Inner natural guidance

Photo by Pratham Books

I have been reading Tal Ben-Shahar’s fascinating book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life and came across a reference to the Montessori Method of Education. As I was reading about it, I thought that it actually describes a big part of my approach to the practice of management. And as I wrote in the past, I believe that education and management are closely related (see for example here). I took a paragraph from Wikipedia describing the method and added the words manager and employee where teacher and child were originally written and this is what you get:

Applying this method involves the [teacher] manager in viewing the [child] employee as having an inner natural guidance for his or her own perfect self-directed development. The role of the [teacher] manager (sometimes called director, directress, or guide) is therefore to watch over the environment to remove any obstacles that would interfere with this natural development. The [teacher] manager‘s role of observation sometimes includes experimental interactions with [children] employees, commonly referred to as “lessons,” to resolve misbehavior or to show how to use the various [self-teaching] managerial materials that are provided in the environment for the [children] employee‘s free use.

Take away hurdles. No more rules but environments that support the development of practical wisdom. Experimentation and reflection.

I could not describe it better myself.



The right job and the manager’s role

Photo by quapan


Bob Sutton wrote a very interesting post a few days ago. Here are the main parts of it:

I realized that while much of what I write about focuses on bad versus good bosses, jobs, and organizations, that I ought to also be emphasizing that there are many perfectly good jobs out there held be people who are, nonetheless, quite unhappy because the kind of work they do, the mission of their organization, and a host of other factors simply do not mesh well who they are and what they would want to be.

But some of us have jobs that don’t fit who we are and we would be much happier doing another kind of work … I thought of three signs that someone is in the wrong job. These are:

1. “People whose careers aren’t the right fit often feel like impostors, even if they are very skilled at their jobs.”

2. “Another symptom is constant annoyance with the demands being made of them, even though these are reasonable for the business they’re in.”

3. “An additional warning sign is a feeling that their current work doesn’t rank very high in their value system.”

This little list just begins to scratch the surface…

Sutton raises great points and I think the three signs are right on. As someone who went through (and actually is still going through) a career change, I can say that this is exactly what I felt before I made the decision to make the move for a different career and job.

Having said that, I think Sutton de-emphasizes the importance of the subject so close to his heart – good bosses and bad bosses. Yes, we need people need to find a fit between them and the job and not everybody can do any job. However, I believe there is a connection between the boss (or manager), his relationship with his employee and the appearance of the signs in that same employee. If a manager’s job is to take the hurdles of employees out of the way and help each employee find his or her strengths and help reach a sense of flow, then it is a manager’s job to see the sign in his employees. It is not always in his ability to influence all of the relevant dimensions (the entire organization value system for example) but he does have an important affect on the employee’s day-to-day environment.

So, the three signs Sutton details are not only important as a self-reflection tool but also as a management tool. If your employees are experiencing any of the signs, maybe you are not doing your job as a manger very well…



Language matters!

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A few weeks back I wrote a post about the language we use in management. Describing a post in giving advice to leaders and managers I complained:

Just look at the language. I, the little employee, need you, the big boss, to take control. I cannot excite myself. I need you, my liege, to get me excited. I want you, my monarch, to impress me and set me up to win. You are on top. I am in the bottom waiting for your holiness to give me some autonomy.

Really? Are you serious? Has it turned 1900 and I haven’t noticed? Or maybe more like the 1200?

Language and words matter. They affect our thinking and more importantly our behavior. I was thinking about this issue while reading Tom Peters’ blog post about helping. He describes Edgar Schein’s new book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help and some of the principles described in it. This is one of them:

PRINCIPLE 2: Effective Help Occurs When the Helping Relationship Is Perceived to Be Equitable.

In the comments to that post, you find a comment by Schein himself explaining what this principle means:

The reason a helping relationship has to be equitable is that all relationships work best when each party feels he or she is getting something out of it, not necessarily the same thing.

Peters is fond of saying, and I have taken after him, that one of the most important roles of managers is to help employees, or take hurdles out of their way (or as he calls it: Boss as CHRO—Chief Hurdle Removal Officer – see #125 here). I think Schein’s perspective completes that. It is not just help, it is equitable help. It is help that comes out of partnership and not out of hierarchy and control.

Language matters.


What can we learn from eggs about teamwork, creativity and more importantly, rules

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I could not believe it. A prestigious program in the city that is the financial capital of the world. A class in the respected MBA program at NYU Stern. About 40 students, working in teams of five or six people, huddling over… an egg!

The objective? Build a device using an assortment of objects that will keep the egg from breaking when it falls from the ceiling. Besides the objects there were only a few rules to the competition. A time constraint. The criteria by which the device is going to be measured (does it work? Is it creative? Is it beautiful?). And that’s about it. The results? Five totally different designs that worked in totally different ways.

The idea behind this exercise was to learn about teams and teamwork. I was assigned as an observer of one of the teams and noticed subtle issues of communications, roles and how ideas are developed. Yet, with all the issues relating to teams in the exercise, I feel the real lesson I learned is totally different. It is about rules.

I believe in the concept of outcome management. Not telling people how to do things and instead telling them what the desired outcome is and allowing them to find their own way to reach it. A manger, instead of trying to dictate to people how to do things and creating lists of rules, should concentrate instead on other, more important activities. Concentrating on the purpose, the process, taking hurdles out-of-the-way and on people’s need for autonomy and mastery seems to me as a better choice. Surrounding employees with rules is not a recipe for phenomenal results.

