Dear Dalitso

Everyday lessons for tomorrow

Discomfort for the Sake of Progress (Part 2)

May 14, 2024
Letter #

Dear Dali

Communication serves as a tool for leaders to motivate individuals to surpass their boundaries, yet there are occasions when clear communication alone may not suffice. The assumption however is that the team is capable to execute on these goals. So, teams for instance of builders or carpenters rarely need further supervision beyond being given the plan of the house being built. Knowledge work is a totally different ballgame. The goals rarely change but the ways in which to accomplish them are most likely to be affected by several factors such as context, availability of resources, and adaptability of skills. There is usually a need for the capacity to comprehend the task and define the different steps towards completion. These are skills honed/developed over time not necessarily through the completion of a tertiary qualification but usually in a real work atmosphere.

How do leaders ensure that this is done and that targets are met? There are several problems that leaders must deal with, but the most difficult one is giving feedback on substandard work. Usually, this is a moment of friction and contestation. How does a leader push one beyond their comfort zone? In the past, feedback used to come through track changes, comments and suggestions in the report submitted and maybe some discussion. That can also be viewed as harsh. In other instances, leaders will take over a task to demonstrate how it should be done. But if that becomes the habit in that organisation the leader faces the possibility of burnout and becoming ineffective in their primary area of work. The confidence of those submitting their work is also negatively affected.

The new task of leadership:

  • Leaders must learn how to give positive feedback without alienating those doing the work. It is usually a moment of tension- when what you produce is viewed as substandard. It may create an attitude of resistance or could be a learning moment- if the feedback clarifies areas that need improvement.
  • Leaders must transform into mentors rather than masters- every moment of providing feedback is an opportunity for mentoring. The mentoring should not be about, I will take over the task and do it better but to reassure the colleague that they can indeed do the task if they put in more effort. This could be done by encouraging colleagues to read what already exists, watch something related to the task or join a team working on something similar
  • Leaders must walk the talk- in many instances leaders ask team members to live by standards that they themselves cannot meet. It is in these instances where leaders must change and do as they say.

Organisations must provide incentives for improvements- note we are not recommending rewards for the highfliers- they are already doing well. The rewards should focus on incentivizing positive learning attitudes from struggling members of the team.

Team members should be prepared to be vulnerable. When one is working in a knowledge organization their skills are on display at every turn. Inadequacies cannot be easily hidden. The challenge in many instances is attitudes, being defensive instead of allowing for correction and learning.

In a nutshell, leaders must reconsider their approaches and equally team members must be less defensive to embrace change and learning. 

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