Are you prepared to upset the Apple Cart?

I recently had a conversation with a senior manager in a large global organisation about how he was applying performance management in his area.  What he told me surprised me.  He had a few people in his teams that were clearly not performing as well as they could.  Their contributions, when set against people doing similar jobs in other parts of the business, were lower, and they showed no desire to grow and develop beyond their area of specialism. But the manager appreciated their efforts, saw them as ‘steady-eddies’ and knew they would never be star performers.  They were valuable to him, because they had skills he would find hard to replace, even though he knew demand for those skills were in rapid decline. He saw no point in ‘upsetting the apple cart’, as he put it, as everything was running quite smoothly.  His customer was happy, his team was happy, and he was happy. So, why cause problems?

I asked him how he wanted to be viewed by his team as a leader, when they looked back on their careers.

At first he thought that they would see him as a ‘friendly manager’, someone they could ‘trust’, who ‘looked after them’, and to some extent ‘protected them’ from all of the ‘latest fads’ and ‘initiatives’ that were doing the rounds in the business.  Those ‘fads and initiatives’ that he was referring to are about preparing people for what are major global changes within the industry, that are demanding different skills and ways of working.  People are being encouraged to take responsibility for their own careers, to uplift their skills, and develop new ways of thinking to better prepare themselves for the disruption and challenges that are rapidly emerging.

I suggested that it was possible they would look upon him as a useful buffer and protector from ‘disruptive change’ in the short term (or for as long as their area remains viable), but that in the longer term they are likely to look back and question why others had ‘stolen a march’ on them.

They may be saying things like:

    • “Why are others better prepared, better skilled, and ready to take advantage of new opportunities that arise, than we are”?
    • “Why are my skills no longer being asked for, no-one warned me that this was coming?.”
    • “Why did our manager not explain more clearly why those initiatives were so important for us personally?  He was clearly more interested in his projects, his deliveries, and his own reputation than about our futures.”

This was clearly not how he wanted to be remembered as a leader, and he acknowledged that his intentions, while dressed up to look benevolent, were in fact mostly ‘self-serving’.  He had convinced himself that he was helping his people, that he was keeping life simpler for them, and that they would be grateful to him for it.  Within the bubble of his project world, everything was working just fine.  He had failed to look at the bigger picture, the external influences, and the global changes that would await him and his people sooner rather than later.

The role of leaders is not about being friendly and protective.  Effective leaders disturb, challenge and stretch people.  They help people to understand the big picture, prepare and adapt to take advantage of the future opportunities that will face them.

If you would like to discuss how you can become a more effective and courageous leader, a leader who is able to inspire, influence and gain internal commitment, please do get in touch by submitting your details through the Contact Us page. I will be only too glad to talk with you.

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12 thoughts on “Are you prepared to upset the Apple Cart?

  1. Leaders who focus on making everyone feel protected and looked after are probably popular, but they may not always be effective. The effective leader knows what he or she is going after, and then strategically chooses how best to get there, given all of the variables involved. I agree with you that sometimes that means that a leader has to disturb, challenge, and stretch people, as you say. But sometimes, a different strategy will be more effective. As one leader told me, “I have an iron fist and a velvet glove. My job is to know which to use when.” — Dr. Laura Hills, President, Blue Pencil Institute, Fairfax, Virginia

    • Great comment Laura – totally agree. It reminds me of another expression that a leader once told me which went something like….”Disturb the Comfortable and Comfort the Disturbed”.

  2. Growth demands that we move from one level to another. Keeping things ‘stagnant’ just because its ‘working’ should never be the aim of managers. The moment performance hits a plateau, challenge the team. Force them to break beyond the barrier. Disruption is a vital tool for managers in today’s business environment. Once they learn how to use it, they can improve on ‘steady-eddies’ performances.

    • And ‘improvement’ can manifest itself in so many ways……greater engagement, willingness to generate ideas, adopting a positive attitude, all of which will add up to a better and more effective working environment for everyone. Thanks for your great comments.

  3. I understand where the guy in your story is coming from. Would be interesting to understand what is driving his perspective that he needs to be protective and/or get into what he’s unconsciously gaining from playing that role… I think a lot of the managers and leaders I’ve coached through this have had a root fear that they’re a bit out of date themselves, left behind, out of touch, so the coping mechanism is to form a club with their employees where everyone reassures each other that “it’ll all be all right”… It often is… for a while… But when it bites I think people do end up asking the questions you’ve rightly highlighted. Great post Louis. Appreciate your boldness. Sean

    • Thanks Sean. Glad you enjoyed it. I think you are right in your observation that ‘fear’ is at the root of much of this way of thinking and behaving – both on the part of the people and in the leader. In fact, last week’s post on “getting the leaders we deserve”, would suggest that the leader may have been seduced into his approach by his people not wanting to be challenged.

  4. The error can be in the assumption that all steady-eddies want to be steady-eddies. Some may like their place of comfort and cannot deliver at a higher level. Others just need a challenge. It’s all about knowing your people.

  5. Pingback: Don’t give me bad news | Gyro Consulting Services

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