No Bull, Just the Basics

HandsAs unpatriotic as it sounds: I am not a huge fan of the presidential election cycle. It’s not that I don’t value the power I’m given to choose the leader of the free world, it’s just that I’m not much for the rhetoric, the 15-candidate free-for-all primary debates, or the lazy, only-sometimes-clever Saturday Night Live sketches.

The upside is that it sets the stage for us to examine one of the most important questions in the social and organizational sciences: “What makes a good leader?” Some say the keys are intelligence, ambition, and optimism. Some say the key is a simple, down-home style that says, “Hey, I don’t have just a ton going for me, but I love drinking beer and working on my ranch” (they’re wrong, by the way).

In their paper, “Abstracting Leadership,” Drs. Joyce and Robert Hogan proposed something different; that good leadership is about meeting the basic human needs of one’s followers.

1. Respect your people
It’s the number-one rule of surviving in prison: on your first day inside, pick a fight with the biggest, toughest dude on the yard. The intended result is instant respect, authority, and protection against unwanted romantic advances.

Although a darling metaphor of business writers, office politics are not the same the politics that exist in prisons – or battlefields or second-century China, for that matter. Still, how many times in your career have you watched someone lay into his/her subordinate?

People need respect and acceptance. A high-functioning work group depends on its members feeling confident and unafraid to suggest new ideas. Punishing failure with public humiliation can leave you with a gun-shy workforce and stagnant performance.

2. Less nature, more nurture
In the wild, animals claw their way to the top of the pack. When a new animal takes control of the power structure, it asserts its dominance by marking everything that belongs to it.

When Jack Griffin took control at Time, Inc., he insisted that each of the company’s magazines run a masthead with his name listed first, above the publications’ editors. People crave status and control of resources. By literally marking the pages of his magazines, Griffin robbed his editorial staff of their status and autonomy. Griffin lasted less than six months before simmering resentment boiled over and he was asked to resign.

The point is this: you’re already the boss. Your job is to hire talented, capable employees and provide the resources, guidance, and incentives they need to succeed. When your group performs, share credit. When they fail, take the blame.

3. Be clear, be consistent
As I write this post, there is a squad of riot police working with teargas and batons to subdue a crowd of angry U.S. citizens in Oakland, CA. Their protest is just one of hundreds popping up around the country.

Although their message is disjointed at best (including the always-present “legalize it, dude”), the overwhelming undercurrent behind the 99%ers protests is anger at the lack of transparency in the U.S. government and financial system. Like your momma always said: Honesty is the best policy.

People need structure and predictability in their lives, especially when it comes to work. When they don’t get it, they spend more time worrying, gossiping, or searching for new employment than working. The key to providing stability is clarity and consistency. Make your expectations clear from the outset. Hand out kudos when things go well. When something goes awry, be fair and even. Do the same thing every time. Employees that know what to expect are happier and more productive than those worried about a volatile work situation.