Simplicity: An Imperative for Successful Leadership

by Susan Mazza | Posted | Leadership

Simplicity: An Imperative for Successful Leadership

As a leader, one of the most significant challenges you face today is not only the incredible volume of information you must manage and absorb, but also the sheer complexity of the information you must deal with on a daily basis. There are countless moving parts – and many of those moving parts aren’t directly within your control, even though you’re accountable for them.

This is why your ability as a leader to cut through the complexity and make things simple for yourself and others is such a critical skill. And by “simple” I don’t mean dumbing things down.

Steve Jobs demonstrated the power of simplicity in design while leading Apple to produce some of the most elegant and groundbreaking consumer tech products ever invented. While he may have made simplicity look easy, even he acknowledged how hard it can be:

“Simple can be harder than complex. You will often have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it because in the end you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs

Keeping things simple becomes even more challenging as workplaces become more team-oriented. The days of individual “knowledge is power” have given way to an imperative to harness the collective intelligence of your organization. No one person can know everything so we are increasingly dependent on each other.

This means if you want to bring people together, a new mantra is in order: “clarity is power.” You know you have achieved clarity when a concept or idea that was complex and confusing is now simple and clear.  

Three principles for leading with simplicity

The ability and discipline required to achieve simplicity in everything you do is an absolutely essential skill you will need if you want to offer your team members the clarity they need to take effective action.

Here are three principles to help you lead with simplicity, as well as how to apply them to giving performance feedback.

1. Clarify the outcome before taking action

The pressure to continue to do more with less, along with the expectation of 24/7 availability is overwhelming for many people in the workplace. It’s natural to want to take action on a project quickly because it can keep that intense feeling of being under pressure at bay. Yet taking the time to clarify the outcomes you want and need to achieve in endeavors both big and small can help you work smarter instead of just harder. This is a simple, yet important practice for leaders. It ensures they are thinking, acting and leading others strategically.

When preparing to give performance feedback, take the time to write down the specific impact you want your feedback to have on your employee’s performance. It should fit in one sentence. Consider these questions: how will you know your feedback made a difference? What changes in behavior or attitude do you need to see to know your feedback has had the desired effect?

2. Apply the rule of three

The rule of three is based on the concept that people only tend to remember three things. Great orators and marketers know this, as do great business strategists. If you want a message to be remembered, refine your thoughts and ideas to a list of three. This rule can be applied to strategic planning, setting goals, preparing talking points for a meeting or even creating your must-do list for the day.

Of course, narrowing anything down to a list of three can require a great deal of thought and will likely require you make strategic choices. However, consider it as a great investment of your time. By doing this extra bit of work you can actually help those you lead increase their focus, reduce confusion and even save time.

In preparing for a performance feedback conversation, consider simplifying your feedback into the three key points that you must get across to the employee in order to produce your intended outcome.

3. Apply the principle of less is more to your communication

Remember that you are always speaking into cluttered minds. Lengthy explanations, long complex presentations, rambling emails, etc. will not cut through the clutter. If you want to communicate your message clearly and get the results you want, you need to be able to get to the point. You have to tell people the short story so you can spark people’s interest in listening to the longer story.

When it comes to giving performance feedback, always begin with simply expressing your commitment to the individual’s success, satisfaction and future. This should happen whether you’re giving praise or about to initiate some form of progressive discipline. Starting with a commitment to the employee’s success will put you both at ease and set the context and tone for your interaction.

This also gives you room to get to the important points quickly. Stories and examples can provide context, but you should always lead with the point you want to make. Outlining the point first will give the person you’re speaking with something specific to listen for in your story.

Also beware of trying to soften the blow of tough communication by skirting around your point. It doesn’t help and just prolongs the agony for you both.

The ROI of keeping it simple

There is no doubt that persistently driving for simplicity is an investment. It requires hard work, rigor and discipline. It also requires that you have the strength to slow things down when the pull is to keep going faster or to get tough conversations over with quickly. You must consider the dividends of your investment in simplicity: meaningful interactions, positive impact, satisfying progress, and empowering your people to elevate their performance and do their best work yet.

What do you think? Is simplicity worth the investment?

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