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Leadership Is About the Outcomes Not the Process

Written By: Todd Dewett, PhD

Leaders have a choice to focus on the process or the outcomes when leading others.  The goal should always be to not micro-manage.  You simply monitor the appropriate results and get involved in the employee’s process only when really necessary.  True, many employees cannot be given a lot of freedom – they are new, not that skilled and some even like to be micro-managed.  Most do not – watch outcomes, not process whenever you can.  Too much mucking around in the process kills intrinsic motivation.  Managers fall prey to this tendency because they feel anxious about poor work reflecting on them and because they often spend too much time questioning others’ abilities.  One thing is for sure – focusing on the process will alienate your team and kill personal initiative.

Here is a great example I have seen in practice more than once:  using absenteeism and time clocks as metrics for understanding productivity.  The president of a company wanted to impress me with his focus on productivity.  Unfortunately, he was not equally in touch with morale.  He proudly proclaimed that he used time clocks and absenteeism to ensure “that the work got done” – even for all of his white-collar staff (e.g., engineers, customer service reps).   Absenteeism is a process measure!  Time clocks are better aligned (though still not the best option) with manufacturing environments.  Do you really care about when they are at work as much as you think you do?  No, you care about the work they produce (and that they produce it with integrity).  Giving out no or low absenteeism awards is just begging people with the flu or bronchitis to show up and infect everybody else in the office.  It is funny how many higher level leaders naturally understand the “outcomes not process” idea for sales personnel, but not for other types of employees.  They know they cannot be in the field micro-managing sales personnel, so they look at revenues, margins, the number of new accounts generated, etc.  These are relevant outcomes.  Yet internally, they cannot resist the temptation to get involved in the process.  It is partially a control thing, but mostly it is just because they have not thought about it much. 

This all reminds me of a classic management article by Steven Kerr, “The Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B” (1975, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 18, Issue 4, p769-783).  There is often a huge disconnect between what companies and their leaders ask for and what they actually reward – a huge cause of ambiguity and stress at work.  They ask for increased productivity, but reward low absenteeism rates.  They ask for higher sales from the salespeople, but reward customer satisfaction.  They reward A and hope for B.  One way to sum up your job as a leader is to say that you have to ask for the right outcomes, provide meaningful rewards contingent upon achieving these outcomes and then be sure not to provide any other rewards (or punishments) for outcomes you do not want.  In theory, this is clean and simple.  In practice, it is a mess! 

Instead of micro-managing and/or using process metrics, get a grip on goal setting 101.  If you have meet with your direct reports (and they have met with theirs) and established clear goals for the performance period, that is a start.  Now identify the key milestones implied in those goals, the resources they will need in order to be successful, the obstacles you can help remove for them, when and how you will follow up to lend support, etc.  All of these are far better uses of your time compared to micro-managing.  Who cares if one person worked fifty hours if they did not produce as much value as the amazing employee who is far more productive in only 35 hours?  Which leads me to the issue of morale.

What do employees think when they are micro-managed and forced to punch in and out on a time clock?

  • They do not trust me.
  • Big Brother is watching.
  • Why do I need a babysitter?

In contrast, when you manage outcomes and only get involved in the process to offer encouragement and assistance, employees think in an entirely different fashion.

  • They view me as competent.
  • I have the freedom to do my work as I see fit.
  • I am a professional.

The difference between these two views is not trivial.  When you get your head around this way of thinking you will be a lot closer to not only boosting productivity, but employee morale too.  

Dr. Dewett is a business professor, author, consultant and speaker specializing in leadership and organizational life.  As quoted in the New York Times, BusinessWeek, the Chicago Tribune, MSNBC and elsewhere. 

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