January 15, 2018
A few years ago I decided to take my wife and teenage children on a European tour. I was of the opinion that I would not like the experience, but agreed to go because of pressure from my spouse and children. Typically my family prefers to go at their own pace and this tour was anything but flexible. However, soon after starting the tour I found that the tour director was excellent at setting clear parameters and expectations, such as, “The bus leaves from the hotel at 8:00 am sharp if you are not on the bus good luck finding your own way to the next city!” Even though the tour guide was very directive, I found that it eliminated all the debates about where to go and when to leave. The typical family trip always put me in the middle of trying to decide what to do, but on the tour bus, I could just sit back and follow the rules.
On another occasion, I was helping my son with a school report. We did a web search for the highest mountain in Utah. A picture came up of Kings Peak, which rises 13,500 feet above sea level. As my son looked at the picture he said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to climb to the top of that mountain.” Hearing my son’s enthusiasm, I thought, “This would be a great opportunity to make a memory and one that would never be forgotten.” I suggested the hike to his scout troop and every person decided to participate. Preparation for the hike was intense; this mountain is in a remote wilderness area and required a four-day, 45-mile round trip hike. To prepare, two shorter hikes were organized. Finally, the time for the hike arrived. The hike was difficult; there were blisters, muscle aches, and exhaustion. The final climb to the peak was very steep over broken rocks, but that vision I had of my son and I sitting on the top of the peak propelled me up the mountain.
These two examples represent two very different ways leaders motivate others. Have you ever noticed what happens when you are assigned a project and have no deadline? For most people, there is a shift in action, intensity, and purpose that comes with a date or time to complete a task. When your leader says to you, “I am going to hold you accountable for…” similar reactions occur.
Direction from others to drive results is one of the fundamental ways for leaders to get work accomplished. The feeling that comes from this direction is often clarity and a sense of responsibility, obligation, or duty when the direction is given. When things are accomplished, there is a great sense of satisfaction. I call this approach “Push.”
A very different approach occurs when you are excited about a new idea for something that has never been done before, or when you get caught up in a cause that may have a dramatic and positive impact on you, your organization, or the world. You feel a great deal of energy and excitement, especially when you are surrounded by others who are enthusiastic. When you have inspired your efforts are not because of obligation or accountability but come from your personal desire to make a difference, or as Steve Jobs said, “To make a dent in the world.” I call this approach “Pull.”
My colleague Jack Zenger and I have been measuring these different approaches for some time. Push has been referred to as “drive for results,” and pull is equivalent to “inspires and motivates others.” What we find interesting in our analysis of nearly 90,000 leaders is when we compare the ratings of effectiveness on push versus pull, 78% of leaders are rated higher on their ability to push than pull. In fact, looking at the ability to pull compared to other competencies, it comes in as the lowest, least effective competency. What makes this story even more intriguing is that when we ask the colleagues doing the rating to indicate which competency is most important for a leader to be successful in their current job, they select “inspires and motivates others.”
As we examine data from the past decade, we have started to see a shift. Twenty years ago, there were numerous examples of autocratic, results-driven organizations. There are fewer of those organizations today, as we see more organizations relying on pull rather than push. The results below compare leaders by different age groups. High refers to leaders who were in the top quartile on push or pull, while Low refers to leaders below the top quartile.
Note from the table that the High Push, Low Pull column increases with age while the High Pull, Low Push column decreases. The High Push, High Pull column also decreases with age. As we consider the work environment that our youngest generation of leaders desire, it is clear that they want more pull and less push.
Not Or, But And
Often as people consider this data and the trend toward pulling more, they conclude that they should stop pushing and start pulling. We disagree, and conducted a study to demonstrate why. One of the keys that every organization is working to improve is the engagement of team members. When a team has low levels of engagement, productivity is impacted. High engagement teams are much more effective and can have a significant impact on customer satisfaction. A desired high bar for engagement is the top quartile. In this study, we looked at 76,000 teams where we measured the effectiveness of the team leader on both push and pull dimensions, as rated by their direct reports. We also measured the engagement of those direct reports. Once again, the label high in the graph below refers to leaders in the top quartile and low to those not in the top quartile. Looking at the graph it’s clear to see that the highest level of engagement is achieved when leaders are high on both push and pull.
We believe that there is something very fundamental about this finding. Having an organization where people are on a mission and highly engaged is wonderful, but it still requires deadlines, commitments, and accountability. Leaders who learn how to pull can be very effective, but they will be even better if they also learn to push.
Rate Your Preference For Pushing Or Pulling
Are you interested in knowing your preference for pushing or pulling? We have developed a short self-assessment that evaluates how you prefer to motive others. The link for the assessment is as follows: http://zengerfolkman.com/preferences-for-motivating/.
—Dr. Joe Folkman
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