Leadership Power Tools: Removing Pebbles

Muhammad Ali once stated that, “It is not the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it is the pebble in your shoe.”  As the recent pandemic surges have waned a bit, we have an opportunity to look back to find the “pebbles in the shoes” of our teams, as a group and as individuals.  What exists in the work environment that is part of the environment (not part of the pandemic) and is contributing to the team being worn out unnecessarily?

Here is a key habit of effective leadership – continuous quality improvement (CQI) in the work environment to reduce the factors that contribute to burnout. This is hard for many leaders, because the work of finding and correcting the “pebbles in the organizational shoe” can be perceived by the leader as an admission of failure. It is not.

Identifying and removing sources of frustration and workflow disruption and building better work processes are best done in partnership with leadership and team members.  Indeed, working on this together in an atmosphere of openness and honest inquiry is a great trust builder.  The process is itself part of the cure.

How can the leader make CQI in partnership with the team members in ways that will build trust, encourage the team, and “remove pebbles” from the work environment?

  • Ask – hold unrushed conversations with team members.  The leader must come to the team with humility enough to ask good questions, drop all pretenses and defenses, and listen to the answers deeply and with empathy.  Without this foundation, trust may be elusive.
  • Listen – identify the “pebbles,” those things which contribute to or detracts from professional fulfillment and team health from their perspective.  Their perspective is the only perspective that matters in the end.  Leaders must filter their opinions through those of the team, not the other way around. 
  • Note: This can be painful if some of the pebbles have been put there by leadership, but if the truth can be acknowledged and difficulties corrected, everyone in the process has won an important victory.
  • Listen, but do not defend or solve problems.  Get the team findings on paper and acknowledge the findings without excusing leadership from responsibility. Leadership is ownership and a leader unwilling to own problems personally is also unwilling to effectively lead.
  • Empower the team to prioritize the list.  Let them develop solutions and to implement them as individuals and a team.  This builds ownership, trust, and creativity.  As George Patton stated, “Never tell people how to do things.  Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”  Let the team surprise you with their ingenuity and they will own the solutions.  Then trust them by putting the ideas to work.
  • Repeat – CQI works best when it is truly continuous.  Organizations that maintain team-driven CQI are often characterized by trust, ownership, and strong team identity.  The evidence of this is found in their use of pronouns. Instead of using “I” and “they” terminology, strong teams use “we” and “us.”  The live and speak in the context of partnerships and teamwork that includes the leadership.

Image via flikr.com

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