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GUEST POST: How to Fix the Workplace Through a Culture of Voluntary Influence


By Don Shapiro
President, First Concepts Consultants, Inc.

University Extension faces the same challenges today as any organization where a group of people are working together to accomplish something significant. You’re challenged with issues such as retention, burnout, managing change, leadership, and collaboration. Each one of these has a huge impact on how well you carry out your mission and serve your communities and constituents.

Leadership stands out on this list because it’s not just a challenge, it’s also the main cure for employee turnover, burnout, disengagement, resistance to change, and dysfunctional teams. Literally, most of the people issues that ail organizations of any size and nature can be dramatically improved with effective leadership.

But this term leadership itself is part of the problem because of its multiple, contradictory, and ambiguous meanings. If I was to ask everyone reading this article to define the terms leadership and leader, each of you would share a different definition.

In truth, there are over 4000 definitions of leadership and that is a part of the problem. The other part is about the difference between learning the what and how of leadership versus turning that into a behavior which becomes a habit. It’s the behavioral side of leadership development that has perplexed countless leadership experts.

If we’re going to fix the workplace for good so we produce high retention, no burnout, deal with any change thrown at us, and deliver the best results through our collaborative efforts, we need everyone to be an effective leader. That means we all need to be on the same page about what type of leader can consistently deliver those results and, more importantly, how we change people’s unconscious behavior so they actually lead this way. Most definitions of leadership and leader can’t get us across that finish line.

I’ve been working on how to solve this issue for several decades now. When I was 16, my high school principal put me through three leadership development programs and then, in my senior year, threw me into every possible leadership challenge you can imagine. This advanced my development so much that by the age of 24, I was the general manager of an operation with 50 employees and two assistant managers. The company I worked for back then has now been in business for 100 years and maintained an 80% employee retention rate the entire time. They are my benchmark for workplaces that work and what leadership means.

My continuing pursuit of what makes a workplace work has led to some recent discoveries about the nature of effective leadership and how it can fix the workplace for good. This starts with a new definition of leadership to replace all existing definitions. That definition not only simplifies and clarifies what leadership means, it also greatly expands who can be a leader and should be developed as a leader.

The Workplace Needs Fixing
Is it necessary to change the definition of leadership everywhere? Gallup answered that question in their most recent employee engagement survey of millions of workers in thousands of organizations. They found that only 34% of workers on average are fully engaged which means 2/3 of workers are only partially engaged or disengaged. The challenges of employee
turnover, burnout, and conflict are clearly reflected in those results.

Now consider this. If 2/3 of employees are not engaged, that means 2/3 of those in management are not leaders. Yes Houston, we have a problem. Those are the averages of all organizations. University Extension has a much higher engagement rate overall than that but it still faces the same workforce challenges which effective leadership at all levels can solve. So
what is this new definition of leadership and how can it help us right now?

A New Definition of Leadership
Leadership is Voluntary Influence. Leaders Voluntarily Influence people to join with them. That means when someone is an effective leader, people do things because they want to, not because they have to. If someone is in a management position, they lead their people as if they didn’t have power and authority. They lead in spite of their authority, not because of it.

Voluntary Influence means the leader is influencing people in a way they feel they are making a voluntary choice to join with the leader. It doesn’t feel forced. Those who use involuntary influence are not leaders. You can tell who is and who isn’t a leader simply by observing the type of influence they use.

When we define leaders as those who Voluntarily Influence people to join with them, leadership now means the ability to positively influence people without the need for authority. Leadership without authority. It doesn’t matter whether you have authority or not. Anyone on earth can be a
leader if they can Voluntarily Influence people to join with them.

Every Employee Can Be a Leader
The implications of this change are earth-shattering. If you don’t need a management position to be a leader, then being in management doesn’t make you a leader. Management is a job title. Leadership is a competency. It’s not a title, position, or role. That means hourly employees and
non-management staff can be leaders too. Leadership is not reserved for those with certain titles because it’s not a job, it’s a competency anyone can perform.

As we continue down this path, you will begin to realize a simple truth. If all employees can be leaders, then all employees should be developed as leaders. Leadership shouldn’t be treated as an exclusive club only for those with management titles. We’ve been focused on doing that and
are now left with too many individuals in management who can’t or won’t lead.

Leadership is for everyone. Now we have greatly expanded the number of potential leaders in the workplace and they are leading without authority by using Voluntary Influence. We have now set a behavior standard for everyone in the workplace. This is how we deal with people. This is how we lead. This is how it feels to collaborate on a team.

A Culture of Voluntary Influence
Voluntary Influence changes the relationship between management and employees and eliminates one of the main barriers to fixing the workplace for good. We’ve also focused on a way of leading that will dramatically increase employee retention, employee engagement, psychological safety, and effective collaboration. Turnover, burnout, excessive conflict, and toxic
workplaces are all a thing of the past.

If we develop those not in management to lead through Voluntary Influence as well as those in management, how does that affect those in management? They obviously have to lead through Voluntary Influence since that’s what we’ve told everyone leadership is. Using involuntary influence won’t fly in that type of workplace because we’ve embedded Voluntary Influence into
the culture of the organization. We’ve now created a Culture of Voluntary Influence.

It also takes a load off of management’s shoulders because they don’t need to do all the leading anymore. We’ve now spread the leadership load among those not in management who want to lead. We don’t force anyone to lead nor do we appoint any of them to lead. They lead naturally and organically because they want to. The more your non-management employees lead, the
more your people thrive and the better everything works. This greatly boosts team effectiveness and will produce better end results and more accomplishment in all that you do.

Don Shapiro is a thinker, researcher, consultant, and speaker who has spent his entire life studying how to improve the workplace and develop more effective leaders. He is currently writing a book about how to fix the workplace for good based on Voluntary Influence and shares his discoveries through speeches, seminars and strategic workshops.

Read the Information Booklet about Don’s discoveries!

Connect with Don on LinkedIn!

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