t trust your employees to work from anywhere and solve problems on their own, you probably shouldn’t have hired them in the first place.”
Being a leader has never been more human
It’s true: leadership is hard. The temptation to rule with gold or gun is hard to resist.
But old-school methods no longer work. What does?
Going back to Carnegie, “There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it.”
As it turns out, the key word in that sentence is the same one that gives us so much grief: “person.” What the people in our lives want is to be treated like people: encouraged, free, and agile. That’s how you lead.