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When great ideas aren’t enough

Have you ever seen a bright, capable person become frustrated when the organization doesn’t make decisions that seem obvious to them? Have you been that person? This post covers about some things we can do to help people ease their frustrations and become more effective.

James was an engineering lead who had developed a fantastic solution to a problem that he was certain would save the company millions of dollars. What he couldn’t understand was why he couldn’t get any funding; it just made no sense to him.

Kathryn was a high-performing leader who knew the organization had to restructure if it was going to achieve its mission. But despite broad support from individual contributors on the teams, leaders weren’t making the necessary changes.

Blake could see that the project he was assigned to was going to fail, and he (correctly) believed that the funds should be diverted to other initiatives where success was more certain. But he couldn’t understand why this wasn’t happening. His raising the subject to the executive team wasn’t helping his cause.

I often come across people like James, Kathryn, and Blake in my client’s organizations. They’re passionate, engaged, bright, and wanting to improve the company’s prospects, all of which are highly desireable traits. So what’s the problem?

James, Kathryn, and Blake were all suffering frustration: they had uncovered a problem and come up with a solution that they believed was workable, but they were unable to persuade others to support it. The reason was all too common: they were thinking about their solutions only from their own point of view, and not considering the consequences for others in the organization. When challenged, I usually hear ‘but we should all support ideas that are good for the business.’ Not untrue, but also not an effective leadership expectation. The core leadership skill they are missing is tactical empathy.

When coaching people in these situations, I try to focus on these questions to help them grow:

  • How will others feel about your idea? Why might they not be interested in it?

  • If they’re not interested, is there anything you can do about it?

The first question is about empathy, and the second is about control. Influence depends on astute assessments and application of both of these. Extremely successful executives often use a sounding board to check their analysis of situations involving influence. Anyone can learn the basics and a neutral coach can fast track this development.

For leaders who want to build a highly effective leadership team, the objective is to learn how to encourage empathy and measure leadership performance with specific, actionable activities based on the quality of relationships with the people they work with. Helping people understand what they control (and dealing with the common feelings of frustration at how limited their control can be) helps improve both individual and team effectiveness. Certainly this is how all ambitious ideas do get traction. But its also important to know when and how to recognize unwinnable struggles and focus energy on what can actually be accomplished.

It’s immensely valuable for leaders to help their people develop the skills needed to assess their own ideas from the perspectives of those around them. As they practice these techniques, they will see resistance melt away, their need to escalate will decrease, and their relationships will improve.