The Aim of Leadership

Author Dave Redekopp, PhD, Life-Role Development Group

Today’s Managers are feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, they’ve run out of ways to do ‘smarter’ and ‘more with less’. They need new behaviours that move their teams from Compliance to Commitment.

If you are a tired manager ask yourself …Is your team in compliance?


Is your team doing what they’re supposed to be doing ethically, legally, environmentally, safely, culturally and within minimum quality standards?  You likely face variations of these questions on a daily basis.  So have the leaders who came before you.  North American management culture is all about compliance, answering the question “Are people doing what they’re supposed to be doing?”  Compliance isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, though.  Compliance comes with huge costs to you and your team.

Ken did everything his manager, Linda, asked of him.  He met his objectives, his work was on time, and he was always very pleasant with Linda.  Linda was pleased with his performance.  She had measures in place to check Ken’s progress toward his targets, and all was well.  However, Linda began hearing grumblings from the rest of her staff.  They were a polite bunch who didn’t bad-mouth Ken directly, but off-the-cuff comments made it sound like Ken was looking out only for himself.  From what Linda could gather, it appeared Ken wasn’t chipping in to help the team with all the day-to-day “grunt” activities that need to get done.  Ken was working to his targets and he was working only to his targets.

Terry’s team, on the other hand, worked like a well-oiled machine.  Terry, a construction site manager, got to the site before the rest of the crew each morning, planned out the day, and got people working as soon as they arrived.  People knew their jobs and got to their work without delay.  When problems arose, the crew knew to yell over to Terry.  He’d trouble-shoot and tell them what to do to move forward.  Terry was fair, but he didn’t tolerate laziness or incompetence.  People who messed up on the site heard from Terry pretty quickly, and they were told how to clean up their act.  Terry’s superiors were pretty happy with his performance.  They began thinking about promoting Terry to a superintendent’s position.  To see if he was ready, his superiors began inviting him to meetings involving company strategy and problem-solving.  Terry jumped at the chance to participate, and off he went to various events and meetings.  A problem arose for Terry, however.  Each time Terry returned to his site, the crew had fallen behind or had made errors.  Terry would find himself swamped with decisions and extra work.  The extra stress of having the crew fall apart each time he left caused Terry to blame the crew; moral and productivity deteriorated leaving Terry working even harder to get the job done.

Each of these managers shares the same underlying problem – compliance from people.  They set up mechanisms to ensure there will be compliance (e.g., specific objectives or targets).  They follow up by measuring compliance (e.g., the test of safety).  Finally, they follow through by rewarding compliance or punishing non-compliance.  So what’s the problem?  Compliance is exactly what they get!

Concerns with Compliance

Compliance is an insidious thing for you as a manager (or parent!), because at one level it’s exactly what all managers (and parents!) want.  You want your people to do what they’re supposed to do!  What could possibly be problematic with that?  Well, there are a few problems, some of which are described below.

Thinking stops.  When Terry was gone, his team couldn’t carry on effectively.  Terry had always solved all their problems, and they knew that their work had to be done Terry’s way.  Solving problems on their own might lead to doing things differently than what Terry wanted, and this might not comply with Terry’s wishes.

The person who’s told exactly what to do no longer needs to think about what he/she is doing.  Having non-thinking employees might have looked like a good idea in pre-World War II assembly lines (but it actually wasn’t a good idea, as Toyota has repeatedly shown), and it’s sure a lousy idea now.  In a world of rapid change and increasing demands for service, more than ever all organizations need thinking people at all levels.  Even military and para-military organizations, the ones who invented “command-and-control” management, have recognized that people on the front lines need to be mentally on their toes.

Adaptation stops.  Unexpected events stumped Terry’s team when he was gone.  The team/person that’s not thinking is the team/person that’s not adapting.  The person who does what he/she is told will change only when told to!  All adaptability then rests upon the manager’s shoulders.  If you, like Terry, feel more in control telling your team what to do and ensuring things are done ‘right,’ then look at the cost to the organization when you are promoted and your team’s projects flounder and fail without you.  Even when you stick around, what happens if you, the manager, are not a quick adaptor? What happens if you’re slow at communicating needed adaptations?  What happens if you’re a poor communicator of adaptations?  What happens if you’re a poor teacher of the skills required for change?  Adaptation stops.

Innovation stops.  People who don’t think and don’t adapt don’t innovate (unless told to!).  The manager – you – is left doing all the work on this front.  You can bet that Terry’s team doesn’t innovate; they wait for Terry to do so.

