And Make Sure You’re Setting People Up for Success

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

“A real leader,” David Foster Wallace wrote of his experience following McCain in the 2000 election, “can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own.”

Leadership is influence. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s the ability to accomplish great things through others.

As leaders, our performance is measured — or at least should be measured — based on these results. No matter how inspiring or influential we believe ourselves to be, until it translates into actual results in the real world, it’s not leadership. Just good intentions.

Yet people aren’t always eager to play along. Whether it’s my employees, kids, players, coworkers, bosses, suppliers, or that guy driving slowly in front of me, the world is filled with people who are unwilling to turn my genius directions into action.

So what do you do when people just don’t do what they’re supposed to do?

Seek First to Understand

“Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.” — Harold S. Geneen

It’s tempting to blame everyone else. After all, they’re the ones who can’t follow simple directions.

But when you recognize that the purpose of leadership is to influence people’s behavior, you realize that blaming people for poor performance is unproductive. They’re simply performing in accordance with the environment and expectations that are set for them.

The role of leaders is not to find fault or place blame, but to understand why people are performing as they are. And then modify their leadership practices accordingly.

So when people don’t follow my leadership, instead of basking in self-pity, I should be asking what I did that caused the situation. Then it’s actionable.

And throughout my years in management, I’ve found that (1) it’s usually my fault. And (2), it typically comes down to one of four areas: Direction, Competence, Opportunity, or Motivation. Or as I remember it — DCOM.

D — Direction

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw

How many times have you asked someone to do something, only for their final product to be wildly different than what you envisioned?

We like to believe that our instructions are clear and easy to follow, but in actuality, the message we think we convey, and the one we actually do, are often at odds. We explain things as they make sense to us. Without realizing the listener doesn’t have our full context and background.

As a result, poor performance can often be attributed to simple misunderstandings. People simply don’t understand the full scope of our expectations. Often because we failed to clarify them.

Instead of simply looking to make your point and move on, borrow Chris Voss’s suggestion for hostage negotiations and stop aiming for a simple agreement. As he wrote in Never Split the Difference,

“In hostage negotiations, we never tried to get to ‘yes’ as an endpoint. We knew that ‘yes’ is nothing without ‘how.’ And when we applied hostage negotiating tactics to business, we saw how ‘that’s right’ often leads to the best outcomes.”

So slow down the conversation. Ask follow up questions on what next steps they’re considering. Have them give you a plan for how they’ll implement things going forward.

Mainly, share responsibility for the details with whoever who will be responsible to implement them. Make it a conversation instead of a lecture. Because returning to Chris Voss’s experience,

“People always make more effort to implement a solution when they think it’s theirs. That is simply human nature.”

C — Competence

“Challenge is the pathway to engagement and progress in our lives. But not all challenges are created equal. Some challenges make us feel alive, engaged, connected, and fulfilled. Others simply overwhelm us. Knowing the difference as you set bigger and bolder challenges for yourself is critical to your sanity, success, and satisfaction.” — Brendon Burchard

Have you ever had the feeling that you were so far in over your head that you didn’t even know where to start? That you just didn’t know enough to come through with a successful outcome?

Stretch assignments and new challenges are good. But when we ask people to do things well outside their circle of competence, the result is demotivating for everyone involved. People just won’t be set up to succeed.

Taken literally, competence is knowing what has to be done, knowing the standards that define success, and having the skills to actually do the work. If we’re asking people to succeed despite not having these abilities, we’re setting them — and ourselves — up for disappointment.

Peter Drucker wrote that employees “do not come in the proper size and shape for the tasks that have to be done in organization — and they cannot be machined down or recast for these tasks. People are always ‘almost fits’ at best.”

It’s the job of the leader to balance the competencies available to them against the requirements of the job. And while asking too little of people breeds disengagement through complacency, asking too much breeds a similar apathy through resentment.

