Let’s (Not) Do It My Way

Leadership Lesson: Is that Wrong, or Just Different?

I recently returned from my annual trip to Honduras, where I work with a team on construction projects at a children’s home. Every year the team is a different mix of adults and youth who bring various ideas about “the right way” to do things.

As we learn to become a team, there is invariably a phrase that becomes the theme for the week. Often repeated in jest, we use this phrase over and over to explain some aspect of our trip.

This year, the saying “It’s not wrong, it’s just different” became our mantra for the week.

The phrase was the theme of a reflection exercise early in the week, and it stuck because it’s so true. When someone has an approach that’s different that yours, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. You may share the same destination, but there are many routes to success.

making-mezclaWhen you’re immersed in a new culture, whether at a new job or in a different country, it’s easy to dismiss local customs as wrong or even backward.

“That’s not the way we did it when I worked at Acme,” a new manager might say.

In Honduras, that could be expressed as, “Why are we mixing mortar on the ground? Wouldn’t a cement mixer be more efficient?”

Of course it would, but that’s not the point.

It’s essential to understand the why behind the how, and you can’t get there without a healthy dose of empathy. In a work setting, that means finding out the history of certain tactics or approaches. Maybe there’s a very good reason trucks are loaded in a certain way, or shifts are scheduled for seemingly odd time frames. You don’t know unless you take the time to ask and understand.

As a leader, you may very well be a type-A, take charge personality. If you sweep into a new situation, saying, “Follow me, I know how to do this!” you just might be missing out on opportunities to learn new methods.

It’s better to suppress that initial impulse to show people how it should be done, and first find out why they do what they do. Once you understand, you can introduce changes more strategically, fixing those areas that truly need to be addressed while letting other functions continue as they were.

This is a lesson I learned in my early days as an executive. Like many new leaders, I expected my team to use my templates, my processes, and present in the format I wanted. That helped a lot from the standpoint of standardizing communications, and I’ve had former employees tell me they still use some of these tools nearly 20 years later.

Unfortunately, I’m sure now that I suppressed some creativity that would have improved the outcomes for everyone. By imposing my own will, I probably choked out ideas that would have motivated and inspired my team.

Being open to a variety of approaches would have exposed me to concepts I hadn’t considered, and would have made me a better leader.

Thankfully, I learned that lesson. Now when I hear, “It’s not wrong, it’s just different,” I can smile a knowing smile and pause to appreciate what someone else has to offer.

The next time you feel the urge to pronounce someone or something as wrong, stop for a moment and consider this:

Is it really wrong, or just different?

If your reaction is triggered by something unfamiliar, unexpected or unusual, it’s worth exploring.  Maybe it is wrong. Maybe it’s inefficient. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve seen a breakthrough innovation you’ll want to adopt.

What do you think? If you’ve discovered new ideas by being open to fresh approaches, I’d love to hear from you. Share your story in the comments bellow.

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