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How Leadership Affects Long-Term Efficiency

When you hire someone to do a job for you, you probably just want that person to do their job so that you don’t have to worry about doing it. Those of us who have trained another person know it is not that simple. We invest more at the outset in training a new employee in order to save countless hours and allow company growth later – that is the tradeoff. The same is true with finding out about cultural health problems employees are experiencing. It is an initial investment and effort that has the potential to lead to tremendous productivity later.

When I was first hired as a new associate, working for a law firm, I had previous experience managing groups of employees in retail, teaching forty Ukrainian fifth graders in a classroom, and as a legal assistant myself. I had been in situations where I needed to advocate for myself and others in front of much more experienced, powerful people. But I had not run into the particular situation I encountered (it wasn’t sexual harassment; don’t worry, this one’s different).

My new assistant was an incredibly experienced, knowledgeable, and detailed person. She was also one of the sweetest people you will ever meet. She had at least thirty more years of experience (in everything) than I did, and she had assisted respected attorneys and judges in our community for decades, working on cases that made huge impacts in the law.

I was new, and it was a challenge for us to navigate the difference between the instructions I gave her that were strange to her because I was just wrong and the instructions that were strange to her because they intentionally used new technology or strategies. I became frustrated when she would follow her routine practices, rather than making the shifts I asked for.

I was at a conference with a coaching colleague when my assistant sent an email following a routine practice that I thought I had asked her to suspend for a particular client. I explained to the colleague, “It just seems so inefficient for me to keep having to ask over and over again for these changes, when I don’t feel like she understands the reason for them.”

“What if it’s not supposed to be efficient?” My colleague asked.

That question blew my mind. To me, everything about having an assistant was supposed to be about efficiency. My work was supposed to be more productive and happen more quickly because of the second person working on them.

“What if your experience with your assistant is about you becoming a compassionate leader in every situation, starting with this small situation?” my colleague asked.

At first, I hated this idea.

After I adjusted to it, though, I started to see how it served me better than just being frustrated all the time. I started to consider whether every interaction with my assistant, regardless of whether she understood my instructions or not, could be a gift and opportunity for me to learn how to lead another truly incredible person. The very fact that she knew more than me most of the time, but I was the one responsible for the outcome in each case, created an environment in which we both had to learn how to communicate clearly and respectfully.

I became grateful for our miscommunications (which happened less and less) as part of the obstacle course that was training me to become a leader.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in efficiency. Like most humans, my brain is wired with what Dr. Douglas Lisle calls the Motivational Triad. The Motivational Triad describes that our brains are unconsciously focused on conserving energy, seeking pleasure, and avoiding pain. Our brains evolved while we were running from giant predators (like the good ol’ mountain lion who I’ve been giving so much flack in these posts) and surviving through cold winters on scarce resources. The Motivational Triad exists for good reason and allowed our ancestors to survive. Efficiency conserves energy, and so it seems just plain good to the unconscious, primitive parts of our brains. And, while efficiency is not actually bad, short-term efficiency can actually create long-term problems when it undermines the cultural health of a business.

It may sound like I am saying that I was willing to sacrifice my law practice and the clients I was so passionate about serving so that my assistant could feel comfortable and refuse to follow my instructions. That is not what I’m saying. My work and my clients were still my number one priority. I also did not have to sacrifice my assistant in order to achieve long-term efficiency, though.

What I am saying is that both are possible.

Often business owners make the mistake of believing they have to find all of the “right” people for each job position, and that if there is an interpersonal problem, they have found the “wrong” people (or at least one “wrong” person). This “bad apple” assumption can cost companies thousands of dollars. We have to remember that it costs around one-fifth of an employee’s salary to replace that employee. If we assume that when a problem happens, we have the wrong people working for us, the hiring process can become a money pit.

The reality is that cultural health issues happen in good companies, with good employees. The business owners who create cultural health do so by taking deliberate steps to create cultural health, not by firing employees at the first sign of trouble. In fact, high turnover is almost certain to contribute to increasing harassment and discrimination, not reducing it.

For more on how to establish cultural health, grab a copy of my new book The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon.

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