Range diminishes.  One of Linda’s problems is that she’s getting exactly what she asked for.  Ken has his targets, and that’s all that matters to Ken.  The employee who must comply with X, Y and Z (in your company, maybe this is “safety regulations,” “documentation” and “quality targets”) typically does exactly that, and only that.  Ken’s range was reduced to those areas in which he had to comply.  Anything “extra” (like getting along with his teammates, helping out, etc.) wasn’t done.  If you make an employee comply on quantity issues, quality suffers.  If you get compliance on quality, volume goes down.  If you create compliance for both, safety might become the issue.  Something important almost always gets dropped off the table.

In an increasingly competitive market where service can be the winning edge, I sometimes shop at a grocery chain that makes (note the word “makes” – it’s all about compliance) all of its employees thank their customers by name.  Disinterested cashiers read my name on my credit card and, 9 out of 10 times, get it hopelessly wrong.  Luckily, neither of us care because we know that it’s just a rule to which they have to comply and I need only tolerate.  This is not service! 

A manager of a restaurant chain known for its exceptional training starts off hosts/hostesses in their new position by handing them a list of 50 commonly used greetings when welcoming customers.  Then, he says “Please don’t use any of these. Be original.”  Now, the host/hostess actually has to think, pay attention to the customer in front of him/her, and engage in a true interaction. He/she is alert; busy thinking about the next good opening. No boredom here.

Service stops.  True service isn’t done by rote.  Memorized, mandated lines (“would you like fries with that?”) become tired and painful very quickly, turning off customers rather than turning them on.

Compliance at its worst is illustrated in the recent and true story of a major oil company that was building a new upgrading facility.  The company prides itself on its safety record, and it has policies to ensure that all of its contractors live up to certain safety standards.  One of these standards is to ensure that construction workers have been trained in safety procedures.  A certain contractor responsible for a variety of the trades on the site agreed to the oil company’s request to do the training.  Here’s how the training goes:  The workers arrive for the training session, having been bussed in from the city very early in the morning.  They’re exhausted already, and they have a ten-day block of work ahead of them before they’re bussed back.  The trainer welcomes them to the session and tells them “I’m going to show you a training video, and I’m going to turn off all the lights so that you can see the screen better.  I sure hope you don’t fall asleep and get the rest you so desperately need (chuckle, chuckle).”  The lights go out, and all the workers nod off in a dark room with a boring video playing.  At the end of the video, the trainer turns on the lights and says to the class “Now, you need to write a test to show that you’ve learned the safety procedures outlined in the video.  It’s a lot of information to absorb in a short period of time, so I’ll give you some hints to help you along.”  The test is distributed, and the trainer says, “Let’s start with Item #1.  Doesn’t answer (b) look like the most appropriate?  Take a look at #2.  You might think (a) is the answer, but if you think about it you might come to a different conclusion, especially when you know it can’t be (b) or (d).”  The trainer continues in this vein until everyone has enough answers to pass the test.  Then he lets them finish the rest of the items on their own.  Lo and behold, everyone reaches the passing mark every time the course is delivered!  The oil company is thrilled, and the construction firm retains its contract.

Quality becomes suspect.  Just as range diminishes, quality done only by compliance soon becomes suspect. Where this becomes extremely important is on the safety front. The trades firm described above that ensures everyone passes the safety test is an extreme (and unethical) example, but it gets the point across.  To encourage safety, a company we know set up a reward system whereby every person in a unit would receive a cash bonus if they made it 100 days without an injury.  On Day 95, one of the workers slipped off the last step of a bus and broke his leg.  The team did not want him to seek medical attention and asked him to hang on for a few days because they knew they would lose their reward.  These are is hardly quality approaches to safety. But quality also suffers in less serious ways when compliance is the focus. What about the construction site manager whose bonus depends on turning the keys of the new house over to the owner at the time agreed in their contract? During a labor shortage, deficiencies (things not complete or up to standard when the house is turned over to the owner) skyrocket. This creates unhappy clients who do not refer the builder to friends.

Compliance is temporary.  Compliance typically lasts only as long as the controls for compliance are in place.  Try removing all radar/laser speed-detecting equipment from highways for a while if you want to test this out!  If your staff are doing things because of your rewards (e.g., wall plaques, acknowledgements, tokens, bonuses, trophies, choice parking spots, “attaboys” and “attagirls”) and punishments (e.g., lousy assignments, grunt work, docks in pay, signs of your displeasure), you can bet it won’t take long for them to stop complying when these rewards and punishments are removed (ask Terry!).

