The One Essential Question

I suspect today, like every day, you have so much to do.  You have policies to develop, processes to implement, staff to induct, and performance appraisals to conduct. You have risks to manage and legislation to comply with.  You have money to spend and money to save.  You are being pushed to provide answers and make decisions.  So, it is rude of me to ask yet another question of you.  However, the answer to this question will influence how you go about every one of your other duties and how successful the outcomes will be.

Here is the question:

What do I believe about my people? 

To help you out with this task, let’s reflect on two theories you may be familiar with.  These are:

  1. Agency Theory
  2. Stewardship Theory

While they have evolved from different spheres, the former coming from economics, the latter from sociology, they both present ways you can view your people.  In a way, they represent different ends of a spectrum. 

At one end, you have Agency Theory which suggests people are fundamentally self-interested and not be trusted.  With this view of the world, your job becomes to protect yourself and the organization from your employee’s selfish decisions.  Management effort is invested in limiting independence and either enforcing or enticing behavioural alignment with organizational goals.  This view of people results fundamentally in a culture of control.

At the other end of the spectrum is Stewardship Theory which views people as basically good, decent people, who can be trusted, who care for the organization’s success and are internally motivated to help achieve it.  In this case, your job is to harness the passion and pride of your people, inspire through vision and support them to come together to triumph. The result of this worldview is a culture of collaboration and community.

Can you see how this fundamental belief will affect how you go about your work?  How it will influence all of your interactions and all decisions you make about or on behalf of your staff? 

Here’s the kicker, though.

How you treat your staff is how they will behave.

Goethe summed it up best when he said:

“The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Let’s play this out.

If you come from the position of agency theory and treat your employees as naughty school children just waiting for the opportunity to get into mischief, then this is what they will become.  You will set up rules that they will inevitably rebel against, and you will spend your precious time doling out punishments.  They will find a way to glean the rewards with minimal effort, and you will be wondering why you aren’t achieving the results you were hoping for.  And they will sure as hell be playing up behind your back, probably bagging you out when you are not around.  You know the old saying about when the cat’s away – well, it applies to the workplace as well. 

If you come from the position of stewardship theory and treat your employees as powerful assets (and adults) that can drive organizational success, then this is what they will become.  If you task them with problems and give them the tools they need, they will work to solve them.  If you share with them a compelling view of the future and ask for their assistance, they will give their best.  If you treat them as part of a community, working together for success, then this is what you will achieve.  If you trust them and share your hopes and concerns, then they can become your allies.

On reflection, the way you see and treat your employees is very similar to the notion about whether you are acting from a position of fear or love.  And the consequences of the choice you make are dire.

As I outlined in this article, acting from a place of love means that you want the best for your people and want them to be the best they can be in all aspects of their lives.  Active from love creates a flow of positive emotions.  Happiness, contentment, peace and joy will be flow.  John Lennon believed that acting from a place of love was the vital ingredient to authentic creativity.  He saw that when you are working from love, you are open to life’s reality but have the passion and excitement to contribute and bring positive change.

Acting from fear means you are afraid of what other people can do and how their actions may impact your performance and prestige.  It creates a flow of negative emotions such as pride, anger, desire, apathy, guilt and shame. Spending our days in fear is nothing short of destructive – for the person living in fear and the world around them.  Because as Lennon so wisely perceived:

“When we are afraid, we pull back from life.”

Fear closes us down the potential of ourselves and others.  We mistrust ourselves and sacrifice our ability to make a positive contribution to this world.  The result is that care, creativity and contribution are stifled. 

Ultimately then, it is up to you to decide what kind of leader you want to be.  Do you want to be one who considers themselves managing asses and using their precious time to play around with sticks and carrots?

Or do you want to be one who truly cares for your people and inspires and encourages people to bring their best selves to work?

Think carefully, for the answer you choose will determine your next step and the nature of your success.

As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others. —Bill Gates


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