Contribution | A Most Underrated Quality

Cover photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Most of us want to associate with successful people. Organisations and their leaders praise successful people and hold them up as examples for others to aspire to be more like. While we might want to be more successful it is important to remember that no one succeeds all by themselves. We all need and receive help and support from others from time to time.

Are you coachable?

The notion of receiving support from others raises an important question. Are you coachable? We probably like to think we are but are we really? Unless you’ve had an experience of coaching it is unlikely you’ve ever really thought about it. People who are coachable are typically open and willing to receive contribution from others whether in the form of an idea, a suggestion or some type of feedback. However, when we’re unwilling to receive the contribution, we are really being uncoachable. This typically shows up as resistance, that is we resist the contribution from others. We defend; we push it away; we dismiss and argue with or against the contribution. Perhaps instead of focusing who is successful, organisations would be better served if instead they focused on the nurturing the qualities needed for success. The quality I will focus on here is contribution.

Contribution has two sides

There are two sides to contribution: first there is being a contribution to others and second there is being open to receive contribution from others. Both are necessary at an individual and organisational level. Being a contribution is perhaps more widely and easily understood. However, as I shall delve into shortly, it is the second part, being open to contribution, that is perhaps more important for our growth and development.

Reflecting on my career as a scientist and now as a leadership coach, one conclusion I’ve come to is that contribution is something we don’t measure very well. On one hand measuring contribution by doing our job and achieving our KPIs is easily measured, yet how do we measure contribution to others. How do we measure contribution when we support our colleagues to develop and be the best version of themselves? Contribution to others is a desirable but often an intangible quality. We might say we value it in our teams and organisations, yet we don’t routinely measure it. Probably because it’s hard to do. For instance, how does one measure the contribution of a critical idea to a colleague in a casual conversation that leads to a breakthrough result?

Being a contribution is invaluable

Nathan Buckley, a former senior coach for the Collingwood, AFL Football Club said in an interview once that “being a contribution is invaluable to an organisation.” Like many others, I share his view. In elite sporting teams, young players value highly the contribution from senior players to their own development. It’s this culture of contribution and the passing on from one generation to the next, from old to young of “what it takes to be a professional athlete” that elite teams cherish. Expanding on Buckley’s comment, I would add that contribution is invaluable for high-performance in teams everywhere.

Being a contribution is what Buckley spoke about in his interview and most of us can readily understand this concept. For example, we are being a contribution every time we clean the house, wash dishes, mow the lawn, take the kids to school, do the shopping, listen to someone, support a colleague and so forth. The flipside of this is to allow others to contribute to us. In my experience we struggle much more with this concept than we do with being a contribution. However, this idea is perhaps more important especially in a leadership perspective.

Contribution creates our culture

Contribution helps define and create our culture. Being a contribution to others creates and fosters a giving and caring environment, it’s a nurturing quality of our being. Moreover, being a contribution is a selfless quality and essential to build reliability and performance through trust and teamwork with colleagues.

Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright is one of the most influential books I’ve read on personal and organisation stages of development. In its simplicity, Tribal Leadership describes organisations and their people and categorises them into one of five distinct stages. Stage one is the lowest, the least cohesive and least productive. While stage five is the highest an organisation can aspire to in terms of productivity, cohesiveness and teamwork. Something magical happens to organisations between stages three and four. The prevailing belief of individuals in stage three that is essentially “I’m okay or I’m doing well” transforms into “we’re okay and we’re doing well” that predominates in stage four. Contribution is a major factor in this shift away from the individual or ‘I’ towards the collective “we.”

Individuals stuck in stage 3 focus on “what can I get here?” This attitude fosters a ‘go-get’ culture. Whereas someone in stage four realises that their success means little if their colleagues aren’t successful too. The prevailing attitude of ‘go get’ in stage 3 transforms into a ‘go give’ culture in stage 4. This is where the magic happens. People openly contribute ideas and other types of support to their colleagues to cause success around them. Working in a successful environment is invigorating and everyone shares in the collective success rather than only a select few. I once worked in organisation where one-third of all patent royalties were divided equally among the entire staff, from a cleaner right through to the director. Everyone shared in the collective success of the organisation. My experience in this organisation was career shaping and I learnt a valuable lesson about contribution: contribute to the success of those around you and you will share in that success.

This is where the culture of the organisation really comes into play. For everyone who is willing to be a contribution there needs to be someone else willing and open to receive that contribution from them. Allowing people to contribute to us is also magical albeit in a different way. By simply saying thank you when we’re given a compliment, we allow someone to contribute to us. Without being open, we nurture an undesirable culture. For example, if we bounce the compliment back and say something like ‘it was nothing’ rather than ‘thank you’ we end up being dismissive and diminishing the person’s contribution to us. This leaves them feeling flat and wondering why they bothered to acknowledge us in the first place. And the next time the opportunity arises they don’t bother, setting in motion a dismissive and ungrateful culture.

Delegation is an effective way to receive contribution

Being willing to delegate tasks to other people is another example of allowing contribution. From a leader’s perspective this is vital and a quality we absolutely need to develop.

Delegating tasks to others starts with us first being willing to give away the control. Control is a funny concept in that the more you give it away, the more you have. I first heard this in a seminar by the late philosopher, Alan Watts on YouTube. It took me some time to get my head around what Watts was saying and you know, he’s right. Early in my career I didn’t see the value or the logic in this line of thinking. Thankfully, I learned and I wish I knew back when I started out in my career what I know now and fully appreciate. Giving up the control has a huge positive impact on those around me who are willing to contribute.

As leaders we want to empower our people, indeed it’s one of our goals. One way we accomplish this is through delegation. When we delegate a task to someone it empowers them. Delegating tasks with a word or two of encouragement such as “you’ve got this” has many positive effects. It helps them grow and develop. It nurtures and builds trust and reliability in your team. Your confidence to delegate a task to them in effect says “I rely on you.” The effect ultimately empowers them and builds our own confidence. Giving away the credit on completion of the task empowers them and in turn builds their confidence. In this example, we can see both sides of contribution are present both giving and receiving.

Controlling behaviour is closed to receiving contribution

The opposite to not allow contribution is to be controlling. When we are unable to delegate and receive contribution this way, we fail to empower our people and our desire to control keeps our people small and diminished. This is the opposite of what we want. As leaders we want our people to thrive and grow. Ironically, holding onto tasks and control limits our own development too. Instead of being free to tackle bigger and more important tasks we are stuck doing tasks that could easily be done by others. By holding onto control, we fail to liberate and empower ourselves.

Being open to feedback is another example of being willing to receive contribution. If we tend to be controlling it’s likely we’re not open to feedback either. I explore the role of feedback in our development in a related article.

Bringing it all together

Leadership is about becoming the best version of myself and supporting others around me to be the best version of themselves as well. Allowing contribution achieves both. As an educator my philosophy is to teach students how to fish rather than to feed them one fish at a time. Finding ways to empower them and support their growth and development is my goal. Contributing to them as well as allowing them to contribute to me achieves that and empowers my growth as well. Contribution is like that.