Bankable leadership: treating adults like adults

The following is an excerpt from New York Times best-selling author and executive coach Dr. Tasha Eurich’s new book Bankable Leadership. 

I couldn’t believe it. I’d only been in my job for a few weeks when human resources handed me a dress code—one that was close to five pages long.

To give you some context, I am an obsessive rule-follower. This dates back to my days in middle school where, rather than being the one causing trouble, I was busy reporting the troublemakers to the principal (don’t worry—I’ve grown up and only do that sometimes now). And to date, I had—I believed—managed to dress myself appropriately.

But, according to the dress code, I needed help. It contained detailed guidelines and rules, clarifying the type of makeup I could wear (minimal), the length of my nails (no more than half an inch from fingertips), the style of my shoes (closed-toe only), the length of my pants (nothing cropped), and even the appearance of my undergarments (seriously, I’m not exaggerating). As I stood there with the policy burning a hole in my hands, I felt a strange feeling wash over me.

I. Was. Outraged.

Do they really not trust me to dress myself appropriately when I come to work?

I fumed silently.

So what did I do? I, Dr. Goody-Two-Shoes, turned into a passive-aggressive rebel, thwarting the dress code at every turn. I’d go shopping for pants that were just long enough not to qualify as “cropped.” Once, I even put on a pair of press-on nails to see if I’d get sent home, which I thought would be hilarious.

After a few weeks, I found myself standing in the shoe department of Nordstrom, clutching a pair of shoes so subtly open-toed that I knew I could get away with wearing them. Suddenly I had a moment—I hovered outside my body and looked at myself. “What am I doing?” I gasped.

This is apparently what otherwise-reasonable human beings do when organizations create policies to substitute for good judgment. Leaders who excessively control employees are implicitly saying that they don’t believe in those employees’ abilities to make decisions—they’re neither helping them succeed nor driving responsibility. When managers say, “We don’t have accountable employees around here,” that’s a warning sign that they’re treating hardworking adults like children, and when that happens, both people and results suffer.

Most leaders don’t do this on purpose. In my experience, at least 90 per cent of unnecessary policies were created because one leader was too scared to talk to one offending employee. Most policies are for the bottom 2 percent, the people who do the stupid things that led to the policies’ creation in the first place.

Overzealous policies reward terrible leadership and often don’t deal with poor performers directly. Think about it: If someone on your team was wearing cut-off jean shorts, how much easier is it to complain to human resources than sit down and have this uncomfortable conversation? Then, once you have a “no jean shorts” policy, you can simply point to it and say, “Well, this is just the policy,” and the offending employee won’t be mad at you. It’s a vicious cycle. Leaders blame the policy and employees resent it.

The clear solution here is to treat your employees like adults, letting go of tightly controlled work practices and giving them true ownership of their behavior.

At Nordstrom, the site of my dress code epiphany, their policy manual consists of a concise—and genius—eight sentences:

Welcome to Nordstrom. We’re glad you’re here! Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them, so our employee handbook is very simple. We have only one rule . . . Use good judgment in all situations. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager or Human Resources representative any question at any time.

Granted, there is an element of risk involved in trusting employees to do the right thing. But it is by far the preferable choice. As Mark Leslie, founding chairman and CEO of Veritas Software, told Inc. magazine, “I believe if you want to be trusted, you have to trust first. . . . You will be betrayed sometimes, but the value of engendering trust is greater than the cost of being betrayed sometimes.”

In this chapter, I’ll review two approaches to treating your employees like adults. First, we’ll discuss how you can help them perform simply by believing in their competence. Then we’ll discuss how to engineer ownership by empowering your team. At its core, you’ll see that empowerment is about helping employees become self-sufficient. The more power you give away, the more responsibility your employees will feel.

Look for more excerpts from Bankable Leadership on CDN in the coming weeks.

Dr. Tasha Eurich is a proud leadership geek, executive coach, speaker, and author, Dr. Eurich is the author of the new book, Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom Line Results, and the Power to Deliver Both.  She also helps organizations succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.  Dr. Eurich passionately pairs her scientific grounding in human behavior with a practical approach to solving some of today’s most common leadership challenges. Her decade-long career has spanned roles as an external consultant and a direct report to both CEOs and human resources executives. The majority of Dr. Eurich’s work has been with executives in large Fortune 500 organizations, including CH2M HILL, Xcel Energy, Western Union, IHS, Destination Hotels and Resorts, Newmont Mining, Centura Health, CoBiz Financial, the City of Cincinnati, and HCA.

With an M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University and B.A.s in Theater and Psychology from Middlebury College, she serves on the faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. She has served as an adjunct faculty member in Colorado State University’s Psychology and Business Schools. She is also a popular guest speaker at the University of Denver and Colorado State University’s Executive MBA programs.

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