Leadership Mindset, Part I - People are not Machines

The Leadership Mindset series is a collection of thoughts and stories guiding how to create a leadership lens through which to see the world.

Lessons

  • People are not machines
  • Value is not equal to hours worked
  • Everyone has different strengths, weaknesses, and tolerances

I was having dinner with a friend of mine and we were talking about being in management. He was an engineering lead for a well known aeronautical manufacturing company and ran a team of engineers that ensured that the aircraft designs met all the required specifications and safety standards. I was working as a Product Manager at a technology startup and was running two software teams. You can probably already imagine a difference in perspectives (see Identifying Cultural Pedigree for why this is important and how to prevent it).

My friend told me a story about one of his direct reports, "Bob". Bob was a strong contributor and a well liked member of the team. My friend was always pleased with the work that Bob did, and rarely had any issues with Bob. The only problem my friend did have was that Bob would sometimes request to leave after having worked only 5 or 6 hours. My friend was frustrated, and he explained why: if Bob was only working 6 hours, or 75% of an 8 hour shift, then he was losing 25% output each day that Bob took off early. If he allowed Bob to do this, than any number of his other direct reports would surely request the same allowance, and the total quantity of lost output would quickly become debilitating for the team. 

Thoughts that ran through my head:

  1. Was my friend displeased with the overall value Bob was contributing to the team?
  2. Why was Bob having to request to leave for the day in the first place?
  3. What was the reason Bob wanted to go home early?

Question #1: When I asked my friend this, his answer was: No. When thinking about Bob's value as a whole, he was very satisfied with the amount and quality of the work that Bob contributed. What he was caught up on was that he could have more. He was worried he hadn't squeezed all the juice out of the orange.

Question #2: This came to mind because my friend's team was a group of highly accomplished top-tier engineers. They were not toddlers. The fact that Bob was required to request departure in the first place was saddening to me. If they could trust Bob to sign off on the designs for a $100 million plane, then they should trust him to manage his own time, and get done what he needed to.

Question #3: The fact that Bob requested periodic leeway in his schedule hinted to me that he might have personal commitments that he was trying to satisfy. Maybe he didn't, but this wasn't important enough to my friend to even bring up in the conversation. For me, a potential personal commitment, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, would be my top concern for Bob.

Now I can relate to working with, and leading someone that isn't realizing their full potential, but there is a big difference between a person's professional potential and the raw number of hours they work (see Behind the Metrics). There is also a big difference between the value of an employee and the amount of time they spend in a certain location.

My friend's foundation of thinking was not one of leadership, it was one of management. He was making the all too common management mistake of oversimplifying a human being. Human beings are not machines, where you can turn a dial and increase output. That thinking is far outdated. Human beings are highly complex, emotional animals that have wildly varying strengths, weaknesses, and tolerances; and they contribute value that often times cannot be measured in in numbers or evaluated with equations.

This article should serve as an example of how not to frame your leadership approach. Part II will serve as an outline of how you should think as a leader.

Lead Happy!