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If Only One Size Fit All

Got a talent problem you’re trying to solve? Not a problem. A quick trip through the internet should provide an easy answer. Just look at all the blog and article titles: the one secret, five methods, seven new rules, and forty-three time-proven fundamentals… Insightful advice, mindless parroting, or click-bait marketing? (Hint: the answer is “yes”.)

Content generators – bloggers, journalists, copywriters, etc. – get rewarded for new content in the same way a piecemeal factory workers gets paid per component produced and a real estate agent gets paid for each house sold. Those rewards – clicks, likes, or $ – only happen when new content is produced. So there’s pressure to find new things to write about, to write about old things in new ways, or to create artificial controversy to attract readers.

Pity the poor manager just trying to lead their team day in and day out. You’d think at this point in human history we’d have leadership nailed, yet the books and the articles keep coming.

Us humans like to believe there is one simple solution, one dogmatic truth that works for all people in all situations, all of the time. Even though all of our lives are filled with evidence to the contrary, we are continually drawn to the hope of the “one right solution”. We’re doubly attracted if the solution promises less effort than we’re currently giving and can hardly contain ourselves if the solution is presented with zealot-like conviction and certainty.

Except, real-life isn’t black and white precise predictability. It’s blurry, grey-tinted, and unpredictable. There are some principles that seem to be timeless, but the application varies wildly depending on the situation. What works well for one person in one situation is just as likely to fail horribly for another person or in a different situation.

Consider one narrow aspect of leadership: dealing with a poor performer. Despite what the headlines say, there isn’t one simple way of managing that situation. As near as I can tell, there are four major paths we could take: 1) coach and develop them to higher performance; 2) change their role/job; 3) terminate employment; or 4) do nothing (and, yes, being passively aggressive crappy towards the person counts as doing nothing). Which is best? It depends. Circumstances and context such as the manager’s leadership style, the poor performer’s personality, the causes of the poor performance, the frequency and impact of the poor performance, organizational/department goals, company culture, policy, laws and regulations all affect what might be the “best” approach. Once we narrow it to a single approach how we do it depends heavily on all those same factors.

And that’s just one small sliver or leadership and talent management. Expand that out and a one-size approach starts looking more and more ridiculous.

So what’s a leader to do? Seek ideas, but understand that solutions change depending on the problem you are trying to solve and the outcomes you are trying to create. Seek principles and figure out how to apply them to your situation. Find the solutions that fit your problem rather than trying to make your problem fit someone’s solution. Remember the best solutions tend to be simple, if not necessarily easy.

And question everything you read (even this).

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