“Not every employee is created equal”

People reading is one of the most important skills of a leader. One of my favorite tools for reading your team is Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership II model. It’s a simple to use, three-step process where leaders first

  1. diagnose the employee’s development level, then
  2. flex their leadership style to meet the employee’s development needs, then
  3. partner for success together.

In diagnosis, employee’s development levels follow this continuum, from enthusiastic beginner, disillusioned learner, cautious, but capable performer, to self-reliant achiever. Leadership styles correspond to this accordingly, from directing, coaching, supporting, to delegating. It is then that we partner for success.

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This concept is best illustrated through a story. A leader I coached a few years back, Jen, really embraced this tool. She was a new manager, and very results-oriented. Through our coaching, she learned a lot about herself, and realized that she often led her employees how she preferred to be led. Much like Jen, I have found that leaders often have natural leadership tendencies, often based on how they like to be led. The challenge is that not all employees are like us. Our job as leaders is to flex to lead them how they need to be led.

Here’s Jen’s people reading story.

About a year ago, Jen had hired an analyst to support her team on data entry and analysis for goals for their business. Fresh out of college, she expected the employee to be a self-starter. After a few weeks on the job, and many mistakes later, she determined that he was not a good fit for the role. She remained hands off, hoping he would self-select to leave. Time passed, and after about six months, he put in his notice. Jen quickly replaced him with another employee.
The new employee had more initiative, which Jen welcomed. This employee learned the day-to-day data analysis tasks from working more closely with a buddy, and although she still made mistakes, was open to coaching and feedback to learn from them.

In reflecting on this experience, and comparing the two employees, Jen realized something. While she had been more directive than supportive with both employees, her preferred leadership style, she had provided far more direction to the second employee. She realized the employee was learning, and partnered her with a buddy to learn from, coached her on mistakes, and checked in more frequently to partner for success. As a result, Jen shared that employee is now doing and excelling, and she is able to delegate new tasks to her.

One important note here is that SL II is about diagnosing the employee by the task. When Jen would assign a new task to this high performing employee, the employee still needed to go through the process of learning. We often forget this as leaders. We delegate a complex new task to a rock star and expect instant results, even if they have never done it before.

To avoid this pitfall, Jen shared that she would often conduct “drive bye’s” to catch the employee doing something good, or to see first-hand the areas to coach the employee. She would do it so that the employee did not see her, so it did not come across as micro-managing. The key is to know your team, and “hover” as appropriate, especially when they are learning. It’s important to match their skill and will level, then set them up for success.

Jen’s team thrived as a result of her flexing her leadership style to meet the team’s needs. She balanced supportive and directive behaviors depending on the employee’s development level and needs. She’s now seeing lower employee turnover, and better productivity and quality from her team.

In a subsequent session with leaders from another organization, we did an activity to internalize the concept through each development level. These diagrams show from learning to play golf to raising a child, Situational Leadership is all around us.

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Leaders that read their team have better business results.

How will you read your team?

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