The six worst things a leader-manager can do

We probably all know what we’re supposed to do, at least in theory, but sometimes reality gets in the way. It’s easy to succumb and take a shortcut occasionally, and before you know it, the ‘easy option’ has become the default, and we don’t even realise that what we’re doing is actually harming our team’s morale or its productivity.

So here is my list of the six worst things a leader-manager can (usually unintentionally) do:

  1. Break your promises. What quicker way is there to lose peoples’ trust and confidence? When you agree to do something, or say something will happen (‘Thanks for spending a lot of your weekend doing that; I’ll see that you get some time off in lieu’) honour your commitment. Write it down if you have to so you don’t forget.
  2. Settle for second best. Close enough can be good enough when a task is of minor importance or adds minuscule value, but most of the time, ‘She’ll be right’ just means ‘I can’t be bothered to do it properly’. Don’t accept mediocre when you know you or your team member are capable of better.
  3. Treat all your team members the same. Treating people like the same cardboard cutout, regardless of their age, background, culture, home responsibilities, interests and working styles can never bring out people’s best work. Everyone has their own set of expectations and needs from work and different actions delight different people, so tailor your assignments, coaching, perks and thank you’s to individuals to ‘light that fire within’. That means not treating people as you want to be treated but treating people as they want to be treated.
  4. Don’t explain how peoples’ roles and contributions fit into the organisation’s vision and your team purpose–just give them a job to do and let them get on with it. Nope. Most people want to be part of something bigger and make a worthwhile contribution to it. Explain the bigger picture to that ‘fire within’. (If you’re missing the fire within allusion, see my blog The real secret to inspiring motivation.)
  5. Hide your mistakes; when that doesn’t work, blame someone else; when that doesn’t work, blame events beyond your control. Say no more. Step up. Fix it up.
  6. Sit back, relax, breathe a sigh of relief and put your feet up, especially when things seem to be going well. Wrong again. Chill out, yes, but when you’ve finished that cuppa, get back to work! Now is the time to get on with important but not urgent duties like planning and looking for ways to make things even better. What in your job, your team’s jobs, your team’s processes, your learning and development and that of your team, for instance, can you improve, however incrementally? What can you do easier, better, faster, more economically?

So there you have it. What can you add to these easy-to-make leadership blunders?


How to have a long, happy and successful life in one easy lesson

What if there were one single thing you could do that would:

  • get you better grades
  • help you live longer
  • reward you with a higher income
  • make you better adjusted in a variety of ways
  • increase your motivation
  • improve the quality of your relationships, at home and at work

Would you do it? Who wouldn’t?

Let me tell you about a famous series of experiments carried out in the 1970s, so famous that they’re still being carried out today (with the same results). And I’ll keep this as short as I can.

These experiments have come to be known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiments*. Professor Walter Mischel and colleagues offered children aged 4 to 6 one treat of their choice (a marshmallow, a pretzel or a ‘cookie’ i.e. a sweet biscuit). They were told they could eat the treat now or, if they waited until the researcher returned (about 15 minutes), they could have a second one.

Dilemma: eat one marshmallow now or wait a bit and eat two marshmallows? (Here’s a cute video of these poor tempted children. There are several on YouTube and they’re adorable.)

In follow-up studies 18, 20 and 41 years later with the same children (aged mid-20s and mid 40s in the follow-ups), Professor Mischel and his colleagues found that the kids who successfully gave up something nice now (one marshmallow) and waited for something even nicer later (two marshmallows) had better lives by a number of measures than the kids who opted for the I want it NOW! I can’t wait! route. Compared to the I can’t wait! kids, the kids who waited:

  • did better in school and reached a higher education level
  • had a better life style (e.g. they ate better, exercised more, were more ‘clean living’ and therefore predicted to live longer
  • had fewer behavioural problems growing up
  • earned higher incomes as adults
  • were psychologically better adjusted in a variety of ways (e.g. they were happier)
  • were more self-motivated
  • had better careers
  • had more fulfilling relationships.

