For those of us who have spent time leading individuals and teams, I am betting we really appreciate when the relationships are collaborative, full of positive energy and (personal relationships aside), are mutually focused on getting the right things accomplished. Prompted by some recent events, I was thinking about a conversation I had with a colleague years ago who had shared his frustration in which he felt his direct reports were invariably “trying to move the monkey from their backs to mine.” In his willingness to listen and encourage an environment of openness and idea sharing, he had become challenged with situations in which the people reporting to him were really good at identifying things they felt needed to be fixed or changed, but they were not so good at owning the actual planning or work to get to the outcomes.
In that moment, I outlined my “3 Bucket Theory” for him. Simply put, I have experienced three types of people. Group one can identify the problem, group two can identify the problem and potential solutions and group three can identify the problem, isolate a solution and then take appropriate action to drive change and outcomes. Note that buckets two and three are decidedly smaller subsets of the preceding buckets.
I asked him to think about whether this was a permanent and unchangeable situation or were there things that could be done to grow the size of bucket three, in particular? On one hand we acknowledged that it is the leader’s responsibility to create a collaborative environment that invites ideas and discussion. It is also the leader’s responsibility to coach and mentor direct reports toward finding solutions, taking risks and enacting change. But, what is the responsibility of the “follower”?
Referring to those sought-after, collaborative and productive relationships noted above, it’s not enough for the leader to create the environment. The follower must meet the leader there and be willing to engage and take ownership for ideas and change. We are all followers in some context. In fact, even if we are the CEO, we generally have to answer to others. Our ability to identify problems, create solutions and enact positive change are leadership traits. In our roles as followers, we are most effective when applying these, demonstrating we can do these things and thereby take an active and positive role not just in the relationship, but in the actual work itself. We are all followers in our roles. The question is how effectively we play that role. By taking on the leadership responsibility of bucket three, we can actively drive the collaborative and productive relationships and outcomes we all desire. Otherwise, we are unfortunately just making hollow noise in bucket one.