This isn’t Road House (when leaders can’t see past “my way”)

The title of this post references, of course, that iconic moment in Road House when Dalton (played the late, great Patrick Swayze) tells an unruly sort, “It’s my way….(dramatic pause)….or the highway.”  It’s meant to be a macho moment and is absolutely appropriate coming from a bouncer at a seedy bar.   When spoken by a leader?  Not so great.

[Random aside: When verifying the name of Swayze’s character, I learned that the tagline for ‘Road House’ was “The dancing’s over.  Now it gets dirty.” Isn’t that awesome?]

signpostWhere was I?  Oh yes…most of us at one time or another has struggled with someone in authority telling us there is only ONE way to reach a desired outcome.  And we all probably had the same thought – that’s dumb.  Except in certain circumstances (SEC filing requirements come to mind), there are MULTIPLE ways to do something (think about tying your shoes – you can do the single loop, wrap around method; or opt for the double-loop and knot method; or even the  old school Topsiders nubby-ended lace option).  True, there might be a “best” way to do something, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try another way.   And people HATE it when they’re told they can’t be creative or put their personal spin on something.  It can severely affect engagement in the workplace, leading to lost productivity or even higher turnover (particularly among top talent).

So why do leaders get stuck in “My Way or the Highway” mode?  And what do you do about it? So glad you asked!

  • Can’t let it go: You know the type.  They say things like, “Well, when I did your job, I did it this way and it worked fine.” Leaders who do this don’t seem to realize that a) they aren’t doing your job anymore, and b) things change – technology, preferences, best practices – and it may be time to move one.
    How to handle it: Thank them for sharing their experiences with you and tell them that you will really appreciate their input throughout the process.  And then share the data/study/proof of concept that shows that another approach might be better. 
  • Threatened: Sometimes leaders feel threatened by a good employee and will consciously or subconsciously work to sabotage an employee’s success.  Yes.  That is a sad, petty and fairly silly way to operate, but some leaders fall into the trap.
    How to handle it: Recognize why your leader is doing this.  It’s from a place of fear, not malice.  And how do you combat fear?  With information.  Keep your leader in the loop at all times and do a lot of alignment checks.  Help them feel like they are an important part of the process, and give them an opportunity to realize that your success is their success.  And if your leader persists, document your conversations and work and ensure people know what you’ve been doing to keep the project moving forward.
  • Clueless: This is the leader who honestly has NO idea what it is you do.  (Think “Pointy-haired Boss” from Dilbert.)  While typically a benign figure, the clueless manager will insist on his/her approach because he/she saw it in a magazine while waiting in the doctor’s office.  Honestly, this leader just gets in the way of progress, but beware of ignoring this leader – they control your budget!
    How to handle it:  Ask them why they think it’s a good idea.  Then, steer the conversation in a way that will make this leader think YOUR idea is THEIR idea.  Now you ARE doing it their way!  It’s called a win-win.

Yes, some of this is a little tongue-in-cheek – because honestly, from the employee’s point of view, a leader who insists on only ONE way to do something is pretty ridiculous and thus reduces the leader to a caricature to be ignored and avoided.

It’s much more serious when YOU are the leader who insists there is only one way to do something.  Don’t be that leader – examine your motivations, admit that you do it (and we’ve all done it), and work hard to be open minded.  You’ll be rewarded with happier employees, better results, and a realization that there IS more than one path to a successful outcome.   So don’t be Dalton – be a leader who can embrace the infinite possibilities of the imagination, let go of your ego, and embrace the team’s success.

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