The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager. Peter Drucker
“We love to do it.” Isn’t that what every manager wants to hear from their staff?
How would you react if your directs say that to you?
They sound like a motivated bunch who have, maybe, found some passion or purpose in what they are doing. Great – you feel validated as a manager because you see a result of your leadership.
Your directs will probably be focused and talk about you as a great boss who gives them great work to do - even better for your personal leadership brand. What could be the problem?
Most of the time it’s not a problem. Be happy that you heard it. Challenge yourself to extend this response across your staff and all the tasks they do, then you may well have an engaged team doing great work.
“We love to do it.” becomes a problem when they add But. “But we love to do it” can be an indicator of unhelpful or unhealthy attachment. You may hear it in response to:
- Do we need to do that anymore?
- To whom can you delegate that task?
- Is there a better way to do that?
- Please stop doing that.
- The Client will not pay for it anymore.
- That’s a low priority task. Please focus on this new task.
- That is someone else’s responsibility.
Then, “But we love (or like, enjoy…) to do it” indicates misalignment between how you all value the task. Suddenly the positive message is not so positive any more.
Insistence to follow your new instruction is probably not going to work for very long. “But we love to do it” indicates some emotional attachment to the task or its context. Pressing the rational, logical, business case aspect of your instruction will not address the emotional component which is figural for your directs at that moment. Your employees will be reluctant to discuss the business case and move on, until you address the emotional component.
Repetitive tasks can become rituals, where the task acquires cultural significance and does more for the organization than its defined result. Rituals help your staff make sense of what goes on around them. Rituals reinforce the social bonds developed at work and allow them to demonstrate presence and commitment to the team and/or the work. Regular events and meetings easily become ritualized, and the participants fall into a pattern of ritualistic behaviors.
Edgar Schein’s model of Organizational Culture* explains culture in three levels:
- Basic Underlying Assumptions
- Espoused Beliefs & Values
- Artifacts and Symbols
Rituals fall into the observable category of Artifacts. Schein’s model is used to identify existing cultures and as a framework for culture change programs. When you hear “But we love to do it”, it is a signal that you have inadvertently challenged an element of the culture. You have started a micro-culture-change-project.
So what can you do?
Honor and respect the positive attitude you are hearing. As a first step you probably want to do some reality testing to ensure you are all talking about the same thing. You all need to share your reasons for what you each said; review the life history of the task.
Acknowledge the cultural components, if they are obvious to you, or listen for them first. Perhaps you are asking them to stop a task they have been doing for years, that was started by a respected former colleague, or coincided with a powerful event in the team’s history. Let them talk about it. Our shared past defines us together in the present; acknowledge it. Can you work together to transfer the cultural significance or honor ending the ritual in an appropriate way?
When it comes to the work process, if you and your team differ on the value of the task, don’t take ownership. You have a difference of opinion. You all own the resolution. Refocus on the big picture. See the whole - all the tasks to be done by your team. Ask them to make a proposal about how to proceed. In the end, you decide; that is your role. Maybe, they see threats or opportunities that you do not. It’s your decision and you will give them the air-cover in case the consequences that concern them arise.
If it’s a question of capacity, let them propose a new prioritization. If you are managing your staff well, they are always making choices about what not to do. There’s never enough time. We give them more than they have time to do and they have competence to identify and down-prioritize the least valuable tasks. Give them feedback on the quality of their prioritization not their preference of what they love to do.
When you have taken account of the cultural significance of your new direction. When you are all aligned on the value and the prioritization of your new direction, and your staff are still strongly attached to work that you ask them not to do, and you have made it clear that they don’t do it then…
…don’t get angry. Doubling down on the emotional component will not help. Moving to insisting, ordering or demanding will corrode your authority on the long term. After all you value the talents in your team.
Ultimately, move your attention away from the loved task and focus on the new tasks or the new prioritization, manage the performance there tightly and give good quality, continuous motivation, encouragement, celebration and feedback about it. Deny the old, loved task the oxygen of your attention. Recognize and reward what you have decided. Discuss performance in terms of the new task or the new prioritization. Don’t revisit the merits of the old, loved task. Don’t judge it. It takes time to fall out of love. Allow that to happen.
Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart. Rumi