If buy-in is the calling card of consumerism leadership, how do leaders who seek to elicit ownership and accountability in followers engage them without manipulation? One possible way is choice leadership.
Choice is the ultimate acknowledgment of autonomy. The very act of giving someone a choice (that is, a true choice, which includes the right to say no and pass; if you cannot say no, then what does yes mean?) is to place that person in a place of doing their own thinking. It sets the table for ownership and accountability. It elevates their status, and deepens the relatedness between leaders and followers. It creates a near future with a higher degree of certainty, and it tempers the power differential with fairness.
These five elements – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness – described by David Rock in his article “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others” in the NeuroLeadership Journal (Issue One, 2008) create a foundation for leaders who elect to lead through engaging people at the level of their own deepest desires.
What Would You Buy If You Were Selling To Yourself?
Try this exercise. At the top of a piece of paper write, “This is the deal”. Assume that you have agreed ahead of time to buy what ever you write down. What will you write?
Think about the dynamics of the question. It is near impossible to think about the question as only the seller or only the buyer. Something shifts; a mutual consideration takes over and you realize that from the seller’s perspective you have a choice in what you offer and from the buyer’s perspective you have a choice in what you purchase.
The question invites you to align the interests of the buyer and the seller. The seller makes an honorable offer and the buyer gives it thoughtful consideration. You realize that you are neither selling nor buying, but that you are now engaged in a deep conversation on crafting an exchange that serves the values and interests of both parties.
Choice does not require the leader to abdicate her/his leadership. On the contrary, it opens way for the leader to invite followers into some heavy lifting, to engage in charting their own path forward, to assuming ownership and accountability for the future they want.
Choice likewise does not throw the entire enterprise open to the whims of the followers. All choices can, and should, be available within the context of vision, mission, values, strategy, constraints, customer needs, hopes, and expectations, and the requirements of stakeholders.
Choose, Choose, Choose!
Choice leadership generates possibilities exponentially. No longer is thinking the sole bailiwick of the leader. Not only can followers engage, but they must, not as a response to a mandate, but because they see their own best interests in their own hands.
Time is now spent sifting through the best choice – the one that is the best fit for vision, mission, values, strategy, constraints, customer needs, hopes, and expectations, and the requirements of stakeholders.
The looping cycle becomes leaders finding resources and bringing information to followers who engage with leaders to make choices that further refine the focus of leadership and generate more choices.
The Mindset of Choice Leaders and Followers
The deep, enduring effect of choice leadership is removing change by mandate from the organizational mindset and replacing it with an invitation to followers to own the future, and to be accountable for it. There is a deep divide between a leader using her/his authority or power to mandate a requirement and hold followers accountable (if the mandate was such a good idea and it was the leader’s choice, shouldn’t the leader be held accountable?) and a leader that frames conversations that lead followers to acknowledge their own stake in creating the present they want to change, and which leverage that ownership of the present into ownership of the future. People who claim not to own the present are very unlikely to suddenly start owning the future when it becomes present.
Choice deepens when followers feel the confidence that they can express doubts about their ownership and accountability. Commitment to choices is not necessary if all of the money, people, equipment, knowledge, experience, information, technology and time is available in endless supply. Short of remembering to start, no commitment is required because the outcome is guaranteed.
It is only when resources are in short supply that any commitment is needed. There are obstacles to overcome and constraints to navigate. People have to stretch, time has to contract, risks have to be taken. Imperfect information is the best available and what people don’t know they don’t know can sink the desired or needed outcome. Such is the stuff of doubt.
When people can express doubts they gain the support of their colleagues and find the courage and resolve to open way forward. Doubt is the acknowledgment that the commitment to reach goals is an emotional one as well as a factual one.
Finally, choice leadership and followership is one in which the gifts that people bring are honored and celebrated. People at the margins are brought into the center. The dictum to respect others is paired with the expectation to be respected.
Acknowledging gifts does not mean that gaps are naively ignored. It does mean that leaders endeavor to find the best fit for people’s gifts across the entire enterprise rather than judge the follower only in the context of the current job s/he occupies. The quest for best fit does not rule out followers leaving the organization, either through their own choice, the choice of leaders, or by mutual choice.
Are there limits to choice? Answered concretely, the answer is likely “yes”. But allowed to slip the fear of loss of control, how might leaders continue to leverage the power of inviting followers to choose and to serve as their allies and guides? What is the synergy that can emerge? What are the levels of engagement that can be realized? What are the possibilities of aiming high and pressing hard? Can the workplace be a place where leaders inspire followers who in turn inspire leaders? How can a soft idea translate into the concrete reality of producing goods and services in hyper competitive market places? How can choice reduce expenses and increase revenues?
The possibilities begin with the assumption that they are possible, at least for the purpose of inviting followers to exercise their choice and think about them.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Readers of Peter Block will recognize fragments of his thinking in this article. Thank you, Peter, for the inspiration.