I once asked a senior manager colleague what she considered the “core competency” of a good manager. “the art of Effective Nudging“, she replied. I knew at once what she meant as I had done my fair share of it as well. I just was not as clever in giving it a name. And what I believe makes effective nudging a true art is the ease with which one’s efforts can suddenly become nagging with all the counterproductive consequences that usually results.
One of the things one quickly realizes on becoming a manager is that giving orders and instructions to others is actually the easy part of the job. Getting others to follow those orders and instructions, well that is another matter. Plus it does not mater all that much if you are one of those individuals with a great gift for clarity and succinctness in uttering your commands. As I addressed in a previous article regarding the importance of understanding human nature, humans are generally all too maddeningly human when it comes to compliance and following instructions to the letter of a manager’s intent.
Moreover, if it is a major initiative you have in mind that will take some time to realize — even given a large dose of commitment — your nudging skills will prove essential to sustain the momentum forward you desire.
Let’s start with listening and understanding. As a manager, I learned quickly never to assume that everybody in earshot of what I was saying was actually listening, much less understanding clearly what I wanted. There are enough different ways to interpret even the most carefully chosen words, that some confusion can usually be safely assumed. The nudging part involves your willingness to repeat your message a sufficient number of times over time — both one-on-one and in groups — to increase understanding and to test whether everybody is on the same page. I always liked interjecting some self-directed humor during this repetition process, often saying things like “perhaps you folks thought I was kidding or verbally incoherent last week when I asked……………. So let me try again.” It generally got a laugh or two and allowed me to reiterate my determination to see some action.
It is also a great idea to have others play back to you their understanding of what you want. The results can be shocking at times but worthwhile
Next comes the testing and the search for flexibility in the implementation of what you have requested be done. Again, this is all too human and predictable. Many folks willing to comply with your desires will wish some latitude in the how; that is “can I do this my way”. The nudging part involves your ability to keep the effort moving forward, coupled with the flexibility to allow various forms of individuality that does not alter achievement of the desired goal. Over time, one of my favorite sayings became “I really don’t care how you get there, just please get there and on time”. Generally speaking, it is usually the what not the how that matters.
Momentum almost by definition never lasts forever. The longer an initiative will take, the more necessary it becomes for you to coach and nudge others to keep at it. At this point, you are probably a long way from your original request for action and perhaps tired of needing to keep nudging things along. But lose patience or persistence — what I call P2 — and effort will wane. Regaining momentum is perhaps the most important byproduct of artful nudging and a hallmark of the best managers.
Finally comes dealing with the truly recalcitrant. I have addressed this topic at many places in this series of writings. My message has always been and remains the same and we are now definitely beyond the time for nudging. To allow subordinates to willfully refuse to carry out legitimate management requests and decisions, authorizes that resistance and is simply bad management. There must be some price to pay for willful obstreperousness or you undermine your authority as a manager and the rationale for having a management structure at all. If you are unwilling to insist on what you legitimately have the authority to ask of others, then do not bother to ask at all.