Managing the Movement

There were a number of highly practical Situational Leadership® “sound bites” that Dr. Paul Hersey coined over the years, and we would argue none have withstood the test of time better than this one:

  • “Things are either getting better, or they are getting worse, nothing stays the same.”

He typically used that line to introduce the concepts of Development and Regression.

  • Development is characterized by the growth and incremental improvement an individual demonstrates when they are learning how to perform a new task
  • Regression is characterized by the decreasing motivation an individual has to continue performing a task for which they have demonstrated at least some level of mastery

Leaders in organizations today add value by effectively “Managing the Movement” of the people on their teams or in their departments. Stated in terms of the definitions provided, they act as catalysts for growth and development and, if need be, road blocks for regression.

Building Competence

What Is Competence/Ability

Competence/Ability is the knowledge, experience and skill that an individual or group demonstrates in a particular task or activity

Now, it’s probably human nature to read a definition with three components and infer that each should receive proportionate emphasis. For the record, allow us to ensure you that is not the case. Think of this definition in the context of making a hiring decision. Most resumes are developed to provide prospective employers with a compelling overview of a job candidate’s qualifications. Where that individual was educated certainly counts for something. Same goes for where they have worked and what they have accomplished while doing so over time. But typically the demonstrable skill a candidate “brings to the party” is the distinguishing factor in his or her selection. Much the same with our definition (i.e. Demonstrated skill trumps task-related knowledge or experience every time).

So, as it applies to your efforts as a leader to build the competence of those you are attempting to influence, we ask that you keep these critical points in mind:

Potential is not Competence

Potential and competence are related, but they are by no means synonymous. Potential represents a future state. It is something that may or may not be realized. Conversely, competence is a function of the here and now. It is something you can point to, verify, tangibly assess and document

Leaders who confuse potential with competence assume that because someone was so verifiably good at doing that, they will undoubtedly be able to do this, as well. Further, because they were, in all likelihood, experiencing a hands-off, empowering approach while they were doing that, they wouldn’t respond well to anything remotely resembling structure when it comes to doing this.

This pattern of thinking frequently leads to what we will refer to as “premature delegation.” The consequences of this potential mismatch are both predictable and expensive.

Leaders need to exercise task-specific diagnostic discipline with experienced employees taking on new responsibilities and treat them where they are, not where they have the potential to be!

Developing Competence Takes Time

The more complicated the task the longer the cycle of development. As you consider the graphic below, the journey from low to high competence for a routine task may well take hours instead of days, weeks or, in some cases, months.

In addition to the task itself, the leader needs to critically assess the assignee. Even though the assignee may not have demonstrated a performance history with the task in question he may well possess what have come to be referred to as transferable skills.

Transferable skills are skills that can be effectively allocated across a range of tasks or activities. In effect they provide a useful head start in the process of developing competence.

For instance, if the assignee has acute levels of hand-eye coordination, it stands to reason he will learn how to play ping pong faster than most of the rest of us.

Alignment, Enhancement and Mastery

Developing competence is a predictable and methodical evolutionary process that flows from Alignment through Enhancement to Mastery with practical implications for leaders along the way.

  • Alignment – With lower levels of competence it is important for the leader to provide the learner with the benefit of their experience and align expectations for development. It can be thought of as an “orientation” or “on-boarding” for the task in question. During this phase, Jerry will begin to assemble the building blocks for skill demonstration. Typically that entails observing, practicing, receiving and understanding feedback provided by the leader on incremental progress
  • Enhancement – With a properly established foundation the learner adds depth (more building blocks) and perspective. Typically, feedback provided from the leader is translated into increased accuracy and efficiency (i.e. better results in less time). The exchanges between leader and learner during this phase are gradually characterized by increasing amounts of discussion (i.e. why the task is important; how the task fits into the bigger picture; suggestions from the learner on improvements; etc.)
  • Mastery – At high levels of competence (lots of blocks), the learner becomes the leader. Performance of the task becomes a matter of routine execution with comparatively limited prep time. Discussion between the leader and the learner is characterized by the learner providing insight to the leader on best practices that merit consideration

Developing Willingness

When we shift our attention to the leader’s role in helping others develop task-specific confidence, there are also some predictable patterns of migration we should be aware of and attentive to. Beyond that, there are some inherent connections between an individual’s level of confidence pertaining to successful task completion and the pace at which he or she develops proficiency.

