Is the Road to Hell is Pathed With a Leaders Good Intentions?

Estimated reading time: 3 mins

A leader’s word is their bond. That’s what their followers expect, but when that commitment continually fails, it’s a slippery slope.

Has your boss ever agreed to deliver something, and then let you down? Annoying isn’t it? A position of leadership is a privilege and a responsibility, and that responsibility is to create the environment for his or her team of followers to successfully achieve the desired outcome. A big part of this responsibility delivering on commitments pledged to the leader’s team of followers – which doesn’t always happen, as we all experience. These commitments can be anything from agreeing a pay rise to being granted a new tool or training course, for example. It could even be as simple as agreeing that your leader will speak to their peer to make something happen. There is something called a psychological contract that is made between leader and follower. Whatever the commitment is, followers put themselves in a position of dependence on the outcome. What impact does not meeting this responsibility have on an IT team?

For IT teams, the impact of unmet commitments is no different to other areas of the business to the large extent, but with one key difference. IT people tend to be much more logical than their colleagues in other departments. I don’t think IT people are as used to working with the ambiguity of a business conversation – for them, a commitment is a commitment – whereas business people, particularly in sales and marketing, talk more about possibilities.This isn’t a weakness; the more we ask IT people to industrialize using ITIL, CMM and other initiatives, the more we expect task-precision and commitments to be met. In this world, non-delivery is not accepted. So why shouldn’t these people expect the same from their leaders? Well they do is the truth. When a psychological contract is broken, it has a very real effect and this effect is accumulative: the more a leader reneges, the more the follower loses his belief in the leader. This effect can be very rapid in IT people.

Making and honoring commitments is a skill which is developed by experience. One of the naive mistakes newly practicing leaders make is to over-commit and under-deliver, whereas the experienced leaders do the opposite. What the experienced guys have learned is that a leader should only commit to something that they know is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely, in other words it is a SMART objective – an acronym coined by management guru Peter F. Drucker . I’d say that most experienced leaders don’t even know they’re doing it.

But even SMART commitments can fail. It is common for the personal, business, political or technical environment to change, making commitments made impossible or not feasible. It is then that leaders have the big problem. What does a leader do when the best decision at a point in time is to renege on a commitment?

Run away? Fake their own death? No. The best leaders stand up and take responsibility for the situation. The best IT leaders I have met seem to follow the same pattern, and that is they come clean about the u-turn on a commitment but explain the context why but in a logical way, followed up with some alternative options plus a sincere apology. That’s quite straightforward I think. The best leaders also remember the particular situation and stand on a steady resolve to avoid a subsequent episode.

Even then, I’ve seen the leader/follower relationship collapse quickly, many times over. This is how it seems to go in IT.

Vijay Sridhara, owner of VitalLogic in India, gave me an excellent quote:

So a leader should: Do it right the first time…
Other wise : Die to do it right the second time
There is no third time: Dead fish go with the stream.

To answer my own question, I think the road to hell is pathed with a leaders good intentions, if that’s all a commitment is – a good intention. A commitment should be SMART and a true goal of a leader of some importance. The leader only gets one, or maybe two chances.

I’d welcome your views and your own experiences. I will like to follow up with a subsequent article on your thoughts!

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