Challenge Yourself, Then Your Employees

It’s so easy to complain. It’s even easier to point out where other people are falling short or when they’re not meeting our expectations. I’ve been in meetings with leaders and non-leaders and that have quickly turned from brainstorming and creative sessions to complaints of employees being flat, uninspired and complacent.

One piece of advice that I give any leader with complaints such as these is that before they tell me whom, what, when, why and where they must first tell me how they communicate their expectations to their team. Do the employees understand that they are being relied upon to think outside of the borders? Do the employees know what they can do within the confines of the system or are they just told what they can’t do? This moment of self-reflection forces managers to stop and think about how they need to change their approach first, and typically before they can even get to the juicy part of their stories they realize that they are just as much to blame for whatever the issue is as the person they came to snitch on.

I do this not as a way to shut people up but to show them that they have more power over their environment than they think and that they have more influence over how people act around them than they realize. I also do this to help them realize that none of us is perfect, none of us are without fault, and that our employees are merely a reflection of their leaders and an environment that allows for certain types of behavior.

Employees only lack creativity because their ideas are discounted and shut down. Employees are only devoid of energy because they’re told, “it doesn’t take all of that work here” by someone and are not held accountable for their actions. Employees are complacent and comfortable because they are no longer being challenged. While these are indeed issues that need to be addressed and fixed, they don’t start with the direct reports. The behaviors that need a fixin’ first are those of the ones that are chosen to lead them.

Success, especially sustainable success, starts with deliberate acts of leadership and management. We sometimes get lucky and accomplish goals by just doing, but there must be intentional actions to reach goals and to improve upon them time and time again. When teams are just allowed to “be” without any level of intentional discomfort they will cease to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Discomfort; however, doesn’t have to hurt. Being challenged doesn’t have to be punitive. People are naturally driven by being stretched to accomplish things they didn’t know they could and by hitting goals they had never thought of setting. We are around so many people that don’t do what they’re supposed to do that we are happy with those that meet expectations. And because they’re hitting the minimum we leave them alone. This is how and when complacency sets in.

To avoid these negative behaviors, leaders must challenge themselves to challenge their employees. Now I’m not talking about challenging through confrontation and by doubting every decision or action made by employees, but by never being satisfied with “Good”, as that sense of leadership complacency is like trickle-down Managernomics. Since they reflect you, give them something encouraging and positive to model. Teach them to never settle by never settling for anything than their best.

When employees do well, acknowledge it, give a fist bump and then ask, “How can this be improved on?” “How do we take this up one more notch?” The opportunities that can be attained by stretching oneself and employees will not happen by accident. This type of success comes from a little pressure…and little stress…and being demanding without being a butt. This creative competition between oneself, leaders, and coworkers will drive the growth of ideas and energy amongst teams. More importantly it teaches everyone that settling is not an option and that there is always more we can do.


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