The conclusion:
1. Being able to wait is a life-long ability that begins around age 5.


2. Being able to wait predicts a better life outcome. 

So how does this translate to us (assuming not many 4 to 6 year-olds are reading this)?

Instead of ‘marshmallow’ think:

  • Should I pick up a cup of coffee from the cafe every morning on the way to work or should I save up for a great dress or a car further down the track?
  • Should I study or finish that report tonight or go out with my friends/watch TV/play a computer game?
  • Should I eat that chocolate bar or that apple?

The way you answer those questions predicts your future success.

But there is light on the horizon if you opted for ‘pleasure now’ over ‘more pleasure later’. You can–we all can–continuously build and strengthen our ability to delay gratification (that’s the technical term for it) in three main ways:

  1. You can distract your thoughts from the immediate, tempting pleasure by thinking about something else, especially something else you want more.
    Should I spend now or save for something better further down the track? Think about that snazzy red dress or shiny new car. Should I study now or play? Think about that interesting job you’re after. Should I eat the chocolate or the apple? Think about being slim, feeling great and looking great.
  2. Remove the temptation. Don’t walk by the cafe on your way to work; don’t have chocolate in the house.
  3. When you can’t remove the temptation, remove yourself from it. Turn off the TV and stand up and go to your desk and start studying; go for a walk or brush your teeth when that chocolate gets too much for you to resist.

The point is, the ability to defer gratification, to wait for a bigger prize, is a learned ability and we can all learn it. It’s probably an understatement to say that impulse control is an important skill to build if you want a successful and satisfying life.

Discussion questions

Are you a delayed gratifier who’s prepared to wait a bit for something bigger and better? Or maybe you need to practice that skill a bit more to strengthen it?

Delaying gratification is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.



* Delay of Gratification in Children, Mischel, Walter; Shoda, Yuichi; Rodriguez, Monica L, Science; May 26, 1989; 244, 4907; Research Library

pg. 933

The real secret to inspiring motivation

I was asked to talk about how to inspire motivation on Annette Marner’s ABC radio show and the usual things sprang to mind:

  • Motivation isn’t about lighting a fire under someone it’s about lighting a fire within someone.
  • Motivation isn’t about fear or money, which are external, it’s about internal things, like pride and satisfaction and contributing something worthwhile.
  • Motivation is about getting two important things right: psychological rewards and job placement.

And so on. It’s all in Chapters 10 and 11, as I certainly hope you know!

As I was writing up a few notes for myself, a sudden thought struck me: motivation is about feelings:

  • feeling valued and respected
  • feeling you’re getting somewhere, achieving something, making progress
  • feeling proud of what you’re doing
  • feeling you’re using your talents and developing your potential.

All right, it isn’t the theory of relativity, but I think it’s a new twist on the way we think about motivation, and sometimes when we see something from a slightly different angle, we see it completely differently.

Feeling something is a lot different, and a lot stronger, than just knowing something. When you feel something, it’s really part of you and therefore drives your performance much more and much further than knowing something.

Discussion questions

What actions can you take, or what can you say, to make your team members feel valued and respected? Feel they’re making progress and achieving something? Feel proud of their work? Feel they’re developing as people and learning valuable skills?

When power goes to your head

I think we probably all know someone who has a little bit of power and it’s really gone to their head; it’s like they believe their own PR! Before I started working for a really nice, no let’s make that a fantastic boss (that would be me when I went out on my own), I used to think it was because the boss’s PA would rush around after him (invariably it was a him), fetch his tea, collect his dry cleaning, make sure he left for appointments on time and had all the papers he needed with him. These bosses got to believe they deserved all that red carpet treatment, when in fact, without that PA supporting them, they’d have been exposed for the very average, normal human beings they really were!

Power must be great, though, because so many people really hang onto it when they have it, well beyond their use-by-date. Or frantically try to get it back when they lose it. But I digress.

