A superhuman effort by the team might, just barely, be enough to overcome a poor strategy and bad decisions. When it works, we recognize the team for extraordinary effort, celebrate a major victory and applaud the leader’s tenacity. When in reality the situation that predicated the need for this massive effort could have been avoided altogether.
In many cases, the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Leaders, who are personally invested in a strategy they created, refuse to consider that there could be a flaw in the game plan or a problem with their decisions. Instead, they focus their fear of failure on the team, who, for one reason or another, must not be putting forth the level of effort necessary to make the plan work.
Rather than digging into the strategy to figure out why it isn’t working, they turn to a toxic combination of cheerleading and berating.
“Are you giving your best effort?”
“Don’t you understand how important this is?!”
“We can do this, we just need everyone to try harder!”
When leaders use this approach too often, all we get is eye-rolling and business-as-usual with a nod of agreement by those who worry about maintaining a good impression. People can only take so many cycles of maximum output toward poorly managed goals.
Forgive me for using a sports analogy here but I thought it was a great example. I’ll leave out the names to protect the guilty.
After losing by a wide margin, reporters put an NFL coach on the spot during his post-game news conference. Over the course of the game, the same defensive player sacked his star quarterback several times. When asked how he dealt with the problem during halftime, the coach said something to the effect of, “I told them we gotta block that guy!”
Needless to say, they didn’t “block that guy” in the second half either.
Nor did they improve customer service, hit revenue targets or deliver the new product to market on schedule.
This isn’t meant to imply that a fiery speech isn’t useful at a critical moment when the game is on the line, but don’t make it the first or only option when faced with difficulty. In a bad situation, it might be the worst option.
The team already knows if the plan isn’t working and will realize that going out and “leaving it all on the field” isn’t going to solve the problem. The “try harder” speech, in this case, only kills morale. What they need is something new to try. They want to know that the next level of effort is powered by the next level of strategy.
They want to see the leader step up to the challenge and tackle the issues that make it difficult to execute, not put everything on the team.
We evaluate leaders, for the most part, on their ability to achieve desired results. Part of the recipe for success is having the right people on the team and providing the motivation needed to reach the goal. But that’s the work you do before the game starts. If effort and commitment are a problem, better to address that before even attempting to execute a strategy.
Once the game is underway and the results are falling short, blaming people and demanding or inspiring more effort isn’t the solution to the problem, it only adds to the problem. Any bump in performance that might come from this kind of whip-snapping will be temporary and unsustainable.
Maximum effort is most valuable when accompanied by maximum effectiveness and finding the most effective path is the leader’s role.
Value the team’s energy and use it wisely. Work with them to improve the plan, remove obstacles that hold them back and show them that the extra effort will be put to good use.