The Subsets of Willingness

Willingness is typically made up of three things:

  • Confidence
  • Commitment
  • Motivation

The Role of Confidence

While all three subsets of willingness are important, we would suggest confidence is the most critical component a leader needs to consider when an individual is learning to perform a task for the first time. Confidence is the internal voice that speaks to us all.

Developing Task Specific Confidence

It’s not that a person in question doesn’t value the outcome of the task or isn’t motivated and committed to the process. It is simply that the highest-strength need they feel is safety. They are afraid to make a mistake because they have absolutely no idea what they are supposed to do.

By providing much needed alignment, the leader gets the task on track. As a result, the individual simply needs to follow the instructions that are being provided. Responsibility for outcomes achieved resides with the leader. Beyond that, the leader has set the stage for incremental progress and opportunities to reinforce progress. The resultant effect of that dynamic is increased safety. Insecurity gives way to confidence, and commitment/motivation to engage in the performance of the task emerges as the highest-strength need.

As the leaders begin to transition from alignment to enhancement, their approach needs to be characterized more by discussion, positive reinforcement of progress and collaboration and less by providing direction, feedback on parameters of performance or guidance. As individuals approach “the R2 to R3 transition,” they typically demonstrate a level of task-related proficiency that suggests they’ve got this. It is not uncommon at this developmental intersection for the individual’s insecurity to reemerge. The source of insecurity at this juncture is a function of the level of comfort the individual has developed following the instructions of the leader while the leader remains close by. For those that have been there, it is the transition all pilots experience when it comes time for their first solo flight, or facilitators face the first time they deliver a program without a Master Trainer in the back of the room to transition to or a sales person confronts when they are making their first pitch to a high-potential customer without their manager by their side.

The truth of the matter is that listening to the individual passing through R3 on their way to R4 and a level of task-related Mastery is every bit as important as providing direction and structure for the R1 who is just beginning the journey. In general, enhancing the development of others is characterized by open-ended questions, active listening, support and problem solving. When individuals complete a few “solo flights” and recognize their own comparative readiness to perform the task in question, the single biggest stroke they can receive is autonomy.

Reversing Regression

The underlying cause of left-to-right movement is frequently a function of a follower that is bored, has lost motivation and/or commitment to complete a task to standard, or perhaps is in the middle of working through a personal challenge outside the workplace.

How Can Leaders Prevent Regression

Be There Quickly

There can be a tendency when a top performer misses a conference call, is late for an important meeting or turns in work that is“acceptable but not up to historical standards, to over-empathize and remain in empowerment mode. This strategy will only accelerate the regression.

The minute you as a leader see behavior that is inconsistent with a person’s performance history, intervene.


The good news about intervening early is that you can use an approach that is both person-centered and non-confrontational. Typically a participative intervention with a strong performer that is starting to move from left to right is categorized by open-ended questions with significant degrees of freedom:


However skillfully your question comes across, the key to a successful regressive intervention is to listen intently to the response. Are you getting information about the part of the iceberg that is visible above the water line? Or are you hearing about something that is well beneath the surface and is likely the true source of the issue? Either way, the key to successfully resolving the challenge is a function of your ability to guide the discussion, get as much information as you can possibly get and avoid any initial impulse you may have to prematurely solve the problem and share your insight


Hope plays a crucial role in successfully reversing regression. Because after you ask and while you are listening, you have to hope that whoever you are talking with is telling you the truth about their iceberg. The ironic part of this equation is that the amount of personal power and trust you built with this individual during development will determine how comfortable they feel opening up about the real reasons they are regressing and have lost/misplaced their motivation to perform