The Top 10 Mistakes Leaders Make Developing their People, Part 1


Apart from the leaders who seem to think that ability is genetic or in-born, all leaders I’ve met are interested in how to develop their people. They delight in seeing their people grow and they enjoy the benefits of higher productivity and the ability to tackle more challenging R&D problems. However, they’re unsure of how to develop their people effectively. In my leadership sculptor work over the years, I’ve found out that I’m not the only one. This lists – in no particular order – the mistakes that people tell me their leaders make with them.

Mistake #1 “Spare the rod …”

Many years ago we asked one of my bosses how we could recognize that he was satisfied with our performance. His reply was, “If I’m not standing in front of your desk”. This illustrates how many people have learned that it’s better to criticize than to praise. The question I’m most often asked is, how can I criticize my people more effectively? When we’re discussing science or engineering, there’s plenty of room to criticize ideas. However, it’s less productive to criticize behavior. Here’s an article on how to give feedback that helps you to avoid the criticism trap when talking to people about their behavior.

Mistake #2 Stay in “parent mode”

Many leaders complain about the lack of independence of their people. They seldom make the connection between that and how they talk to them. At the beginning, people are – in research terms – “children”. However, they grow up rapidly. Therefore, it’s important to adapt the style of conversation, so that it’s more adult-to-adult rather than parent-child. One way to achieve this is to shift from “tell” mode to developing a conversation among equals by eliciting their thoughts and opinions. This helps to bring them out of the mode of expecting you to make all the running in the conversation.

Mistake #3 Tell people what they need to do

When we’re busy and one of our people comes for advice, the quickest way to get back to our own task is just to tell the person how to solve their problem and get them back to work. Unfortunately, their brain isn’t very engaged in this conversation and the chances are high that they’ll be back pretty soon looking for more advice on a similar problem. In the long-term it’s worth developing a coaching attitude towards staff and, through astute and open questions, helping them to find their own solutions. This increases the range of problems they can solve themselves, so that when they come back it’s with a better class of challenge.

Mistake #4 Let them learn through osmosis

I’ve met many leaders who believe that their people will observe how they operate and learn from that. They see no need to coach or explain since staff will just soak it all up. While some people can learn through careful observation, they need to know that this is what you expect from them. It doesn’t just happen of its own accord. For the rest, it’s important to structure their development. In particular, by explaining the thinking behind your non-scientific decisions, you prepare your more senior people for a leadership role.

Mistake #5 Overwhelm stimulates learning

On my first day in a compressor design project, I was told I had until that evening to decide how many blades would be in each row of the third and fourth stages of the compressor. I had no clue and no idea where to start. My boss told me that was my problem. Fortunately, a colleague saw I was overwhelmed, came over to me after the meeting and explained the required engineering. Here’s a on how to stimulate development while sidestepping overwhelm.

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