When I think about the “eggs class” this is exactly the lesson that comes out of it. Our professor could have come to class, with a recipe, a cookbook or a script of how to create the device, and we would still see the teams struggling and notice different ways in which they worked together to follow the rules in order to create the device. But instead, she came only with a limited number of rules pertaining to the process, not to the content. And what was the result? Five different device, each ingenious in its own way, that a single person could not have thought about. Granted, some of the devices were better, some were worse, but I am confident that if you take the best part of each device, you could create a super device.

We think we know what the best way to do things is. However, we are never smarter than a group of people. We might know the best way for us, but we can never know what the best way for others is. We can help, we can suggest, but ultimately, it’s about giving them the freedom to find their own ways.

What is the equivalent of this idea in your organization? Do you have rules about content or rules about process?


BTW, if you are interested to see some of the pictures from the event, here you go.

Management by reducing restraining forces

Photo by Jason Clapp


I was reading an article by Daniel Kahneman titled Reference Points, Anchors, Norms and Mixed Feelings for a negotiation class I am taking, when I encountered this intriguing paragraph:

I find it encouraging that this prescriptive conclusion coincides with that of a very different analysis. In a marvelous essay, Kurt Lewin (1951) deduced from an analysis of behavior as dynamic equilibrium that it is more efficient to induce others to change their behavior by “reducing restraining forces” than by “increasing driving forces.”

Our thinking is so entrenched in the carrots and sticks and incentives thinking that we developed a bias towards “increasing driving forces”. We focus so much of our time trying to think of ways influence others by pushing them that we neglect to understand that pulling is also possible. We focus our attention on futile attempts to control and reduce heterogeneity. Listen to the language most managers use – How can we motivate people? How can we incentivize them? How can we make them act in the ways that we want?

Isn’t it time we develop a different kind of thinking and a different kind of language. One that tries to “reduces the restraining forces”. To help them gain autonomy and mastery and to reach a sense of purpose. To take hurdles out of their way. Unshackle employees and take off some of the stupid rules that surround them. Change the language to a language that is based on humanity and talks about shared purpose, partnerships and creativity.

What forces are restraining your people and what are you going to do about it?


Who is responsible for a manager’s success?

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Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan – John F. Kennedy

Yesterday I wrote about heuristics and how one heuristic specifically, the illusion of control, is dangerous for managers and mangers need to overcome it if they want to really reach amazing results. Today I want to talk about another heuristic, which is part of the self-serving bias:

A self-serving bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control. The self-serving bias can be seen in the common human tendency to take credit for success but to deny responsibility for failure

You all know it and have experienced from both ends of the spectrum. When we succeed, it is due to our own talents and efforts. But when we fail, that is when the excuses come knocking. And it is always someone else’s fault.

Now, I am not trying to change the behavior of the entire human race, even though a little more accountability would not hurt to improve our society. I just want to point out that in the case of managers that deal with people, their success lies in exactly the opposite situation. A great manager is one that helps his people succeed. By definition, a great manager is only a great manager because of someone else. As I wrote before:

A manager is not a supervisor that just needs to make sure the work is done. A manager is a good manager when he makes people think; when he helps employees improve their abilities and capitalize on their strengths; when he supports their own self development, self-efficacy and sense of achievement; and when he helps them prepare for their next role

And this is a very hard concept to come to grasps with. In most of our education and through most of our lives we are programmed to think that our success is dependent only on our actions. If we study hard enough, if we work hard enough, if we do the right things we will succeed. The only one that is responsible for our success is us. That is what we are told from the minute we are children. And most of the time there is nothing wrong with that. It might even be a good thing. But then we become managers.

And what do we do?

We create mechanisms of control that will make sure that everything is done our way. We try to make sure everything is controllable, so it will depend on us.

But it doesn’t. Not anymore.

A manager needs to adopt a frame of mind that is contrary to this human nature. A frame of mind that says: my success is the result of the work of others, work that is not under my control and that actually thrives when I am not in control. Hey, who said being a manager is an easy job?

Listen to Tom Peters and take the hurdles out of employees’ way and let them make you successful.


Shorts: Avnet’s Roy Vallee on motivating employees

Roy Valle, CEO of Avent, said in an interview to Knowledge@W.P. Carey the following things:

What I figured out was that it wasn’t my job to install a fire in their belly, so to speak. In fact, most of them already had that fire in the belly. What they needed from me was two things: one, clarity of the work that I wanted them to do, or what it is I wanted them to accomplish; and two, they wanted me to remove the obstacles that were beyond their personal control. So if there were issues in other parts of the company that needed attention by management, that had to be my job. Their job was to achieve the things that I had specifically asked them to go do. I found that that little simple two-step process works pretty well.

I have to admit that it is nice to see that things I write about in this blog being said by people with almost 40 years of successful management experience:

  1. One of the main jobs – and challenges – of great managers is to communicate these things to his/her employees.
  2. Taking the hurdles of employees out of the way.

Enough said!

Hat tip: Globoforce blog.


Shorts: Incentive Intelligence on not telling people what to do

Paul Hebert from Incentive Intelligence writes a post called The Secret Motivation Program Your Manager Doesn’t Want You To Know About:

I’m guessing 90% of the failure to engage teams is about managers telling people how to do things instead of focusing on the why.  In most cases people can figure something out if they know why it’s important.  Managers typically spend more time telling people how instead of why.  Tell your folks why they do what they do and then get out of the way.

Totally agree. Outcome management, not giving answers and taking hurdles out of the way, are to competencies managers need to master. Urgently.