A Canadian neuroscientist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Dr Sukhvinder Obhi, has done a study on the psychological impact of power. The bottom line is, surprise, surprise, power makes people aloof, unfriendly and distant and powerful people, therefore need to learn to take into account how other people might be feeling. Shucks, I bet most of us could have told him that!

But maybe we couldn’t have told him why–although it’s obvious when you think about it. It seems that to get to a position of power, you need to be able to ignore irrelevant information and concentrate on what is relevant to the job at hand. Well, that might make you a better manager, say, but it also means you’re likely to ignore people, at least those who aren’t’ directly helping you achieve the task at hand, and that makes you aloof, unfriendly, distant and so on. It isn’t personal–powerful people just don’t recognise the fact that other people are, well, people–unless they’re directly helping them achieve their goals.

And it seems that even a very small dose of power is enough to turn an otherwise nice person into an aloof, distant, unfriendly person–something they probably wouldn’t be were it not for the power.

This is where it really gets interesting. Obhi found that there is a very good reason for that: power fundamentally changes how your brain operates. Whoa!

Obhi and his colleagues put their research subjects in the mindset of feeling either powerless or powerful by writing about a time they either depended on others for help or about a time they were calling the shots. Then they all watched a short video of a hand squeezing a rubber ball a few times, sort of monotonously. Obhi and his team tracked the wired-up brains of the participants while they watched, looking at the part where our mirror neurons are–they’re the ones that make us smile back when someone smiles at us or feel tempted to be rude back to someone who is rude to us.

Watching a hand squeeze a ball, or seeing someone smile, or pick up a cup of coffee, or whatever, activates your mirror neurons just as if you were doing that action yourself. Apart from leading you to reciprocate, or do the same thing, you also get a strong clue as to what that person is thinking. And that’s what empathy is, in essence–being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. We need our mirror neurons to be in good working order, in order to be nice people.

Back to Obhi’s experiment and the video of the hand squeezing the ball. The mirror neurons of the people who were feeling powerless strongly activated and the mirror neurons of the people who felt powerful didn’t activate much at all. And that explains why powerful people have less empathy and seem distant and aloof. It’s because they are.

So the lesson here, current and future leaders of Australia and magnates of industry and commerce, and while we’re at it, let’s throw in a few politicians, too, the lesson here is this: when you’re in a position of power, take extra, extra care to be considerate to and cognisant of, the people around you. They’re ultimately holding you up.

Discussion questions

How do you plan to keep grounded when you get your five minutes of fame?

Four skills you need to make a difference

I’ve been updating the risk management chapter and there’s so much information, I can’t fit it all in! But this information is too good to not  put somewhere, so here it is!

Annette Mikes, Matthew Hall and Yuval Millo wrote an article called How experts gain influence in the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review that I filed to use to update the risk management chapter. But as I said, alas, no room. The article explains how functional experts like health and safety managers, risk managers, sustainability managers, training managers and other functional specialists can gain the time and attention they need from senior managers. Based on their research they identified four competencies to build:

  1. Trailblazing: Don’t just sit there–go out and find ways to add value with your expertise. Talk to people across the organisation, at all levels, and find out what’s going on in your specialism and how you can help. Look for opportunities to make a difference to the organisation strategically or operationally.
  2. Toolmaking: Develop tools, dashboard indicators, report templates and so on to help you spread the word about the benefits of paying attention to your area and to show how the organisation is progressing in it. Make them attractive, easily understandable and easily scanned.
  3. Teamwork: When networking across the organisation to keep your specialist area front of mind, listen and learn–What are people interested in? What bothers them? What do they want and need from you? Incorporate their ideas into your activities and plans. Get their feedback on your tools and reports so you can make them more user-friendly and understandable.
  4. Translation: Help people understand the complexities of your specialism. Fancy words and statistics leave people cold. Translate them to everyday language. Tell stories to make your points clear.

When you’re passionate about your area of expertise, when you really believe the contribution it makes to building a better organisation, and when you have the energy and drive to blaze trails, make tools, work with others and translate your know-how into their words and worlds, you can make a difference. And that’s what it’s all about.