The Trouble with Plug & Play Leading

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Leaders use plug & play leading to be efficient.

What’s Plug & Play Leading?

It’s the strategy used by leaders who want to re-create successes they had in one situation and transport them to another. It sounds like a good idea, but in fact, it rarely works.

Plug & play leading forgets that context is key. Context = situation, culture, structure, system.

Social psychologists such as Phil Zimbardo and Mika Haritos-Fatouros remind us that people think, feel and behave differently in each situation. Zimbardo’s research is probably the most known at this time because of a movie version of his Stanford Prison Experiment. This illuminating experiment illustrated that, within a few days, psychologically healthy people could become aggressive and reactive by taking on specific roles that transformed their behavior for the worse.

In other words, it’s not the people, it’s the context.

Another way to say this is — it’s never the people, it’s always the structure.

How Can You Pay Attention to Context?

Be conscious that context matters and then, stay present to what you see and hear versus assuming that the successful past will replay itself automatically. It means going into a new context with an open mind, heart, gut, eyes and ears:

    • Look at what’s there instead of what should be there
    • Listen to what people say instead of expecting something else
    • Observe the ways people behave
    • Ask people how they think, feel
    • Ask people what they want and need
    • Get a feel for what’s happening, especially if it’s different from what people are saying/doing
    • Probe into what seem like obstacles
    • Ask people about their perceived worst and ideal outcomes

What Can You Do To Create Successes Across Contexts?

    1. Assess the context with an open mind, heart, gut, eyes and ears
    2. Customize a strategy to fit the context

A context informs a leader of the ways people within that context think, feel and behave: the written and unwritten rules of the group. When a leader knows this AND designs an approach that amplifies what works and transforms what doesn’t, great things happen.

It’s like creating successes in each context instead of transporting them, as is.

A French Cuisine Example

In the French cuisine, chefs painstakingly document every step, every detail of a recipe to help you re-create it successfully.

Easy enough. Yet, many aspiring chefs find that using a cookbook from France, in the US, for instance, doesn’t bring good results because butter, milk, bread, meat, wine and everything else is different in the US than it is in France.

When chefs transcribe French recipes to fit American products, great French food can be made in the USA. Contexts matter!

An Organizational Example

Let’s say you take a job in a new team or organization (I’ll use a client example here and pretend it’s you).

You’ve been successful in the past by giving people goodies such as nice computers and phones, flex-time, birthday parties and Friday afternoon beer & wine soirees. You try to be generous so that people are happy and work effectively and productively and you’ve gotten great results.

You’ve also been successful in the past by negotiating win-win solutions that have gotten you promotions and accolades.

Life is pretty good and you’re sure you’ll be successful in your next job.

Then comes the shock of your life, which undermines your self-confidence and makes you question your every skill.

You take a job in a new team and you spread your goodness around expecting to make people happy. They’re not (maybe they feel “too little, too late”?). You ask around, but get no clear feedback (they don’t know you well enough yet? or you’re asking the wrong questions?). This puzzles you. You get frustrated and start to think that “these people” aren’t appreciative or grateful. You start to question their quality as employees and wonder if you’ll need to do the dirty job of replacing them. If you do, read the book Leadership and Self-Deception!

Re: your win-win skills: you get to the negotiating table for cross-team collaboration and notice that you can’t get what you want like you used to. Hmmm (you start to wonder if the deals you created in the past were win-wins or people just took what they could get with you). Nobody is happy and they even perceive you as a taker (aka suspicious of your ways). They seem to stall (maybe need more time and afraid to say so?), even when they say “yes” and act like they’re not being honest (maybe they don’t trust you or fear failure or its consequences?). All this puzzles you. You’ve never had such an experience before. You get frustrated and question the “quality” of your colleagues and now wonder if you’ve got what it takes to make things happen.

What’s happening?

Well, the context is different even if it doesn’t look that way. People in the Spain, Russia, France and Iceland, for example, look more similar than different, yet their ways of getting to success aren’t the same.

The most interesting elements of life and leading rest below the visible and/or conscious surfaces. You have to dig to get the gold!

Well, you might say, “Lots of leaders re-create success by using the same model from the past, so why shouldn’t it work with me?” and I would say, if they’ve reproduced success across contexts, they’re likely thinking, feeling and doing things differently even if it doesn’t seem that way.

Next Contexts, New Beginnings

The simple rule is to remember to see people and situations with a new light every time a situations changes. Pay attention to what’s there.

Stop assuming that what works in one place will work in another without any customization.

Start assuming that every context teaches you about yourself and the people and rules within that context. In doing so, you’ll be able to see people and situations for what they are and consistently co-create great outcomes across contexts.

Have fun!


[Image by Freepik]