How a leader takes initiative is dependent on the language they use. Actions often speak louder than words, but for leaders, words can be just as significant at revealing how they view the world. The phrases that follow may seem outdated, even obviously misguided, but those in leadership positions still use them with frequency and fervor.
“Stay in your lane”
Picture the following. You’re driving down the road, listening to Taylor Swift, The Beatles, Tony Robbins, or whoever, and you notice the car in the lane next to you starting to drift over towards your car. You tap your brakes in an instant, maybe swerve a little, and yell this irritated phrase through the car window.
Let’s look at the situation more closely. You and that other driver aren’t in the same car, you (most likely) aren’t on the way to the same place, and you certainly aren’t trying to teach each other how to drive. Given these facts, why is this phrase so pervasive in the business world? It’s because some people feel their abilities are being questioned. As a leader, someone is telling you that you didn’t assign the job roles correctly. The reality is, they may or may not be right. It’s your job to first figure that out, but more importantly, let people use their full battery of skills or let them strengthen ones they find interesting.
In any organization, no matter what department you’re in, every individual is on the same team. Telling those you lead to stay in their lane is not only ignorant, but impossible. You’re all in the same vehicle. Further, you’re travelling to the same place, represented by the overall vision.
Replace it: “Would you like to cross-train in this area?”
Cross-training provides a great way to prep people to become leaders themselves. Gaining a more detailed look at an area outside of your specific role gives individuals a broader view of the whole organization. Those who aren’t interested in cross-training will probably retreat back to their position, but more likely, you’ll find an ambitious person ready for training and coaching.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”
I get it. When things already work, what good is it to mess with the system? As a leader, there are times when accepting something that runs smoothly is better than the alternative. After all, you have limited resources, so you can’t tinker with every single thing trying to improve it. A leader is not an island, however, and as such, relies heavily on others (followers are a pre-requisite of being a leader).
We need to promote the mindset that improvement is ever-achievable. Ideas may not always be implemented, but we don’t think of ideas only when they’re needed. Without a doubt, necessity is the mother of invention, but is the mother of necessity? Change, of course.
Change can occur over a long time, all at once or anywhere in between. When life changes, we develop new needs, or at least the perception of need. The horse was replaced by the automobile, but the horse wasn’t broken. We perceived that we needed to travel faster and more efficiently. On that notion, the car is only a band-aid until we invent the Star Trek transporter. Whether it’s for a product or a service, leaders must recognize that every idea is simply a step towards a better solution. It could help progress, or it could help narrow down what doesn’t work.
Replace it: “What insights have we gathered?”
Insights come from engaging and listening to the end user. That may be the customer, or it may be the individual team members. People do not always know that something is broken, or that something can be better. More importantly, however, is that seeking insights is the beginning of an iterative process of improving a situation. This helps maintain an attitude of growth, where ideas are fluid and malleable. Insights not only create ideas, but help shape their offspring.
“You work for me”
There are two scenarios for any leader; you own the organization, or you don’t. If you do own it, you should have a goal that is driving all the work done by your team. That goal, the “why” to your “what”, is what people are working for, not a lone individual. The person doesn’t work for you. Their position is a subordinate one to your position as a leader. The human who fills that subordinate position works for a purpose. This leads us to the second scenario for any leader, where you don’t own the organization. In this case, these words should never leave your mouth. In this case, not only do they not work for you, the organization isn’t even yours.
In fact, in either scenario, thinking those words in any situation should give you pause. It is the perfect time to look at your implicit theory on leadership. You, as a leader, are not the business. This is to say, you leave at some point during the day, hang out with other people, eat food, maybe sleep, get in a run, go shopping, and take care of personal tasks. Do your team members come with you? Exactly, they go home and tend to their personal lives just the same.
When we think of people working for us, we are taking a supercilious view of our position. If anyone works for anyone, the leader works for everyone else. That brings us to an interesting replacement.
Replace it: “How can I help you?”
The reason that spawns the “You work for me” attitude is that some individual on the team is doing something you feel isn’t part of the job you gave them. This could include (but is certainly not limited to) going around you to another supervisor, doing work for another department, or working on something personal. Whatever the case may be, the leader is there to help that individual do their best job. In taking on something that is outside the scope of their specific job responsibilities, which is just a position working for another position, people are telling you that something isn’t functioning correctly for them. As humans and leaders, it’s necessary to recognize these moments and step in to help. It is not our role to step in and demand compliance and submission.
What terrible attitudes do you see in leadership?