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Leadership Q&A: Sticky Leadership

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Question:  As a leader, how do I get people to contribute more, look for ways to make the office better and offer ideas that help improve our office?

Answer: The key to your question isn’t in how but who.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath made the idea of “stickiness” stick in the vernacular of those who seek to influence others through ideas. Their book Made to Stick is an insightful treatment of how certain ideas grab hold of the public’s attention.

I want to borrow their idea of “stickiness“, and apply it to how leaders function in organizational structures formed around relationships.

In many relationship-centric structures, there is a perception that the relationships are what matter, and as long as everyone is getting along, things are okay. The reality is much different.  People often confuse congeniality with commitment.

In traditional structures, the chain-of-command organizes interaction and accountability into orderly functional roles. In collaborative groups, the accountability is more relational and is more dependent on the quality of the relationships between members.

The “stickiness” of the relationship is dependent upon how well people commit to participating and contributing. There is less of a formula to follow as the shared values of the group become more important for how the group functions. The group is more dependent on effective leadership because there is greater openness and freedom for members to choose to participate.

Creating a “sticky” group is about who the leader is rather than simply how the organizational structure is managed.

Three Ways to Make Your Group “Stick”

1. Interact Consistently: Collaboration is personal, not functional. The quality of the group is measured by the quality of the interaction. The leader of the group is less the boss and more the facilitator. This is especially true if the group is geographically dispersed and rarely gathers in the same place.

For example, the Managing Morale in a time of change e-book project did not begin as a collaborative publishing project. At the outset, it was simply an online discussion. As it grew, as the instigator of the conversation, I realized that I needed to affirm the contributions of people in order to encourage continued posting. I tried to respond in a timely manner to as many of the responses as possible. That responsiveness intent was to link one person’s contribution to another to keep the flow of interaction going. No one else was “organizationally” responsible for this  except me, since it was my discussion, but others also did this from their own initiative. As a result, our interaction turned a discussion that could have been a series of position statements into a genuine discussion about a very important topic.

2. Stimulate Initiative: Collaborative groups are dependent upon each person participating and contributing. A guiding assumption is that no one knows everything or has all the expertise that is needed. If, however, the personality of the group is passive, and the leader must constantly force contribution, then the group needs to get “sticky.” A main responsibility of the leader of a collaborative group is to stimulate the personal initiative of each member. We stick together when we take personal initiative to make our group better.

For example, I’m chairing a local group of presenters and workshop leaders. I am the least skilled presenter/workshop leader of the group. All I am is a facilitator of our interaction and initiative. I  listen to what interests people and ask that they take on various tasks fitting with those interests.  One women talked about an online collaboration tool that she uses. I asked her to set it up for our group.  It makes our communication easier.  Because this is her idea, she is more conscious of its use and she helps us to get the benefit from it.  In another instance, I divided our group into two subgroups, one to establish a plan for deciding the topic and presenters for our first event, and another to find the venue and set a date. Individual members of the group decided on their own initiative which group to join, who will facilitate, how they will work together and what to report to the whole group at our monthly meeting.

When members take ownership of a group’s outcomes, then they take initiative to contribute and participate and a higher, more impact-filled, more satisfying level of work takes place.

3. Express Gratitude: I’m convinced that people’s best work is motivated by intrinsic rewards, not by financial compensation. (I look forward to Dan Pink’s new book Drive to provide us a transformative perspective of this simple truth.) Intrinsic rewards are those that affirm us as valuable contributors to a group or organization. This is the background of Say Thanks Every Day.  As we do so, we recognize the participation and contribution of others.  The “stickiness” of gratitude knows no bounds. If you are a truly grateful person in your actions and attitudes, then the people whom you touch with gratitude will find an indebtedness to you for giving them such a gift. It is what transforms a collection of people into a committed community of leaders.

Here are three suggestions for creating a “sticky” group that reveal to us two indelible, unchanging  truths.

1. Leadership is about giving to people and developing their leadership potential. Our interaction, our encouragement of others’ initiative and our expression of gratitude to them is focused on other people, not us. It isn’t about creating a legion of fans to follow us. Rather, it is about creating a legion of leaders who follow one another. In other words, the measure of our leadership is the impact of the leaders who trace their leadership lineage back to us. We give so others may lead.

2. Leadership is personal and is driven by the character of our lives and our relationships. Increasingly, the quality of our relationships will determine the quality of our leading. When leaders simply focus on the numbers, on the bottom-line, they miss the leverage for growth and strength that comes in a quality set of relationships. The more relational approach toward leadership is a more difficult, complex, ambiguous path than what we’ve seen in the past. It is what the truly great leaders have learned.

Leadership requires personal maturity and commitment to making a difference. It is a great challenge for two reasons. First,because it requires us to grow up into being mature adults. And, second, most of our organizational structures are not compatible with this approach to leadership. We must fight the structure, change it and create new ones in order to lead in this manner.

A group “sticks” together because they care for one another and their mission, support one another in taking the lead as required by the situation and build happy, effective teams that lead organizations to make a difference that matters. The measure of “stickiness” is not a factor of time, but rather of growth and depth of change that a group is willing to embrace. The measure is impact not survivability. This is both joy and challenge that challenges every leader to build what I like to call a “community of leaders.”

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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