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Why I deliberately became a “dick” in the workplace.

Why I deliberately became a “dick” in the workplace.

Tactics I took to improve morale and productivity.

Let’s face it, leadership – I mean real leadership, not just getting the job done, or everyone getting along – is tough. It takes time, it’s impossible to get right all the time, you’ll never please everyone, and when you get it wrong your life can become quite difficult.

I can remember, 13th June 2016, I was a newly promoted Flight Sargeant (senior manager) in the RAF. It was my first day on the Operations Squadron of a Tactical Air Command & Control Unit, based (at the time) at RAF Scampton, just outside Lincoln. My boss spoke to me that day telling me “I need you to get a grip of the troops”. Morale was low, performance was poor, communication was non-existent.

I spent my first week speaking to different people, observing behaviours and interactions. I assessed what I believed was happening.

The senior staff there were all good people, effective operators, and experienced managers. They had fallen into the trap of trying to improve happiness to improve morale. This was understandable; a common misunderstanding of morale is that it comes from happiness. This isn’t true. Keeping everyone happy is an impossible task. 

Morale isn’t built by keeping people happy, it’s built by giving them something to achieve. As managers, we build morale by providing meaningful work and a sense of achievement. At this unit, no body was working for each other, mistakes were happening regularly – meaning pressure from the executives was regular – discipline was low, and everyone had lost focus on the unit’s purpose.

The tactic I took was a risk. There were several cliques amongst the junior staff, particularly amongst the supervisors. I saw this as the root cause for many of the issues, so I decided to tackle that first. There was a huge amount of animosity between the cliques, and it had become quite toxic, I reasoned that there was no way I’d be able to get them to like each other. So, I decided to give them someone to dislike more than they disliked each other.

I became a dick.

Those of you reading this who follow me regularly, know I’m about to release a book called Leadership 101: Don’t be a Dick, so can be forgiven for pointing out the irony.

The impact of this tactic though was the people on the periphery of the cliques – the ones who weren’t really invested in the rivalries, just friends of people in the centre –started to have someone else to focus on rather than each other. This led to greater cooperation with each other, i.e. helping each other out and better communication. Peer-to-peer relationships improved, as did the relationships from junior ranks to mid-management. This meant that they worked for each other more and more, resulting in fewer mistakes being made, and people started to gain a sense of achievement. Consequently, morale improved, discipline improved, and so did productivity.

This wasn’t an easy tactic to take. On its own, it didn’t solve all the problems, and there was an impact to me personally – my relationships in the workplace were challenging. I understood this from the beginning, and knew it was a long-term tactic. 

A valuable lesson I learned around a year later, when I was asked to take over as Flight Sargeant of the Training Squadron – which had problems of its own – is just because a tactic worked once, doesn’t mean it always will. I used a similar approach on this squadron, and learned very quickly that it was the wrong decision. It took me some time to rectify that mistake.

You see, as a manager, there’s no single tactic that you can take that will give you the results you need. This is one of the reasons why leadership training, that’s not supported through mentoring and/or coaching, often doesn’t result in good leadership. Training will teach people what they need to know. Good training will include why it’s important. But the “how” behind becoming a great leader differs for every person, team, department, business, and situation. There are 2-fundermental things every manager, at all levels, must do:

  1. Get to know their staff. This goes far beyond knowing their personal life. Knowing if they’re in a relationship, have kids, favourite hobbies etc. is important for rapport building, but it’s surface level information that doesn’t indicate how to lead them. We need to understand how they like to communicate, and be communicated with, what motivates them, what inspires them, what puts them into conflict, how they behave under stress. Leadership training will teach the general behavioural indicators, but human beings can’t be pigeonholed. There are nuances and context that need to be applied to understand the individual, not just general surface level information.
  1. Understand the root cause. In the operational squadron, I took my time to understand the situation. This meant I applied good judgement into the root cause. It wasn’t an easy time, but it was the right thing to do for the long-term. On the training squadron the mistake I made was assuming I knew what was happening. I was wrong. I didn’t take the time to speak to people, ask the right questions and assess the situation. This meant I chose the wrong tactic. Luckily, I recognised this quickly and changed the tactic before the damage became irreparable. 
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