Are We Barking Up The Wrong Tree?

In past posts I discussed the various follower types. I ended by positing there is a possible mismatch between leadership styles and contributor follower type, but what evidence do we have for making that assertion? 

For starters, pre-pandemic attrition rates were on the increase. Employees, especially contributors, were leaving jobs for different (and supposedly better) jobs. The pandemic has reversed that trend somewhat, yet we still see a general inclination by contributors to seek different jobs. 

Although better pay is one of the factors given as to why people leave jobs, it’s rarely the main reason. Data collected from exit interviews tell a story of people wanting more challenging work, better working conditions, autonomy, a sense of belonging, opportunities to grow and be recognized for their accomplishments, and (wait for it…) making a contribution.

Let’s consider what happens when a high performing contributor announces they are leaving for a better opportunity. What is our first reaction? Offer them more money! After all that’s probably the reason they are leaving, right? Maybe. Or maybe it’s not the money, but that they aren’t getting the satisfaction they desire from their role. 

I once had a very bright and upwardly thinking engineer reporting to me who had expressed multiple times, they wanted to be included in more large scale projects. The engineer wanted to gain the  experience they knew they would need to be promoted.. I tried to get my leadership team to work with me on this, to no avail. It was really no surprise when the engineer tendered their resignation. My leadership team’s response? Make a counter offer. 

I discussed this with the employee and as I suspected, they weren’t leaving for the money. The opportunity in the new firm was to be a leader without a title. They would also get the opportunity to work on much larger projects. 

Thinking about the common philosophies of leading followers, I suspect we may have become stuck in non-productive paradigms. What is somewhat counter-intuitive is that we tend to forget about the intrinsic rewards when economic times are good because we are too busy to think about how our followers feel. 

When economic times are not good, we are focused on how to keep the organization alive and functioning. Problem is, knowledge workers, and especially contributors, are far less productive when they are living in a state of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) as their much-needed brain cycles for creativity are being consumed by worry. This is when well-intentioned yet misguided leaders create the most damage to the employee-company relationship.They inauthentically tell employees that if they just keep working all will be OK. The leaders are “barking up the wrong tree” (Reference Oyster .

Rewind to the engineer that resigned from my team. They went on to have a brilliant career at their new firm. I hired a bright engineer from a competitor at the same pay level, and set them up with projects and opportunities they were interested in.  I gave them complete autonomy with a promise to back them up no matter what. In under a year, the new engineer was performing at levels higher that I had seen with the previous engineer. Three years and several promotions later the newer engineer was asked to take on one of those once in a lifetime projects, where they excelled.

It was easy to see the difference in treating one employee as a follower and another as a contributor. For those of you reading this blog that are followers (reporting to someone else), the probable next question is how does one know if they are a follower (Laborer/Processor or Advocate) vs. a contributor. I’m glad you asked! Check out my next post to find out.

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