Keith June 24th, 2008
When leaders learn to creatively engage their subordinates in everyday decision making, they can make change happen.
I have written here before about Change Management. I am still of the opinion that this is an entirely misunderstood function in most of today’s organisations. It was thus rather refreshing to read in the current issue of IABC’s Communications World magazine that someone has actually done some research that supports my view!
The quote above is from John Smythe, the author of the article Engaging Employees to Drive Performance. (This is available to IABC members online at the magazine site above.)
The usual concept of change is that it is “done” by executives (usually aided and abetted by consultants). We have more recently introduced the discipline of Change Management as a way of helping people to adapt to the agreed change. Today, we focus more on Employee Engagement as a way of more actively getting staff involved in understanding the change, rather than just being told about it after the fact.
But all of this is still based on a “command and control” model. It assumes that the CEO has a monopoly on all ideas relevant to the performance of the organisation. This is a rather unfair assumption in the post-industrial era. It may well have been the case some years ago, but in the vast majority of cases, organisations today depend much more upon the knowledge held by the people within the organisation.
So, if the people have the knowledge on how the organisation works, why not actually include them in designing the change?
This is where John Smythe’s work has focused. Working with McKinsey, he researched 59 organisations globally, looking for the “single, most influential cause of more engaged employees.” He concluded that this was “the appetite and ability of leaders at every level to engage their subordinates in everyday decision making and bigger-ticket change.”
This requires all managers to effectively share their power. This is not something that is easy or natural for a command-and-control manager! Nor is it something that we are teaching managers to do. It means admitting that you actually don’t know all the answers.
Why are we not teaching managers this? Isn’t it becoming obvious that the more complex our organisations are becoming, the less likely it is that anyone in the organisation has all the answers?
I found in my last term as a team leader that – even with this approach at the core of my own leadership philosophy – it so often seemed to be easier to make my own decisions, and advise the team later. Yet any time that I did this, I then had to spend extra time explaining the decision to the team, sometimes discovering that if I had involved the team in the decision making process, they would have come up with better ideas – and achieved the result quicker – because they were closer to the work.
It is important for all knowledge-based organisations today that we change the culture of all our managers. Engaging staff in change must be seen as a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness and uncertainty. The organisations that Smythe researched have been able to engage staff without slowing down output – in fact, they have improved performance as a result of people sharing ideas across the organisation.
As Smythe summarises it:
Leaders who engage the right groups in everyday decisions and in designing and executing change will benefit both in terms of the quality of decisions and the speed of execution that derives from people who feel ownership of the outcome.