Someone misses their deadline. People routinely show up late and cut out early. Your direct reports fail to adopt the new project management tool. The list goes on. These are just a few of the everyday challenges of a team leader. I know because I am one.
I was not given the opportunity to lead a team because I am innately gifted at leadership. Leadership opportunities came my way because I did well as an individual contributor. I delivered consistently in my role as a marketer, so my leaders must’ve concluded if I could do the work well, maybe I could help others do it well, too.
Eager to live up to my reputation as a top performer, I accepted a leadership role. And frankly, I’ve learned many leadership lessons the hard way—through false starts, public flubs, and tough interactions. If you’ve yet to experience leadership, believe me when I say that leading other adults with unique personalities, qualities, and characteristics is HARD.
In my ten years as a leader, I’ve committed the fundamental attribution error more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve jumped to conclusions about why people have dropped balls, shown up late, or dragged their feet. When we commit the fundamental attribution error, we assume people do bad things or perform poorly because they themselves are bad. We assume mistakes are due to total incompetence. We look at the person as the problem rather than examine the processes, peers, or environment surrounding that person that might be contributing to problems.
Here’s a tough example. Years ago, we were launching a new study at a large healthcare conference on the East Coast. While I was on site for the conference that would also be simulcasted to a virtual audience, my team was home in Utah waiting to launch the study online at exactly 10 a.m. Eastern time. Well, 10 a.m. came and went. And as our speakers announced that all our viewers could now access the study online, I began to get flooded with complaints that the study was not, in fact, there.
Flustered, I immediately assumed my team member dropped the ball. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I thought in a state of complete panic. “We went over this plan dozens of times! How could they not get it right?”
It was not a good moment for me. Yes, I was under pressure answering to thousands of audience members, in person and online. But my ugly assumptions about what had gone wrong were sending fury and frustration pulsing through my veins.
I picked up the phone and called my team member, practically yelling into the line, “Why is the study not live? Get it up NOW!”
They immediately resolved the issue, giving our audience access to the study. It was an unfortunate mistake, but not a catastrophic one. And yet I had felt that all was lost and had acted in a way that let my team member know it.
Later that night I received an email from my team member letting me know what had happened. As it turns out, I had sent a last-minute communication the night before to “confirm” the launch times. In that email, I mixed up the time zones. I had said, please push the study live at 10 a.m. But our offices were in a different time zone. In reality, my team member needed to make the study live at 8 a.m. Mountain time to meet the 10 a.m. Eastern time deadline. They were simply doing as I had asked, which I should have known because this employee is exemplar and a team player.
I felt terrible and replied with an apology. But, in retrospect, I feel that the erroneous assumptions I made that day caused tension and strain in that relationship that took years to overcome.
Since that time, I certainly do not have a perfect track record as a leader. But I have learned a thing or two about how to approach leadership challenges with a new lens.
In 2007, our cofounders released a leadership book and course called Influencer. For the past 16 years, Influencer has taught a model for leading others and influencing behavior. Yesterday, we launched a completely updated and re-imagined version of this course, now called Crucial Influence®. The new course teaches the same model that is based on 50 years of social science and our work with leaders from around the world.
The course and model are built on the premise that any leadership challenge is a challenge of human behavior. Leaders are often asked to come up with strategy, lead with vision, or present innovative ideas. But that isn’t the hard work of leadership. The hard work of leadership is getting others to execute on the strategy, carry out the vision, and implement new ideas. The Crucial Influence Model teaches you how to do that. By first clarifying the results you want to achieve, identifying the vital behaviors that will generate those results, and then using the Six Sources of Influence to influence behavior, you can successfully lead others to achieve important results.
Over the last 16 years our clients have expertly demonstrated what can occur when leaders follow this model. Leaders have influenced entire healthcare organizations to adopt life-saving hand-hygiene initiatives. Mining and utility organizations have saved lives and prevented injury from workplace hazards. Retailers have influenced their teams to achieve unprecedented profits. The list goes on.
And while I have turned to the Crucial Influence Model to influence behavior, I’ve also found the model has shifted my perspective and changed the way I lead. I believe this shift is one of the more profound results of the Crucial Influence approach to leadership.
The Six Sources of Influence—which are central to the Crucial Influence Model—reveal that our world is perfectly organized to produce the results we are currently experiencing. Our behavior isn’t rooted in motivation or willpower alone. Rather, it’s the result of multiple personal, social, and environmental influences that affect our motivation and ability and shape our choices and behaviors. Why is this important?
The lightbulb moment for me occurred when I realized my team member’s performance gaps are rarely the result of incompetence, laziness, insubordination, or any other ugly assumption. There is more going on in their world contributing to their behavior. When mistakes occur, I can use the Six Sources of Influence to diagnose why that gap exists and avoid the fundamental attribution error. Do they not believe in the goal or see why it’s important (Source 1: Personal Motivation)? Do they not have the skills to do what’s required (Source 2: Personal Ability)? Are others encouraging or promoting ineffective behavior (Source 3: Social Motivation)? Have I, as their leader, removed barriers or provided support (Source 4: Social Ability)? Do rewards encourage or discourage the behavior (Source 5: Structural Motivation)? Or do they have access to the right systems and tools (Source 6: Structural Ability)?
Examining performance problems through the lens of the six sources allows me to separate the person from the problem. I can avoid attributing fault, adding to insecurities, or attacking sincere effort. I can identify which sources of influence are contributing to the problem and address those so they work for my team member rather than against them. And often, when I diagnose challenges using this model, I see how I, as the leader, have played a part in the problem. I see areas where I can provide clearer direction and coaching or remove barriers. This shift in perspective makes all the difference in how I show up as a leader when problems arise.
Last year I hired a new employee. She’s the epitome of a top performer but was struggling to work well with another department. Week after week she shared frustrating interactions with the other department that started to impact our results. Shipments arrived late and orders were missing. It not only impacted our events, but also resulted in additional work for her.
To help her out, I turned to the six sources. She was committed to her role and how it benefited our team—she wasn’t struggling with personal motivation. She had the skills to place orders and manage vendors—personal ability wasn’t the issue. But when I looked at social motivation and ability, I realized I had not helped her make the social connections that would set her up for success.
I called a colleague from the other department—someone I had worked closely with for many years. I explained that I was her manager and wanted to facilitate a better working relationship. He was surprised to learn that I was her leader, he had wondered where she fit into the organization and where some of the requests were coming from. I apologized for not properly training her on the shipping processes or making the proper connections and introductions. That call seemed to make a difference. The relationship now had the necessary mutual purpose to succeed.
I am so glad I didn’t commit the fundamental attribution error. This is a star employee. She is key to our success. Learning to lead her—and all my team members—with grace and understanding ensures they have positive and fulfilling experiences and can grow through challenges. We want them to be around for a long time. To make that happen, it’s my job as a leader to influence success.
If you’d like to learn more about Crucial Influence, check out the new Crucial Influence Miniseries with Crucial Influence coauthor Joseph Grenny. It’s free and a great way to get familiar with the skills.