I recently read a principle written by the host of the Manager Tools podcast Mark Horstman that struck me. It reads, “Any hour you spend on people is a better investment than an hour spent on systems, processes or policies. Great people can overcome average systems; average people won’t live up to great systems”. In maintenance, we spend a lot of time talking about developing or streamlining a process but never how we will develop or coach someone struggling in their work—it’s generally assumed that if someone is doing a bad job that it stems from a lack of motivation or care. Take time to deliberately invest in people—you might avoid problems later on.
Listening is one of the things I am working on as a leader. I have the tendency to offer advice when someone brings me an issue. This is typically what they want, but I find I am not listening for the true root of the issue and only solving a surface symptom and not the actual problem. Actually, I have learned that my advice rarely solves another’s true problem. What helps is when I listen and ask them questions that help us both understand the problem better. By the time we get to the root of the issue, they already know what to do.
We as military members often fail to tell others how well they are doing and how important they are to the team. The slightest notion that we care about others goes such a long way. I have told so many when they make a mistake and so few how important they are to the overall success of the team. Tell someone today how important they are and one specific thing they do that is amazing to you.
The moment I stopped worrying about what others thought of me and focused on helping young NCOs build confidence in their own abilities is the moment I realized I could have an impact.
Although, I think the priority for this quote should be in reverse order, I do love the message. We need to remember that we are symbols of the US Armed Forces and most of the country does not know much about what we do. Thus, we need to represent ourselves as Airmen and as professionals…even when the rest of the country is showing their butts as morons through open debates. We need to remember we are a cut above the rest for a reason.
“Reward what you want repeated,” was something that has rattled around in my head for years. In fact, one of my first posts on this site was about that and recently I saw this phrase as I was reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. He reinforced my beliefs and then added the ‘why’.
The basic premise of reward what you want repeated is that when we give rewards (positive or negative), we are encouraging or discouraging a specific behavior. Something as simple as pointing out the action someone takes that reinforces the culture you are trying to nurture will encourage them to continue doing that action and those who see the reward will desire to mimic their peers. This is why commanders publicly coin Airmen for seemingly small things. This triggers something innate within others.
This innate feeling is what James Clear touched on in his book. He uses this instinct as he teaches people to create or break habits. Here is a broad brush view of this idea: think about smoking. There is not a single person on this planet who would argue smoking is good for you and almost everyone agrees the long term effects are very damaging; however, cigarettes and tobacco products are still flying off of the shelves. Our brains can’t picture ourselves in 20-30 years and adjust for that. We see and believe what is right here and now and smoking this one cigarette had no noticeable impact on me right now, so I can just quit before the bad stuff happens.
If we wanted to impact a smoking habit, we need to make the benefit or punishment immediate. This could mean every time you pass on a pack of smokes, you put that money aside for a trip you want to take or for something else you want to buy. Seriously stop right then, pull out your phone, open your bank app and transfer the money into your “vacation” account. Now the reward for not smoking is immediate as you see that account grow. You could also invert this idea as a punishment. Every time you buy a pack of cigarettes, you have to give money to a friend or something else that is immediate and visible.
Leaders can leverage this to foster the environment they are trying to create. For example, you want to increase the quality of work your team is producing. You could go on and on with lectures or public shaming of reading QA fails to the masses. We have all seen how pointless that is as the effects wear off within a week and you are right back to doing the same thing. OR you could get into the mix and seek the small victories. When you see a small example of something that contributes to better quality, call it out. Give a high five, fist bump, or brag about this person to others. This needs to happen often and immediate to create the new behavior you are striving for.
I have employed this method or have seen it employed on teams for years and there has been a 100% success rate. Everytime I have see this strategy employed it has worked and these leaders simultaneously earned the trust of their teams because they were seen as being visible, interested and involved. Rewarding the behavior you want repeated is a simple way to be a more effective leader and it is something you can begin immediately.
Here is the post I referenced in the beginning: Reward What You Want Repeated.
Bottom line: Are you investing in people?
We spend so much time checking the boxes and teaching our team to check the boxes, that we hardly spend the time truly developing our team. We set them up to win awards and to get better forced distro rankings, but are we setting them up to lead? We need more leaders, not more promotees.
Are we trying to make things around us better or simply repeating the same motions? Leaders need to stand up and silence those who are just echoing issues. We need to take ownership of the problems surrounding us and make things better.
I find it amazing all of the things I was told that I could not do when I was younger. When we are young Airmen and NCOs, we are so filled with passion and motivated to fix things. However, their ideas are shut down before the first step is taken. I know I have re-attacked some of my old ideas now that I am more seasoned and they were shockingly easy. They would have been just as easy when I was an Airman, I just didn’t have people telling me it wasn’t possible now. The next time you have an idea or hear one from a teammate, give it some encouragement. It is better to try and fail than to do nothing.