Push or Pull

I have been thinking about the various blogs on leadership lately, and it strikes me that there is a difference of opinion amongst our community on whether employee performance is best improved by pushing or pulling. I believe the best leaders incorporate both into their style. Two sources of data influenced my recent thinking: an oldie but goodie, Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr’s 1983 research report, “Putting the Work Ethic to Work,” and SuperBowl XLI! Yankelovich and Immerwahr discovered that there was approximately 70% discretionary effort available in most employees. The discretionary effort being the difference between what they have to do to keep their jobs and what they could do if they brought forth all their talent and effort. Then, I was thinking about the difference between the Colts and my team, the Detroit Lions. The Lions have been in the enviable position of having first shot in the draft since I can remember. But largely, the talent they have recruited has been less than stellar. The results stand as a testament to that. [The Lions have never played a Super Bowl.—CM]

It seems to me then, that a leader or manager’s first job is to pull out that discretionary effort. This starts with clearly identifying the ambition of the organization and helping each and every employee see their part in realizing that ambition. I still believe that one thing we want from our talent is the sense that they make a difference. In my years as a first-line supervisor, I was always amazed at my weakest performers on the job who did amazing volunteer work after hours. Clearly they had the work ethic; we just didn’t define an ambition for them worthy of their best efforts.

Then, there’s the Lions. In recent years we have witnessed round one draft picks missing practices, reporting overweight, battling off-field demons, engaging in various criminal behaviors, etc. It seems a little push is in order here. Creating a culture of engagement does not mean letting everyone do their own thing. There is a need for discipline and standards, and for strong management efforts to insure everybody lives up to them. For many of us, our best performance has benefited by a friendly push now and then. Tony Dungy doesn’t yell at his players, but he does instill a performance culture. Play your best, or you won’t play at all.

So, I would argue for balance. Our talent has to be engaged in a cause, and we must manage performance closely to move in the quickest and straightest line towards our ultimate ambition.

What do you think? Push, pull, or both? Examples? Advice for the Lions?

Mike Neiss posted this on February 8, 2007, in Leadership.
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