Want Leaders to Improve? Make It Their Idea!

One of the most frustrating challenges in leadership development is getting leaders to take their insights from learning or feedback or experience and actually change for the better. One breakthrough solution: engaging leaders themselves in deciding exactly how they will change.

People do not like to be told what to do.

This declaration is based on three decades of experience trying to get people to do what I want them to do. If you’ve ever given advice to a teenager, or pitched a new idea to your boss, or proposed any kind of change at a meeting, or suggested to a colleague a better way of doing a task, you may know what I am talking about.

Put another way, people prefer their own ideas. A Chinese proverb says it best: “Ideas are like children. There are none so precious as our own.” Thus we ignore, challenge, and actively oppose the suggestions and recommendations of others. Just on principle. Even when the ideas come from our bosses, parents, and colleagues who are presumably on our side and often have more experience than we do.

Neuroscience backs up this theory. David Rock, who heads up the NeuroLeadership Institute, brings the discoveries of neuroscience to the arena of human behavior in organizations. He explains that our brains interpret being told what to do or think as a threat, so we respond with “fight or flight.” On the other hand, coming up with our own solutions triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and adrenalin and helps move our brains into a more productive “reward” state. As a result, people are more likely to act on their own insights—not advice from others.

So if people follow through on their own ideas more often than those of others, why do leadership educators present leaders with models and practices in which they have had little if any input? We are in effect telling them what to believe and how to do their jobs, and then wondering why they don’t use what they’ve learned.

Rebecca Newton, business psychologist and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, asserts that leadership development focuses on imparting knowledge and ideas (what kind of leader should you be) and teaching new skills and behaviors (this is how you can become that kind of leader), when the more incisive question is: What kind of leader do you want to be?

Building on Newton’s suggestion, imagine the impact if leaders themselves collectively decide for their organization: What kind of leaders do we want to be? If defined in terms of specific actions and behaviors that can be role modeled, taught, and rewarded, this leader-determined set of practices would be far more likely to flourish than those espoused only in training programs that come from outside experts on leadership.

Google’s Project Oxygen

One company that has defined its own criteria for leadership success is Google. The Project Oxygen team used performance reviews, interviews, surveys, and other internal data to come up with a list of eight key leadership behaviors. Those behaviors formed a basis not only for training, but also for a survey that offers feedback to leaders, as well as a leadership awards program. Google’s effort to improve the quality of their leaders was lauded for its rigorous use of data and analytics.

Note that Google didn’t come up with much that was new or different from what is usually found in studies of great leadership. A New York Times article commented that while Project Oxygen may initially seem like “wheel reinvention,” Googlers like to “build their own wheel.”

My point is: Everyone does. The positive results from this project were not just because data supported the final conclusion, but because Google’s own people provided much of this data.

To make real strides in leadership development, companies must involve leaders at all levels in defining great leadership for themselves. Then, as at Google, this framework will be more likely to motivate actual change on the job, and, yes, better leadership.

Anne-Marie Converse has worked for nearly three decades as a learning and organization development leader for a number of organizations, including HP, Disney, and most recently, Allergan. She currently champions innovation in leadership development.




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