May 17, 2021
If you ask employees what would make them happy, often they will describe a long vacation, sitting on a beach and relaxing. But if you ask them if they would like a very challenging task that will require all their energy and effort, the immediate reaction for most is to resist such an assignment.
Yet, when meeting with leaders, we often ask them to think about when they were performing at their best and felt exhilarated at work; you hear a different story. They describe accomplishing a significant task that had a big impact on the organization. When asked if the job was difficult, the answer is most often, “Yes.” “Were you feeling stress and working extremely hard?” Again, the answer is “Yes.” Finally, we ask, “how were your satisfaction with your job, your career, and your life?” Most people respond, “Never higher!”
We conclude that, as a leader, if you want to make people happy and help them feel confident in themselves, give them a challenging assignment that requires significant effort and help them succeed. When considering leadership skills that can set you apart, knowing how to set stretch goals is a great leadership quality.
When we researched 19 leadership behaviors to understand which skills were the most differentiating, we found setting stretch goals came in second place. Communicating powerfully was number one.
The idea of a differentiating competency is that leaders who performed the skill well were rated as more effective, and those who did it poorly were rated as significantly less effective.
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As you consider leaders who were effective at getting others to accept stretch goals, our research uncovered two very different approaches.
Using a database of 113,739 leaders, we created indexes that measured the effectiveness of leaders on both dimensions. We then divided leaders into those in the bottom and top quartile on each dimension. We first examined the effectiveness of leaders on the competency “setting stretch goals.” As shown in the graph below, those who were low on both dimensions were only rated at the 13th percentile on setting stretch goals. Leaders who were rated low on challenging but high on protecting were, on average, rated at the 42nd percentile. Those who were high on challenge but low on protecting were at the 57th percentile, which difference is statistically significant from the low challenge, high protect group (e.g., t-value – 18.209, sig, 0.000).
It appears that being challenging helps a leader more in terms of setting stretch goals. But the largest impact came when leaders scored in the top quartile on both skills, which raised their score on setting stretch goals to the 88thpercentile.
We did a second study looking at an outcome variable we called discretionary effort. Direct reports were asked if their work environment was a place where people wanted to go the extra mile. Note in the graph below that being a high protector/low challenger provided greater discretionary effort than the low protector/ high challenger (e.g., t-value 5.461, sig. = 0.000). But once again, being in the top quartile on both characteristics had the most positive impact.
While these two characteristics seem like opposites, the most influential leaders mastered both. In our database of 113,880 leaders, we found that 15% of the leaders scored high on both dimensions. Most people have personally experienced the impact of these two dimensions. Have you worked for a leader who always had your best interest at heart? Were you willing to work harder and do more because you did not want to let that leader down or disappoint them? Have you worked for a leader who challenged you to revise a report or to do further analysis on a problem? It was the push you needed to go the extra mile. The leaders who were highly skilled at both approaches showed concern and consideration for others but also challenged direct reports to do more and work harder. Since these two approaches are so different, it is unlikely that a leader does both simultaneously, although it is possible. For example, a leader gives their direct report a very challenging assignment but then comments, “I know this is going to be difficult, but I am confident you can be successful, and I am willing to help you along the way.” We suspect that most people oscillate, mostly being supportive, but push people to do more at selective times.
This approach may apply beyond work situations. We all know very loving parents who are so protective that their children never learn to fend for themselves. We also know challenging parents who constantly throw their children in the deep end of the pool. Most people, however, can think of a good example where a very loving parent encouraged their children to try something new that was very difficult. While it is hard to do both, finding a way to simultaneously love or support and challenge is the key to both being a good parent and a good leader.
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