You need a team of self starters? A team who come to you with solutions, not problems? A team who take full ownership of what needs to be done? A team who continue to grow and develop every day?

Then pay attention to fleas at work.

Urban myth or not, it makes you think. And perhaps itch a little as well. Apparently this is the drill for training fleas:

• Place some fleas inside a glass jar and then seal it with a lid

• Leave them undisturbed for 3 days

That’s it! Because when the jar is opened the fleas will not jump out. Nor will they ever jump higher than the level set by the lid – their behaviour is set for the rest of their lives. Even more bizarre is the prediction that when these fleas reproduce, their offspring will automatically follow their example.

You too could have a jar of trained fleas who won’t jump higher than the lid – whether the lid is on, or off.

Who’s training fleas?

I’m not suggesting a flea fetish has taken over the nation. Just that when we look round the workplace there’s more flea training going on than is good for us. A lot more.

How often do you find yourself doing the thinking for your team? Providing the answers? Checking their work just in case? Assuming they can’t do it without your input? Dishing out advice? Asking them to ‘run it by’ you before it is presented? Editing things so it reads the way you like it? Telling people how to do things? Pushing your ideas rather than encouraging theirs?

Every time we shift the primary focus onto “me and my ideas” then we are picking up the lid. The longer we push “me and my ideas” the closer the lid comes to the jar. Then if we keep going, we fix the lid firmly onto the top of the jar – and there it stays.

Then when we finally remove the lid and want them to come up with their own solutions we complain because they won’t jump out! We might hear ourselves saying things like “Am I the only one who cares?” or “Can’t people just take personal responsibility round here?”

It could be you

If your team lack initiative, if there are some in your team who just don’t seem to take personal responsibility, who just can’t see the bigger picture – make sure you take the time to ask yourself – Why? Perhaps it was the previous boss – or a succession of previous bosses? That’s obviously the most comfortable and convenient solution. Or perhaps it’s time to stop and look in the mirror – because, I’m sorry to say, it could be you.

When you speak, what is the balance of “me and my ideas” to “them and their ideas?” If the majority of time you are speaking you are focused on drawing responses and input from the team then your team will become a team of self starters. A team who come to you with solutions, not problems. A team who take full ownership of what needs to be done. A team who continue to grow and develop every day.

But if the majority of time you are speaking you are focused on simply getting your ideas and opinions across to the team, then you are only doing one thing. You are training fleas. So don’t complain when that’s exactly what you end up with.

Stop solving everyone’s problems

This is not simply about the stereotypical ‘control freak’ manager. You can train fleas whilst being wonderfully helpful and supportive. I remember one manager whose last words of any phone call would always be “and if you have any problems at all just call.” So that’s exactly what his team did. They took their brains out and put them on standby. And they called him every time there was a problem. He was an expert flea trainer.

I once worked with the top team in an industrial tyres company and part way through the day a light bulb came on for the sales director. “You mean – one of the most important things we can do is stop solving everyone’s problems for them?” Believe it or not, that was one of the most crucial changes they put in place – and in the following 3 months on-time delivery rose from 65 to 95% in one area whilst overdue orders dropped from 350 to 150 in another. How? They stopped training fleas – and started tapping into their team’s potential.

Don’t get me wrong – there are times as a leader that you need to say “this is how it’s going to be.” There are times as a leader when it’s essential to set a very clear direction and agenda. Nobody is saying that brilliant leaders just sit back and let their teams do whatever they want. But the longer you spend out of “them and their ideas” territory, the longer the lid is in place, and the instant the lid is in place then flea training begins.

Get the lid off before it’s too late.

There are so many lessons from this we could go on for hours – but let’s stick with one question. Are you developing a team who can think for themselves, a team who come to you with solutions, not problems, a team who take full ownership of what needs to be done, a team who continue to grow and develop every day?

Or are you simply training fleas?

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.