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self-fulfilling. This is called the “Pygmalion Effect,” and it can powerfully change the way your co-workers perform.

million pages. I haven’t read them all, but they are full of “helpful” tips such as:

To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you assume people want to do great work or crappy work, you’ll be right.

“Be trustworthy.”

What would make work better? The assumption here is that it is the job of a leader to reduce friction. I call it the PITA principle. PITA is the friction your employees have to deal with every day. (In case you’re still wondering, PITA stands for “pain in the a--.”) The job of an approachable leader is to be a heat-seeking, frictionsmoothing machine.

“Match your style to the situation.” “Start with why.” “Focus on crucial conversations.” “Learn the 7 habits.” None of this is wrong. It’s all great advice. I just think it’s too much. Leaders are busy. What we need is one thing to focus on that is fundamental to all the other stuff that’s out there. Approachability does that.

PITA factors have a big negative impact on performance. Another meta-study cited by (this one covered 169 studies with more than 35,000 different observations) looked at all the main factors that negatively impact work performance. More than 75% of such factors in this massive sample fall in my PITA category. They include role ambiguity, conflict, overload, and situational constraints.

Approachable leaders create the right space for employees. They shrink power distance, which transforms their relationships with employees and positively impacts their work. Approachability increases enthusiasm and cooperation. It reduces turnover and workplace stress. People work harder for approachable leaders. This directly improves your bottom line.

How many of these challenges could be improved by asking the simple question “what would make work better?” Every last one. This isn’t just about making things easier. These conversations also create opportunities to make the work more enriching and engaging.

Here are three simple steps you can take to improve your approachability now:

Where are you going? The third question is based on exciting research from a new branch of study called Positive Psychology. The assumption is that people want to make progress. The school of Positive Psychology is only about 20 years old. Before then, psychologists mostly studied what makes us unhappy—things like depression and psychosis. The problem with that is the more we studied dysfunction and disability, the less people seemed to get well. Some psychologists decided to take another approach. One of the most valuable findings from this research is the Progress Principle. People are motivated when they see they are moving forward. This progress feeds their primal (some say genetic) desire to continuously improve. The Progress Principle triggers the internal motivation of employees. If you help create opportunities for your employees to make progress, you won’t have to do much leading. Their internal motivation will catch fire and your employees will lead themselves. Focusing on progress increases productivity, enthusiasm, engagement, and innovation. It also makes you look like a pretty terrific leader. After all, developing people is what leadership is all about.

SOLVING THE LEADERSHIP QUESTION We’ve been trying to solve the leadership question for a long time. A quick Google search on leadership brings up 640

Shrink the gap. Consider power distance in all your relationships. Think about what you can do to make others, especially those in lower-power positions, feel comfortable and safe. Seek (carefully) to engage those who may avoid you because of your position. Remember to focus on the availability, warmth, and receptivity behaviors. Ask more beautiful questions. Ask the three questions we discussed above: • Do you have what you need? • What would make work better? • Where are you going? Also think about ways you can ask the questions that fit your style and organization. Keep asking them and make them part of your regular conversations with employees. Expect pushback at first (especially if you haven’t been the most approachable person in the past). The first reaction isn’t always positive, but if you keep it up you’ll see progress. Check your assumptions and remind people they are great. Remember, people want to feel like they are growing and making progress. It ignites self-motivation (the only kind of sustainable motivation). Also assume that your people want to be great. It changes how you behave, shows you believe in them, and creates a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. If the positive impacts of this aren’t enough, understand that if your people don’t see growth opportunities in your organization, they will look to grow somewhere else. AQ Phillip B. Wilson, president and general counsel of Labor Relations Institute, is a national expert on labor relations and creating positive workplaces. He is regularly featured in the business media including Fox Business News, Bloomberg News, HR Magazine, and the New York Times.


AMA Quarterly Spring 2016  

Journal of The American Management Association

AMA Quarterly Spring 2016  

Journal of The American Management Association