Leadership Meets Productivity: The Macro View Versus The Micro View

imagesLeaders are fundamentally charged with getting things done. That’s the underlying principle of my seminar/book titled “The Waterfall Effect: Six Principles for Productive Leadership.” Thus, the ultimate objective for every leader is to be productive. Failure to do so results in the loss of leadership, formally (demotion) or informally (ineffectiveness).

Controlling the People – The Micro View

Many leaders, especially those in the professional services industries, view leadership as an exercise in micro-management. They constantly insert themselves into their team members’ every effort. They either redirect team effort by giving detailed, step-by-step instruction, or they usurp team effort by just doing the work themselves. This is an example of controlling the people.

Things get done, but at the pace of one person’s ability and availability. There is no leverage of team member talent or time. It’s strictly a linear result. The harder the leader works – directing his/her team members – the more the team gets done. The team languishes without the leader’s involvement. They are accustomed to direction not self-direction.

Controlling the Work – The Macro View

A more effective way to lead is to focus on controlling the work instead of controlling the people. Team members are generally hired because they are thought capable of doing the work the position demands. Starting from that perspective, a leader can assume the people will do what’s needed, that they will self-initiate, that they will try. (Of course, if they won’t try, then the hiring process and decision making surrounding it is flawed, which is a subject for a different expert to address.)

Working from the assumption that team members want to work and succeed, a leader can focus on controlling the work itself. This is a focus on the timing, the flow and the quality of the work product. In many ways, it’s a developmental effort as leaders focus on helping their people be more productive and to deliver higher quality results. The end result of focusing on the work is that leaders are leveraging the time and talent their team members have.

Tips for Leveraging Team Member Time and Talent

Here a couple of thoughts on how to focus on controlling the work instead of the people:


  1. Deadline Specificity. Clarity is king when it comes to deadlines. It is a contradiction in terms for a leader to delegate a project with no deadline or, worse, an unclear deadline like ASAP, which is only a vague notion of urgency. It’s the leader’s job to set deadlines regardless of how the work was given to them. Controlling the work mandates that clarity in deadlines be established at every step. Without good deadlines, the entire team is pointed into a fog bank of what needs to be done when. Sailing in the fog is a good way to run aground.
  2. Deadline Management – Help People Succeed. When a project deadline passes without receiving the deliverable, a leader has two choices: Demand a reason for the failure (controlling the person) or request a meeting/teleconference to be “brought up to speed on the project” (controlling the workflow). The latter focuses on the work itself and not the person’s effort. If the meeting/teleconference is set for, say, in three hours, the team member gets a chance to actually succeed with the project (by delivering something if not everything) before a discussion ensues on the timing issue. A team member who has delivered some or all of a project is much more open to a discussion about deadline management than a team member who’s already been berated about missing a deadline.
  3. Extract Answers Versus Give Answers. One of the most innocuous people-versus-work controllers is answering every question team members ask of the leader. It seems so efficient, so collaborative and so helpful. The reality is that by answering every question asked, the leader is creating a team who ask questions. What the leader needs is a team who can solve problems, i.e., do their jobs. Using the Socratic method will shift people away from being askers and towards being doers. Instead of answering questions, only ask questions in return. Ask leading questions. Ask questions that guide team members to the answers they seek. Help them learn the way to answers and, eventually, they will seek solutions themselves first before seeking leadership advice. They will become doers.

Shift Towards the Macro View of Leadership

By shifting focus away from controlling the people and towards controlling the work, leaders can achieve much higher productivity. Along the way, the team will become more independent and more effective. Leveraging the time and talent each team member possesses produces a result that benefits the team member, the leader and the firm.

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