Style versus Substance

One of the hardest parts of being a leader is developing the skill to differentiate between when an employee doing something wrong or when they are just doing something different from how you would. If you do not manage the process properly, you risk project failure or demoralized teams. A good leader does not micro-manage employees but must be accountable for the project's outcome.

Consider a situation where a leader assigns and empowers an employee to handle a project. As a result, this leader sets up a series of review meetings for the purpose of both understanding the project's status and coaching the employee. As the project progresses, the leader becomes uncomfortable with the direction the project is taking and feels that an intervention is required.

At this point, every leader must evaluate if the project is really off the rails or if the employee is just approaching the project differently from the leader's style but the outcome will still be satisfactory. This is the Style versus Substance issue.

People have different styles.  For example, I approach problems by defining problem boundaries and constraints. I then develop criteria to test solutions against, generate many alternatives and then eliminate possibilities until I arrive at the best answer. Others approach problem solving using different methodologies but arrive at the same or an equally good answer.  As a leader, if I force everyone to use my style, their outcome may not be as good as if they employ the styles, tools and methodologies that work best for them.

If a leader determines feels uncomfortable with the project progress and likely outcome (in other words, the issue is more than just difference in style), the next consideration is what is the likely outcome. Will it just be sub-optimal or is it likely to be more disastrous. If the likely outcome is not fatal, what is the learning value for the employee to let them proceed and fail versus the leader intervening to rescue the outcome?

Underlying this discussion is the impact of employee morale and engagement if the leader chose the wrong approach. If the leader seizes back control of the project in order to prevent a failure, issue orders of corrective action to take, and reverse decisions the employee made, they will likely offend and demoralize their employee. I have seen many leaders that mismanage their teams by assigning work, but as soon as the approach or likely outcome diverges from their "comfort zone", they overreact, seize the project responsibility back from the team and dictate the plan. If they have been disconnected from the project team's discussions and details, they often make these decisions without a full understanding of the issues and make the situation worse.

 The leader's actions leave their employees frustrated, dispirited, resentful, un-empowered and   disenfranchised. Each repeated incident diminishes employee accountability. Therefore, every leader needs to learn two critical leadership skills:

These skills are interrelated but unique.

Learning not to sweat the small stuff is very hard for high energy, smart, control-oriented, "A" type personalities. Speaking personally, it is difficult to not jump in on every issue. Learning to trust your team in important as is learning the skill to step back and evaluate risk before jumping in. Similar to parenting, the good leader needs to be able to differentiate the risk of a child falling and scrapping their knee in a playground versus playing ball hockey on a heavy traffic street.

Learning to pick your battle is easier. A leader must decide how many times and at what frequency they can intervene before their employees' rebel. Once you decide this, picking your battles becomes an exercise in prioritizing which issues you will intervene on and which you will let slide.

Being a leader is a learnt skill. As I moved through my career, I improved by imagining myself in the shoes of my employees, By  asking  how I would feel if my manager behaved this way to me, I was able to anticipate problems in style versus substance discussions. This test allowed me to improve as a  leader. I hope this blog helps you as well.

© 2012 Meaford Group

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