Creating compliance is hard, stressful and continuous work.  If you’re in the compliance business as a manager, you’re always busy.  Why?  Because ‘compliance is temporary,’ so maintaining it requires constant vigilance and careful doling out of rewards and punishments.  Terry couldn’t leave the team because they just couldn’t (wouldn’t?) work well on their own.  Because ‘quality becomes suspect,’ you always have to double-check quality and fix problems.  When coming back to the site, Terry’s work would double as he tried to fix all the problems that emerged while he was away.  Because ‘service stops,’ you’re always the one who has to jump in and crisis manage to keep customers happy and resolve service complaints.  Because ‘range diminishes,’ you’re always fighting fires to fix the damage caused by this.  Linda has a problem with Ken she won’t acknowledge, and so she is increasingly challenged by her entire team.  She’s doing fire-fighting around the team members whose noses are out of joint over Ken’s behavior.

You’re always busy in compliance mode because ‘innovation stops’ and ‘adaptation stops,’ so all change rests on your shoulders.  Because ‘thinking stops,’ you’re left doing all the thinking for your team.  Compliance-based managers are tired managers – they’re doing most of the work!  They’re also stressed managers, because no matter how much they do, they can’t catch up in a world of continuous change.

Is compliance what you want for yourself and your team?

Test your leadership style.

How much are you leading your team with compliance? On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = strongly disagree, 10 = strongly agree) rate yourself on the following.

  • Your team works as hard when you’re not there as when you’re there.
  • Your team solves problems on their own without your input.
  • Your team makes decisions and executes them.
  • Your team goes the extra mile when needed.
  • Your team wants to get the job done.
  • If there were no incentives beside their usual pay, your team would work just as hard as they do now.
  • If there were no punishments except for desperately poor performance, your team would work just as hard as they do now.
  • Each member of your team feels accountable to the whole team, not just to his/her specific job.

The degree to which you can answer “strongly agree” to these questions is the degree to which your team has moved beyond compliance and toward commitment. If you scored between 50 and 65 you have a committed team that is engaged in their work.  If you scored between 65 and 80 you have a team that is always thinking about the best way to do things, and they can adjust to different customer/client expectations.  They don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do; they know the direction of the organization and they help move the organization in this direction.  They work hard because they want to get the work done, not because you’re hovering over them.  They bring their heads and hearts as well as their hands to work.  They are engaged in the work and they want to be engaged in the work.

Before showing you how to develop the committed team, and committed team member, a quick note in support of compliance.  Compliance isn’t “evil” or “wrong.”  There are times when the organization needs people to do things they don’t want to do and/or they’re not used to doing.  When organizations began implementing “no smoking” policies, there was a great deal of resistance by smokers.  They’d always been allowed to smoke at work, so what was the problem now?  In this high-resistance situation, creating a rule and making people follow it can be darn useful.  It’s no way to run an organization, however, because it invariably leads to all the problems with compliance described above.  A compliance approach can be used, but only as a last resort.

Commitment Characteristics

You see commitment when your team goes the extra mile to get something done, they give 110% exactly when it’s needed, they create better ways of doing the work, and they continuously improve their skill levels.  People also speak of “engagement” when discussing committed employees or teams.  The bread-and-butter of many survey companies’ work now is measuring engagement levels of employees.

Commitment or engagement isn’t just about getting the work done.  An increasing amount of research is showing that while increasing engagement increases productivity (the retail electronics company, Best Buy, apparently makes $70 million more in net profit for each 2% increase in employee engagement![1]), it also:

  • Reduces absenteeism
  • Reduces sick time
  • Increases retention
  • Increases productivity
  • Increases innovation

Each of these benefits will, of course, help you as a manager.  Perhaps more importantly, however, consider this:  Engaged or committed employees are far more self-reliant, resourceful and adaptable than non-engaged employees.  Their engagement frees you up to do leadership work, like thinking strategically, developing partnerships and the like. When you look at your present work load you may find it impossible to believe that anything could free up your time. Do more with less, Work smarter not harder….moving from demanding compliance to building commitment is ‘hard’ work, a behaviour change that requires you to do ‘less’ yourself and ‘more’ with your people.


Barbara Thrasher
Work-Life Resources Inc

[1] Buckingham – The One Thing You Need to Know.