Adopt this mindset shift and people will see you as a leader, not just a manager

Treat your employees as if they were volunteers because most of them are — regardless of their paycheck.

When it comes to political philosophy, most of us would agree that legitimate governments derive “powers from the consent of the governed.” Change makes democracy work, so every few years we have local and national elections to ensure the consent of the majority of voters (or the majority of states, but we can talk about the Electoral College another time). No governmental system is perfect, but democracy at least attempts to reflect what the people want.

At work, however, democracy is rarely a thing.

Authority at work has almost nothing to do with the consent of the governed. And while people are free to choose whether to place themselves within a given company’s authority structure, after they have made that choice, they cannot elect a new boss after two years. Instead they can quit and go work with your competition.

Some of you will sense where I’m going and push back saying, “Don’t give us that old trope about quitting bosses. People quit jobs, not bosses.” That’s baloney. Professionals tend to like what they do and have a strong connection with their professional identity. When a parts engineer quits her job, she doesn’t quit the profession. She just ends up being a parts engineer somewhere else.

A few years back, Facebook published an article in HBR on “Why people really quit their jobs.” It pointed out that based on their internal research: “The decision to exit was because of the work. They left when their job wasn’t enjoyable, their strengths weren’t being used, and they weren’t growing in their careers.” Bad bosses around the world got excited when they read that line, and they should have stopped reading there because the article continues:  “At Facebook, people don’t quit a boss — they quit a job. And who’s responsible for what that job is like? Managers.”

A rose by any other name . . . .

I’ve seen many studies that show well over 50 percent of people have quit a job because of their leader. I believe these studies because I’ve been one of those employees, so has my wife, and so has nearly every friend and colleague I’ve ever discussed the topic with. I suspect the number is much higher than 50 percent.

You don’t have to be a raving, temperamental hot-head to be a bad boss (although if you are, stop reading this right now and find a good coach). Some bad bosses are “bad”  because they never give their employees enough autonomy or authority to feel like the professionals they are—and not because the boss is a bully. Often, the micromanager boss is too cautious, not too callous. 

If you have authority over people, you have an outsized impact on their lives—and not just at work. When I worked for the man who will forever define a bad boss for me (and he might have been one of the smartest, most talented and—when he wanted to be—charismatic people I’ve ever worked with) I was very difficult to live with. I was moody, depressed, gained weight, lost my patience at home in ways that embarrass me to this day. I couldn’t show my frustration at work, but it had to come out somewhere. What was I to do? I felt trapped. I needed that job because I had a mortgage and a child who liked to eat every day. The economy was in the tank at that time. I woke up depressed, dragged myself to work, did the best I could in that mindset (and how well do you think that was?). I did that over and over until I simply couldn’t anymore. Despite the economic pressure, I quit that job. Even though I was terrified at the prospect of being unemployed, it was better than staying.

Many years ago, Drucker wrote that we should “accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.” He was right then and he’s more right today,  when loyalty to employer has been eclipsed by loyalty to one’s professional identity.  In the companies I work with, there is a high degree of turnover, and we know the challenges that creates. So, if you want to keep your people (I’m assuming that’s your goal, by the way: keeping your people, getting results, and having a positive impact on the people around you. If not, see the suggestion on finding a coach above.) start treating them like volunteers—even your star performers. We can learn a great deal about motivation from volunteer organizations. Those who lead or manage volunteers have no authority over them–they truly govern with the consent of the governed.

Don’t know how to lead volunteers? Then start with your own experience. Think about times you volunteered. Why did you volunteer in the first place? You probably thought the work or the goal or the cause was important. Daniel Pink makes a great argument that a sense of purpose is one of the three main intrinsic motivators. So, think about this: What is your company’s purpose and where does the work you do fit into it? How can you ensure your people know that their work, their team’s work, their company’s work is important?

Not long ago, I was working with the leaders of a large manufacturer. I asked them what the company did (as part of an icebreaker). One participant piped up right away and said, “We design and build systems that  . . . ” Before he finished, one of the other participants said, “No, that’s not what we do, it’s how we do it. What we do is save driver and passenger lives by stopping accidents from happening.”

Now that’s a purpose, and people who believe in the purpose of their work are much more deeply engaged with it.

Next ask yourself why you stayed a volunteer: I’ll bet it’s because your contribution was recognized and appreciated. When the people around an employee—especially the leader—give feedback that affirms them and lets them know they are making an impact, good things happen. How do you do that with your people? How do you encourage your team to support one another?

The “leader of volunteers” mindset isn’t a panacea, of course. We have authority structures in organizations for a reason, and there are certainly times when “get it done because it’s your job,” is the right approach, but unless those are exceptions, don’t expect much more than the bare minimum contribution and more resentment than you know.

Yes, work is a choice and people can lose their jobs, but that sword cuts both ways. Work is a choice and people can leave if they feel underappreciated, underchallenged, unmotivated, not listened to, disrespected and all the rest.

Treat your people as if they were volunteers because most of them are—regardless of the paycheck.

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