The Right Amount of Leadership Done Easy

How many of us have adopted a strategy because it was easy, even though it was ineffective?

I'm no different from many people who, like water, gravitate toward the easiest path, seeking to accomplish tasks in ways that take minimal time and effort. To save energy and time where I reasonably can. For example, I rarely bother to scrupulously read every single (often incomprehensible) line of instruction when "some assembly is required." I'll also avoid snarled meshes of traffic, even if that means taking a more circuitous route. And I'm always searching for ways to craft communications that reach and motivate the most people in the quickest amount of time. I know I'm not the only one geared this way. For example, I've found that executives and other tightly scheduled people are more likely to actually do something different when it's presented as being relatively easy and requiring minimal amount of their time. The one or two small actions senior managers actually put into place is much more effective than the ten large-scale changes I wish they'd do—but is far less likely to happen.

Ironically, when it comes to personal safety and performance, William S. Burroughs' "The Discipline of DE" had it right (though this short story presented its points tongue in cheek.) "DE" stands for "Do Easy"—efficiently and smoothly accomplishing even the smallest, most mundane tasks, to minimize effort and maximize effectiveness. "DE is a way of doing. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest, most relaxed way you can manage, which is also the quickest and most efficient way…. Don't fumble, jerk, grab an object…." While the essay (and short video on this made by acclaimed director Gus Van Sant, which you can Google to watch) shows overly calculating applications to washing dishes, putting away utensils, or moving furniture, this (admittedly, overly) illustrates an actually mindful, Zen, and martial arts-based approach that can elevate soft-tissue Safety performance in the real world by enhancing smooth control when moving any load or even empty-handed. The right small amount of force, easily applied, is actually stronger and safer than "over-exerting." In contrast, needlessly expended forces waste energy over time, inducing fatigue sooner and often building cumulative trauma. Sure, manual materials handling is never effort-less, but the key is to perform tasks with the minimal effort necessary.

In the same way, the practical key to "doing leadership easy" is using leverage, not "taking the easy way out." Overall, doing things as easily as possible has special draw when time and resources are limited. After all, highest productivity comes when minimal input leads to maximum output. I'd guess all leaders are attracted to that. But, like everything else, there's a balance. Some degree of the right amount, timing, and placement of effort is still needed to foster and sustain change. Falling below that threshold and thereby inputting too little energy is unlikely to ignite and then feed the flame of improvement. The result? Trying to overly save time, doing things "too easy" can torpedo high performance. In the same way that not thoroughly prepping before painting an exterior surface can likely lead to poor adhesion and a flaking paint job, not taking the time to get real buy-in before putting a new initiative into place often results in poor acceptance and a project that doesn't stick.

Yet how many of us have adopted a strategy because it was easy, even though it was ineffective? For instance, I know of one well-meaning professional who initially attempted to deal with high back injury rates among her materials handling crews by broadcasting Safety messages like, "Lift Safely," "Pay Attention," "Get help." While well-intentioned, this "easier way" of sloganeering didn't get at the critical issues of staffing, load limits, work layout, and high turnover. But after the slogan approach failed, she regrouped with a better response—by looking for opportunities to leverage her resources. She worked with supervision to batch the heavier lifting tasks to times when more resources (additional employees, lift trucks, and lifting aids) were available. She also activated the Safety committee to develop a better workstation layout that lent itself to fixed-path lifting.

While admittedly not as "easy" as just broadcasting slogans, her new approach was ultimately easier and better than not getting desired injury reductions and gained her credibility with workers for tangible actions, rather than just offering "lip service" for ongoing problems.

Sharpest strategists see that any mindset—including one that potentially saves time and resources—has strengths and limitations. Many organizations are beset with some leaders trying to do things "too easy," such as shortcut safety investigations that assume in advance the investigators know the reason for the injury, quick-and-unengaged training, just disseminating PPE (such as backbelts) to "fix" an ongoing problem, leadership just by distant proclamations, communications that tend to imply that "Will" alone or "paying attention" is the main key to preventing incidents—rather than implementing the right mix of best PPE, procedures, and highest-level skills.

Doing things easy and efficiently is critical when resources are lean—as long as this actually leads to improved performance. But best leaders should resist the pull of falling into over-reliance on "superficial" methods that either waste time or, worse, create pushback. And, above all, they should look for opportunities to leverage small, easy-to-implement changes into large gains.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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