“There is a time for everything” today I’m going to use this expression taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes – which is contained in the Holy Bible – to talk about the development of employees. This powerful message implies two main concepts: flexibility and time. Let’s now consider how they are used by ethical leaders.
Treating everybody equally, or worse expecting similar results from everyone, is neither possible nor useful.
Every human being is special and unique, each with their own personalities, experiences, stages of life, expertise and willingness to do well. As well as the specific features of each person, we also have to consider how these interact with our own personalities: some relationships are easy and smooth whereas others are harder and test out energy and composure. In both cases ethical leaders have to be equally available, understanding and sensitive to their employees’ needs in order to guarantee their development: in one word they have to be flexible.
Sticking to our ideas too firmly, or expecting other people to behave like us, is a losing battle. The only result we’ll obtain is to waste business resources and personal energies.
The other critical factor which is often misleading is time, or better, the rush to get an immediate return on our investment, i.e. the employee. A few years ago in the newspaper column run by Paolo Coelho in the Corriere della Sera I read a story which still moves me. The protagonist recounted how as a young boy he had found a caterpillar in its cocoon. He had been so eager to see the result of the metamorphosis that he had started blowing on the cocoon to keep it warm. After a short time the butterfly had come out of the coccon, however its wings hadn’t had the time to develop properly and the butterfly had died. The protagonist still felt guilty for its death. And here is the moral of this story:
Nature, people and also investments need time and rhythm to develop and bear fruit. The effects of this simple and wise rule can be easily observed: there is a time to plant and after that – not before – a time to harvest.
What we can do as ethical leaders is to change and adapt our attitude according to the level of each individual employee, considering two critical factors: competence (which derives from knowledge and expertise) and psychological maturity (which is a mix of commitment, dedication, engagement and sense of belonging). Guiding our employees through the different levels means proceeding step by step:
- Supervise and provide indications about the tasks, procedures and deadlines and verify the work performed.
- Lead the employees who are not yet experts in carrying out some tasks, get them involved and explain the reasons for our choices. Test their commitment and willingness to do well.
- Motivate and encourage the employees, showing trust and acknowledging their contributions. My employee has now become an expert in his job and no longer needs my supervision. In fact he is actively involved in the decision processes and is more autonomous in his job.
- Delegate and allow employees complete freedom to get on with their work, bearing in mind we can count on the commitment and the engagement of people who share the company’s mission and goals.
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Those who plan to take a shortcut and skip some steps, in fact risk a higher loss in terms of time.
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For example when we hire a new employee who has already been trained, we might be tempted to start directly from step 3. What I suggest is to start from step 1 in any case: this way we can test the person’s maturity and competence allowing him/her some time to adapt to the new company. If this doesn’t happen we run the risk of confusing the new employee and letting ourselves down for hiring the wrong person. Every single step can take very little time (a few days or a few weeks): going through all of them can help us give the right rhythm to professional development and add value to our investment.
Another frequent mistake consists in skipping directly from step 2 to step 4. This happens when a skilled employee starts developing a certain level of autonomy and obtaining good results (step 2). In this case, if the “managers” are eager to let go of some of their responsibilities, they might decide to promote the employee and delegate commitments and decisions which he/she has never dealt with before (step 4): in this case the person will feel abandoned rather than rewarded! The intermediate step is necessary to support and develop the professional autonomy required.
This is what flexibility means for ethical leaders: the ability to mix supervision and autonomy, relational support and independence.
On the other hand when we adopt an attitude which refers to just one of the four steps, we risk precluding our employees’ professional development and investing our time and money in a wrong way. According to our experience, managers with a very technical background (for example those with a great experience in the production or design areas) are often convinced “they are the only ones who know how to do it” and keep controlling even the expert employees. After all there are also leaders who “pass the buck” and delegate without considering their employees’ competence or maturity; or those “parent-like” managers who spend their whole time providing psychological support to their employees thus preventing their professional development.
Flexibility and rhythm allow people to grow harmoniously and productively, for the benefit of all.
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