Instead, leaders need to understand the capabilities available to them. Not from the perspective of what they can do. But based on what they should be able to do. And then design the job to meet this expectation. As Drucker described,

“The effective executive therefore first makes sure that the job is well designed. And if experience tells him otherwise, he does not hunt for genius to do the impossible. He redesigns the job. He knows that the test of organization is not genius. It is its capacity to make common people achieve uncommon performance.”

Are your peoples’ jobs designed to fall within their competence? If not, who’s to blame if they don’t perform to your expectations?

O — Opportunity

“Effective knowledge workers, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time.” — Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

In addition to needing the competence to succeed, people also need the opportunity. Assigning a job without making sure people have sufficient time and resources to succeed is setting them — and ultimately us all — up for failure.

We’re all familiar with the frustration that comes from having too much to do in too little time. That feeling as though no matter how much we do, we’ll never get everything done. And with it comes the need to sacrifice something.

It’s a path that leads to frustration and ultimately disengagement. It’s the poor leader who continues to increase responsibility beyond someone’s limits, waiting for them to break. As Ed Catmull realized after pushing his people too hard in the development of Toy Story 2,

“On any film, there are inevitable periods of extreme crunch and stress, some of which can be healthy if they don’t go on too long. But the ambitions of both managers and their teams can exacerbate each other and become unhealthy. It is a leader’s responsibility to see this, and guide it, not exploit it.”

It’s easy to continue to pile more work on people. Just as it’s easy to say that everything’s equally important. Any company that simultaneously advertises best quality, fastest delivery, and cheapest price shouldn’t be trusted in any of those areas.

Instead, good leaders help people set priorities. They understand the resources available and make sure people have access to the ones they need.

To ignore this constraint is to merely delay a much bigger issue.

M — Motivation

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing — that’s why we recommend it daily.” — Zig Ziglar

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in management is that we can’t really motivate other people. Not really. True motivation needs to be intrinsic. It needs to come from within. The best we can do is create an environment where people are set up to motivate and empower themselves.

So what’s this environment look like? I don’t know. It’s different for everyone.

What motivates us doesn’t motivate everyone else. To assume there’s a one-size fits all solution is to say that everyone shares the same values and perspectives.

But just because motivation is individualized doesn’t make it mysterious. Talk with someone for fifteen minutes about their interests and you can see what drives them. Get to know people. Understand their values and priorities. Make that connection.

Most companies hold exit interviews when someone’s leaving. Why wait until then? Why not hold periodic “stay interviews” to better understand what people need out of their jobs. Whatever the format, make time to connect with people. After that, the environment that motivates them — the one that helps them find meaning in the work that they do — will become more evident. In the words of psychologist Barry Schwartz,

“If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.”

Bring Out the Best in Your People

“I don’t think I was a fine game coach. I’m trying to be honest. I think I was a good practice coach.” — John Wooden

John Wooden was a tremendous coach. In his forty years coaching, he had one losing season — his first. He led his UCLA teams to four undefeated seasons and ten NCAA championships. And his career offers no shortage of leadership lessons.

But my favorite is that he never scouted the opposition. Instead, he put all of his focus on getting his own players to reach their potential. He connected with all of his players. He understood what each player needed and focused on those areas in every practice and personal interaction.

John Wooden made sure that each person had everything they needed to perform at the top of their ability. He didn’t guarantee success. But he gave people the best opportunity for success. And his record speaks for itself.

The mark of any leader is in our ability to bring the best results out of the people around us. So next time someone fails to live up to your expectations, take a minute to see where you could have better set them up for success. Remember DCOM.

Direction — Do people understand the expectations?

Competence — Do they have the skills and knowledge to perform?

Opportunity — Do they have the time and resources necessary to succeed?

Motivation — Have you created an environment that helps people find meaning in their work?

Until we can reliably say that we’ve addressed each of these areas, we haven’t set people up to reach their potential. And if we’re not helping people reach their potential, they don’t have much reason to follow us.

As the old leadership proverb goes, “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”

Thanks, as always, for reading. If you enjoyed this or have any suggestions, please let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up? and help me share with more people. Cheers!


4 Letters That Will Make You a Better Leader was originally published in The Mission on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Jake Wilder

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