|Dr. Theodore Ryan|
Consulting Professor of Ethics
Fuqua School of Business
|Dr. Joe LeBoeuf|
Professor of the Practice of Managment
Fuqua School of Business
How to Lead the Uncommitted?
This is an interesting and important question, since it certainly seems that there are a lot of these uncommitted kinds of folks in the world of work. We may use different names for them, such as uninspired, unmotivated , uncommitted or just disengaged. One of the number one issues in corporate life is the lack of employee engagement at work. Estimates run as high as 70% for worker lack of engagement. This employee disengagement translates into a trillion dollars a year in lost revenue. And, who do we blame? Of course, it is those damned uncommitted! But, in reality, all this may very well be just a convenient excuse for a lack of effective leader and managerial behavior, and not, at its heart, an issue of a lack of commitment on the part of employees. How can it be a leadership issue?
Leadership, at its core, is an influence process: leaders influence others’ behavior by providing purpose, motivation and direction. One could argue that leaders cannot really motivate others --- that is another’s choice. What leaders really do is to provide purpose, inspiration, reduce organizational barriers, and create the enabling conditions for others to be motivated; executing their choice. So, leading is about inspiring others to be motivated: to find identity and meaning in their work, to find their “firm persuasion”, and ultimately to be their best selves every day.
Viktor Frankl, a Nazi death camp survivor and world re-known psychiatrist, wrote a classic book called Man’s Search for Meaning . This book tells the chilling and inspirational story of this eminent psychiatrist, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and other concentration camps for three years during the Second World War. Immersed in great suffering and loss, Frankl began to wonder why some of his fellow prisoners were able not only to survive the horrifying conditions, but to grow as human beings in the process. Frankl's general conclusion, from this crucible experience, was that human behavior was driven by a will to meaning; to find meaning and to make a difference, even under the worst of life conditions.
In his subsequent research in the years following his release, he discovered that an overwhelming number of the survivors he surveyed had a strong desire and commitment to make a difference outside their selves -- to matter in the larger human community. From his research and [emerging support from others -- not clear what this means], humans are not inherently disposed to being uncommitted, but are inherently committed and goal-directed, given the right enabling conditions [which are created by leaders] to be their better selves, and do good things.
David Whyte  suggests in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity that the pursuit of good work, which occupies much of our waking lives, as two major impacts. First, good work creates the conditions for shaping our identity as human beings. Who we are becomes in large measure a function of what work we choose to do. The meaning that is created by our work, is the meaning we attach to our sense of self, our identity and becomes an important guide for our behavior. As John Ruskin put it, “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets from it, but what he becomes by it.”
Additionally, through work, we are enabled in finding our firm persuasion or motivation to matter, the will to meaning in Frankl’s terms, and to make a difference in the world. “To have a firm persuasion in our work – to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exactly same time – is one of the great triumphs of human existence.” [Whyte, 4]. Creating the enabling conditions that allow for others to choose good work, and find this firm persuasion to grow and develop, is the responsibility of leaders and managers, and a critical aspect of inspirational leadership.
So, let’s talk about the components of inspirational leadership that create the conditions for commitment to a firm persuasion. Yes, this places a critical motivational accountability on the leader and manager. Leaders are not leaders when they resort to unfair labeling of employees as uncommitted.
Leadership in general, inspirational leadership specifically, begins with understanding how we view the nature of human behavior. In his seminal article, The Human Enterprise , McGregor was the first to examine how our notions of human behavior shape the nature of how leaders and managers behave towards others. He introduced the notion of Theory X and Theory Y as specific categories of perspectives on human behavior at work. Theory X suggests that humans are lazy, lack motivation, are indolent, and not committed to hard work. The leadership and managerial behavior, which emerges out of this point of view, is designed to create policies and structure that are controlling, directing; it becomes a transactional process.
On the other hand, Theory Y embraces a completely different view: humans are not inherently lazy, unmotivated, or indolent, but rather are goal-directed and desirous of mattering and making a difference. The leadership and managerial behavior that emerges out this point of view, is designed to enable this natural human behavior, and create the conditions that allow folks to reach their potential as human beings; it becomes a transformational process. So, the first question that leaders and managers need to ask themselves is: What is your perspective on the nature of human behavior at work? This perspective will frame a leader’s behavior towards others in the work place.
Inspirational leadership is also shaped by how the leader views the execution of work. Leaders who do not have a positive view of human motivation [e.g. Theory X point of view] create the conditions that treat others as simply a means to get work done, regardless of the impact the work has on those who are doing it. These leaders only care about the work, how getting it done benefits them, and not the human beings doing the work. These leaders focus on creating the necessary rules, policies, procedures and transactions to insure that the work gets done, regardless of whether the work being done is interesting, challenging, or meaningful; all critical elements that enable commitment and engagement on the part of others. These kinds of leaders treat their employees, not as humans, but solely as human resources.
On the other hand, leaders who embrace a more inspirational perspective, associated with a Theory Y point of view, understand that the work must get done, but the manner in which it gets done is important. These leaders understand that getting the work done is important, but insuring that the work is challenging and meaningful to those doing it is as important. They recognize the importance of the development of others, and are motivated by a desire to create the conditions for others to not only get the work done well, but to do so in a way that is developmental, and enables others to be their best selves. Additionally, inspirational leaders create the conditions in which others become willing to help others with their work and to also work in the organizational “white space” – to do work that is not specific to anyone’s assigned role, but is necessary for the enterprise to be successful. They leverage the notion that people are committed, want to do well and the right thing, but just need the right conditions to enable the process.
Given that inspirational leadership can raise the level of employee engagement dramatically, is it still true that there are “uncommitted” people out there? Yes. People vary. We exhibit individual differences. According to Frankl, some people at Auschwitz survived because they had a great sense of meaning, while others, with a weaker sense of meaning, did not. Some people exhibit more achievement drive than others. Our point, though, is that the uncommitted, those who do not want to work hard, learn and grow are in the great minority. And experience shows that even with many of these people, inspirational leadership can provide the catalytic spark.
Inspirational [and competent] leaders have another important motivational role to play in order to maximize the commitment potential of each employee. Inspirational leaders must seek to optimize the match between each employee’s preferences, needs and goals, on the one hand, with the mission and work to be done by the organization. Inspirational leaders get to know each employee very well, and then these leaders work very hard at finding the kinds of work that best suit each employee. The matching cannot be perfect, of course, but employees greatly appreciate that their leader is even trying to make the match.
So, the bottom line here is that the answer the question we first proposed – How to lead the “uncommitted”? – lies with the leader. It is not that people are inherently uncommitted. The problem is that far too often leader and managerial behavior creates the conditions that get in the way of people’s true motivation to be their best selves, and to do good work. Leaders ought not to look outside themselves and label others, but ought first to look at their own leadership and managerial behavior. Leaders must ask themselves, “Am I committed to those whom I lead?”