A Snake Under Every Rock - The link between leadership style and performance.
Leadership lessons from the wilderness
A few years ago, one of my sons and I completed a four-day bush walk, lugging an enormous backpack along the extraordinary Tasman Coastal Trail in Tasmania’s southeast. Along with magnificent memories, aching knees and sore shoulders, I returned with a new insight into leadership style and performance.
Each day of the walk we encountered numerous snakes on the track. Most of them slowly made their way into the scrub and we were able to pass safely. A few lingered, making us wait until they were ready to move or find an alternative path. Knowing that every snake in Tasmania is poisonous, we were mindful of their presence and always on the look out.
On the third day, we walked out onto Cape Pillar, which has the highest sea cliffs in the southern hemisphere. We met a number of trail workers developing a new track to minimise the environmental impact of walkers. Chatting with one of them, I asked if they had many problems with snakes – he responded by holding up his gloved hands. ‘They are everywhere. We have to work on the assumption that there is a snake under every rock, every bag and around every corner’, he replied, before going on, ‘and it slows us down. If we didn’t have to worry about snakes, we would make twice the progress.’
Mindset and productivity
As we walked on, I reflected on the impact this had on both their mindset and their productivity:
- Everything took longer because they had to take so many ‘just in case’ precautions.
- Doing the job was harder – I can only imagine it is much more difficult to do detailed work wearing large gloves. Again, this impacted efficiency and productivity while also making it difficult to maintain quality.
- They were apprehensive every time they moved from one thing to the next – when they finished working on one rock and moved to another for example. Rather than simply focusing on the job with absolute certainty that they were safe, they had to hesitate, prepare themselves for a potential problem and move cautiously.
Despite this, they seemed happy working in an environment they loved and doing something they felt made an important difference. However, the snakes definitely had an impact on their results, peace of mind, and ability to relax and do their best work.
The snakes under your rocks
As I walked, and perhaps in a desperate attempt to focus on something other than the weight of my pack, I reflected on the impact of a potential snake under every rock. How different was the experience of these track workers from that of many people working in ‘safer’ indoor environments every day?
For many workplaces the snakes under the rocks are metaphorical – but the impact on productivity and mindset is just as real. When people worry about ‘being bitten’ they hold back. When they are worried about consequences rather than performance they commit less.
What are these metaphorical snakes?
They exist when the workplace climate allows – and even encourages them – to exist. As leaders, we have to take a lot of responsibility for this – and, if we want to banish the ‘snakes under the rocks’, we need to adapt our leadership style.
Here are a few examples:
- When your people approach you with an idea, suggestion or problem, are they unsure of the response (which is OK), but safely able to predict your temperament? Do they worry about picking the right moment, so they catch you in a good mood? If your reaction is unpredictable or erratic, they will approach you like those track workers see those rocks – worried that picking it up may reveal a snake. Will that lead them to hold back ideas, not ask questions and deal with problems less effectively? Absolutely.
- Do your people have confidence that when things don’t work out as planned, you have their back? If not, they won’t take appropriate risks – such as using their initiative (it becomes a rock they just aren’t willing to pick up).
- Do you have strong standards and values about the way people interact with each other? If you just leave them to ‘sort stuff out’, there are lots of rocks they won’t pick up for fear of the consequences. Who is going to take responsibility for a task when they feel that other team members won’t support them – and may even undermine them? Who is going to try harder when they are worried about ‘back stabbing’? Who is going to have an honest conversation with a colleague when they may be undermined?
- Is there a spirit of openness in the workplace – or is there a lot of ‘whispering behind closed doors’? This is more of a constrictor (a snake that kills by suffocation) than a poisonous viper because it gradually sucks the energy and life out of your team members.
These are just a few examples – take a look around your workplace and see if you can spot any others. Are there behaviours that act as snakes under rocks? If there are, your people will be less productive and less motivated. Worrying about snakes under rocks is like climbing a ladder not knowing if the rungs are sound – or speaking up at a meeting not sure if you will be attacked. No-one does either of these things with full commitment or feeling good about it.
The leader as the snake charmer
OK, maybe I am stretching the metaphor here – but your job is to get the snakes safely back in the basket where they can’t do anyone any harm. You have two main strategies for doing this:
- Manage your own leadership style and interpersonal communication. If you can be unpredictable, moody, impatient or intolerant make it a priority to improve in this area. Perhaps you need to ask a few people around you – are you easy to approach? Do they know what to expect? How does your temperament impact them? If people are guarded about giving you feedback, you have your answer. Don’t assume that hearing no feedback means there isn’t any you need to hear.
- Have strong principles about the way your people communicate with and respect each other. You should tolerate and encourage disagreement and healthy conflict of ideas and perspectives. You shouldn’t tolerate gossip, backstabbing, undermining, personal attacks and other destructive interpersonal habits. If your workplace already has these sorts of habits, agree on (or revisit) some values – things that you not only talk about but live every day. Calmly point out when someone crosses a line and coach them back within acceptable boundaries. I visited a major well known US corporation recently and they have a rule about swearing in the workplace – it is acceptable to swear but not at someone else. Whether you agree with this rule or not (in many organisations it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate), it is a clear principle about how people are expected to work together.
Behind all this talk about snakes under rocks, we are really talking about the link between leadership style and performance. Does the leadership style you use, result in an environment in which people feel safe to fully commit – or are they worried about the consequences of picking up those rocks?