Leadership, and the need to “prove yourself”

As we often do while we walk together, Lisa and I were recently talking about the framework that work happens in under in the corporate environment. At some point we talked about the fact that there is this need to prove oneself upon entry into a new environment before a person is accepted, and along the way I said something about what a terrible shame that is—that managers who set this kind of environment are making a mistake. She argued my point, though, saying it’s completely understandable that a new person needs to prove themselves before being fully included in a group.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit since then, and she’s right … except that I’m also right.

A team will never fully accept someone who doesn’t do the job, that’s true. This is the root of things like “probation periods,” or initiation rites, or other such things (dare I suggest this idea is the root of hazings?). That is the way it is, and most of us humans “get” it because it’s quite logical. “Sink or swim, buddy,” this concept says. “I don’t care what you did anywhere else, you gotta prove it here!”

But, seriously, a good leader does NOT think this way. A good leader sets expectation, of course, and a good leader delivers results. But a good leader assumes their selection process has found a valuable person, and then does everything they can to make sure the team member is safe and in an emotional place where they can do their best work. That’s it. It’s 100% of the real job description of leadership. When I was managing people, I cannot think of a time when I ever expected a person to prove themselves, unless we were already having performance problems (which is, of course, a different case).

The need to prove yourself is a stressful thing, you see? Stressful in a negative fashion. And a manager/leader’s role is to reduce negative stress (and increase positive stress).

In this light, this afternoon I watched a couple TED talks. One I thought was quite good, and the other I wish I had actually written, because it is almost word-for-word the way I think about things. (At one point, a boss of mine asked me to write a paper on what it would take to create a “job for life” kind of company. I don’t remember what I wrote about, but this is it). This has become one f my favorite TED talks…if you are a leader, I strongly recommend you watch it. As you watch it, think about how this concept pretty much refutes the whole “prove yourself” concept.

The first talk (which I felt was good, and also touched on the whole “prove yourself” concept) is here:

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