My son is married now, but when he was a teenager and in high school, he was challenged with respect to managing his dirty washing – somehow, used clothing never seemed to make it to the wash basket and ended up in a pile on his bedroom carpet! As parents, we used to “remind” him, sometimes gently, at other times more forcefully, about the merits of transporting used clothing to the dirty linen receptacle and the demerits of leaving the same on the floor – nothing seemed to help. He seemed to have a “mental block” regarding dirty clothing and just left t-shirts and underwear in the same area where he undressed in the evening.  Needless to say, we got tired of “nagging”.

On a dismally frustrating day, my wife and I decided that a new approach was necessary. I asked my son to join me and we sat down amongst the dirty washing – not a pleasant experience! I mentioned that I wanted to do some Maths and asked him: “What happens to the size of the pile of clothing in the middle of the floor if you keep adding to it every evening?” He answered, correctly I might add: “It gets bigger.” “Good answer”, I commented and then asked: “What happens to the stock in the cupboard when you keep withdrawing from it every day?” Again, he answered correctly: “It gets smaller” “Great answer”, I retorted. I then stated the following: “Son, from the time that an item of clothing gets to the wash basket, in this house we have a 24 hour turn-around time where the item will miraculously get washed, dried and ironed and will magically appear back in your cupboard, all neatly folded. If it doesn’t get to the wash basket, it will stay exactly where you put it, with the only addition that we will close your bedroom door. Do you understand?” He agreed to the process.

When not travelling, I love sleeping in on a Saturday morning (to at least 08h00 if possible). This is a time to recuperate and get some needed rest. On one particular Saturday at about 07h00, I found a hand on my shoulder, my son standing above me. I grunted: “Yes?” My son said: “Dad, I need some socks”.  I responded: “Do you not have socks?” He said that he did, but noted that they were all dirty and that he had a hockey game that morning. I said: “So?” He said, perhaps a bit cheekily: “Well, you need socks to play hockey!” I responded: “So?” He retorted: “I don’t have any clean ones.” I responded: “Did the system break down during the week? I mean, did we have a technical problem with the washing machine? No? Good, now you have one of three choices: firstly, you can go with dirty socks, but then you will walk to school – I will not take you. Secondly, you can go with different coloured socks and then I will take you, but you will feel “undressed” without the correct school clothing. Or thirdly, you can choose not to go, but then you will be letting your team down – you make the choice, but I will definitely not be washing socks for you at all”. He went with dirty socks and walked the few kilometres to the school, but got the point – if he wants clothes, clean ones, it is his responsibility to get the dirty ones to the washing basket.

In business and as leaders, we need to teach ownership (responsibility-taking) to our staff. Just like it is necessary for parents to grow their children in terms of taking responsibility for their respective lives, roles and possessions, it is incumbent on leaders to realise “ownership” amongst staff. Continuously joining the dots to the “big picture” is necessary to help employees realise their need of taking their respective roles seriously and fulfilling expectations in the broader scheme of the business dynamics.

Using the principle of “natural consequences” as a tool to enhance people development and achieve team focus on strategic imperatives provides an answer to the tendency to “nag” and get frustrated by procedures that are not being followed. The leader has a responsibility to grow people, thus releasing himself or herself of the tendency to coerce or manipulate people to achieve results.

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