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Do you still "hold their feet to the fire"?

Years ago, I worked for a guy who, when discussing strategy and performance, talked about "having to hold their feet to the fire."


It seemed to me to be a weird thing for him to say. First, I couldn't get the image out of my head of Jeff binding Greg's feet -- or Tammy's -- and holding them over, I don't know, a campfire maybe? Like some distorted roasting of marshmallows. And where was this weird ritual going to take place? In the woods? In the parking lot? In the conference room??

And for Jeff to say this was very much out of character because Jeff was a gentle soul. It didn't seem to me that he would hurt a fly. Let alone torture his colleagues into meeting their sales goals or punishing them with physical harm if they failed to live up to his expectations.


So what was with all of this "feet to the fire" business?


Jeff, of course, was demonstrating the classic production manager attitude of holding people accountable through ruthless adherence to performance standards -- a perspective common in factories but not particularly appropriate for "knowledge workers" like me, Greg, and Tammy.


That was thirty years ago. Today both the work and the workforce have changed, meaning leaders and managers must adjust their approach to managing people and performance. Leaders who adhere to the feet-to-the-fire mentality are doing it wrong. If employees don't feel engaged in the work; if they're not committed to the project, the idea, or the team; if they haven't enrolled on the journey of their own volition, no amount of holding them accountable is going to do the trick.


Yes! Managers need to have high standards. Yes! They need to measure performance (outputs and outcomes) in some meaningful way. Yes! They need to allocate work and distribute resources. All of those things are true.


But in today's environment, managers need to build a workplace based on trust, where people can say the things that need to be said without fear of retribution, reprisal, or retaliation. Managers need to cultivate a culture where people are able to engage in healthy conflict (i.e., the productive exchange of diverse ideas). Managers need to make it implicit in "the way we do things around here" that it is OK --indeed, CELEBRATED! -- for people to ask questions, offer suggestions, own mistakes, and admit when they don't know something. This is the way to get people to perform at their highest potential.


Thirty years ago, when I worked for Jeff, the demographics driving the available workforce were entirely different. There were plenty of people. When an employee wasn't willing or able to do the job, fine. There was always the next person waiting. And there always was The Next Person.


But today, not so much.


What has become of Jeff, Greg, and Tammy? They're all retired now. They have exited the workforce and are no longer available to work. Just like so many millions more. And way back when, Jeff, Greg, and Tammy -- and so many others -- didn't have enough babies to grow up and join the workforce. All of this means today we don't have enough people to work all the available jobs.


The idea of Next Person In is a failed strategy. There is no one else. The people you have now, they are the ones. As a leader and a manager, you have to figure out how to get what you need from the people you have. Savvy managers will jettison old-fashioned approaches to management in favor of ways that are appropriate for the new workforce landscape we all find ourselves in.


Finally, those managers who believe they need to punish or metaphorically torture their employees to get them to do their jobs ... well, they need to work on their people skills.

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