Leadership and ‘The Dip’


I just finished reading Seth Godin’s new book The Dip. My opinion is that it isn’t the best or most insightful of his works (Small is the New Big is my favourite, a recommended read!) but the quality of his work dictates that this is still worth a read nonetheless.

The fundamental concept in the book is that the concept of ‘never give up’ is an oversimplification. ‘The Dip’ represents that period in any endeavour where you have passed that first positive phase, in which the learning or results are quick and apparent, and before true mastery or success. This is the tough slog where you have to put aside thoughts of quitting in order to accomplish your goal.

He points out that this is an essential component of anything worthwhile, or there would be so many people that have attained mastery that the accomplishment would not be special. I would characterize things like chewing gum while walking as one of these little- or no-dip kind of achievements.

Where the theme of ‘never give up’ becomes oversimplified, he contends, is that there are things that are clearly dead-ends where quitting is the right answer. These are things that are unrealistic, or not worthwhile to the individual. He gives more criteria to use in deciding when you are just in a dip, or when you are in a dead end; for that, please read his book, because I have to get to my point.

So what can be learned from ‘The Dip’ that can be applied to one of my favourite topics: leadership? Well, my observation is, within a work environment you often have people who are doing things that aren’t worthwhile to the individual. For example, if I were to be asked to come up with some new networking protocol, I would be so deliriously bored out of my mind and ambivalent about the result, that it would be very hard for me to push past the dip. This does not mean that this would be of no value to my employer (however, based on my lack of interest, the result might be less than stellar). In rebuttal you will often you will hear people say things like “Well, that is why it is called work!” or “Why do they think we pay you to do this?” (see my previous blog on the latter comment).

So what is a leader’s role in dips? Well first, it is important that a leader makes sure that business objectives are aligned with individual interests for growth and achievement as much as possible. This helps avoid the employee seeing the objective as simply a dead end, rather than an achievement with a dip in the way.

Second, if you are like me, and have a job where you can spend an awful lot of time in a dip before you see any level of mastery (particularly compared to stellar co-workers) or success, I think it is a good leader’s role to help an employee see the progress that is being made, provide positive reinforcement that they are pushing through the dip, and the goal at the other end is valuable for the organization. It should be noted that people often have a hard time seeing progress while they are in the middle of something, it often takes a bit of outside objectivity to help point this out, so don’t spend any time worrying that you are ‘pointing out the obvious’.

Since managers typically have a broader perspective on their business than their employees, it is also their responsibility to help employees identify dead-ends. If the business environment or objectives change, it is important that employees are warned when they have actually ran into a dead-end, particularly if the dead-end is actually perceived from the business perspective instead of the individuals. An individual can spend a lot of time and resources on something that is personally gratifying, but not a business priority (i.e. see definition of ‘pet project’).

So, IMHO, it is very important for leaders to set business priorities that are aligned with individuals requirements for growth and development. This means you have to understand the business priorities AND the individuals goals. Good leaders will then be able to articulate the progress that is being made on those goals to the employees to reinforce their efforts to help them through the dips.

This effort will come back to you in spades in the form of more engaged and fulfilled employees who help you meet business goals!

Note: I often use the term ‘leader’ and ‘manager’ interchangeably. While I have read work that tries to distinguish the two, I don’t see the difference… perhaps a blog on this in the future.

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