The 21st Century Way to Getting Your People to Do Great Work

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Jul 16, 2018
This article is part of a series called Higher Performance Workforce.

Leading is like parenting — everybody thinks they do a much better job than they actually do.

There’s a definite gap between how most executives assess themselves and how their direct reports do. Leaders and their teams seem to be watching two different movies.

Organizations want employees to become more mature, accountable, and to drive change — yet their policies and rules treat people as kids.

My purpose is not to point fingers, but to invite reflection. Without realizing it, many executives act as helicopter bosses: They have good intentions, but their need to control and protect their people doesn’t provide any room for growth.

There’s a tension that keeps repeating over and over : When things don’t go well, there’s a tendency to blame it on “the people.” I help organizations build a culture of change — to become more experimental, innovative, and adaptive. When I kick-off a project, I receive a brief from senior executives. Most of the time these focus on how their teams are not performing as they should.

The company is trying to push change forward, but employee behaviors and mindsets are — supposedly — getting in the way. While the description is not necessarily wrong, it’s far from being accurate. Afterward, when we interview the broader team, we get to listen to the other side of the story.

Both stories are right and wrong at the same time.

Driving change is not about taking sides, but a collective experience. Don’t expect people to change if your rules stay the same.

Addressing this gap with my clients, I’ve come to a simple realization. Most senior executives believe they are good at delegating and inspiring people based on a different standard — a paternalist leadership style they learned from their bosses decades ago.

Today’s environment requires removing the boundaries between leaders and “the rest.” People expect a more transparent, experimental, and participatory culture. Those words need to be understood through a 21st century lens.

Leadership is about co-creation — people want to be an active contributor, not just a passive implementer. Your team wishes to be treated as equals, not as kids.

Stop planning, start experimenting

We live in an uncertain, volatile, and fast-changing era. However, most senior executives were trained to manage organizations in a predictable world.

Most companies keep thinking in annual cycles. Annual planning, employee performance reviews, and promotions, to name just a few are based on a 12-month period. We need to become better at adapting rather than at anticipating. As Susan Peters, GE’s head of human resources, said, “The world isn’t really on an annual cycle anymore for anything.”

The same applies to organizational structure or policies. They were written when things were supposedly predictable — organizations wanted to control how things should be done. That model operated under the assumption that leaders knew better. They were in charge of making strategic decisions and then getting others to follow.

However, a top-down approach is ineffective today. Every person on a team is a sensor. They can detect problems and opportunities; every member can develop new ideas, information or ways to operate.

The future is uncertain. Modern leaders must be humble and vulnerable enough to admit they don’t have all the answers — least to say that they can predict what will happen tomorrow. Rather than being stuck in “best practices,” organizations need to promote an experimental mindset.

We must stop treating people as children; and let them actively participate, design, and influence how the company operates. Trial and error is not an option. Your team needs more room to experiment, make mistakes, adapt, and evolve.

Five ways to start treating people like adults

Here are some ways to unleash the leader within your team by treating them as such and not as doers. There are not meant to be comprehensive or perfect, but rather to get you started.

1. Rules that enable rather than forbid

I’ve previously discussed how companies need to shift from a “culture of scarcity” to one of abundance. That requires a new approach to rules and policies.

Most companies have rules that are based on a command and control mentality that was originated in the Industrial Revolution. Managers made sure people showed up, did their job, and followed the policies.

The problem with the command and control approach is that it doesn’t promote trust. Rules control how and what people should do, rather than enable them to act freely and do what they believe is best for the company.

Also, corporate rules tend to be one-way. Employees are supposed to clock in and out but are expected to reply to work emails during the weekend.

Netflix’ unlimited vacation policy is the opposite — rather than tracking time, it focuses on performance. When a culture is built around accountability, people behave like adults — there’s no need to cheat.

2. Delegate decision-making rather than tasks

I have yet to hear a senior executive admit that her or she is not good at delegating. The problem is that they task people with managing projects, but don’t delegate decision-making. No matter how empowered a team is, in the end, they always need their boss’ approval.

Real delegation includes full accountability — to be responsible for both actions and repercussions. You can start by encouraging your team to make decisions in small doses.

“Safe-to-try” decisions are an excellent way to develop a self-management system. It moves teams into action rather than waiting for the perfect solution or for the boss to chime in. To accept or reject a proposal there are two questions the team should consider:

  • Will this decision move the team backward?
  • Will the proposal, if implemented, cause harm which can not be mitigated promptly?

There’s always time to course correct. Let the team adjust its path based on actual feedback instead of hypothesis based on fear or anticipation.

3. Trust people over the process

Zappos empower its employees to make independent decisions versus telling them what’s right or wrong. An employee can send a new pair of shoes free of charge to a bride whose shoe order never showed up without asking anyone for permission. Solving the client’s problem is priority number one;  employees use their best judgment rather than follow a rigid process.

Do you encourage your team to follow or break the rules?

What is it most important? To get the job done or to follow the process? Rules shouldn’t limit your team’s ability to perform their job. Breaking rules is not something bad when done with a purpose — here’s a method to do so.

4. Encourage failure rather than protectionism

Helicopter bosses are not just micromanagers — they tend to be overprotective too. Trying to keep the team from getting hurt, they can cause more damage.

Teams need to make mistakes to learn and grow. At Nixon McInnes, a social media company, the Church of Fail is a monthly ritual. Employees are invited to stand and confess their mistakes and are wildly applauded for doing so.

Does your organization punish mistakes or encourage people to learn from them?

Embracing mistakes promotes transparency and experimentation. Everyone makes mistakes — publicly acknowledging them ensures that people can learn from them and that others won’t make the same one. Also, mistakes are a means to an end — action is always better than inaction.

5. Provide challenges rather than direction

People want to be challenged so that they can give their best. However, more than 3/4 of the workforce believe their bosses don’t motivate them to unleash their true potential. Most senior managers tend to define the path rather than letting their team members find the solution. They give direction instead of challenging people with questions.

Facebook engineers decide what they want to work on. They can make changes to the website without asking for permission.

Assign challenges rather than tasks. It’s more interesting to be in charge of “How can we inspire and educate our clients?” than to be the “monthly newsletter manager.” A challenge invites people to improve their game, not just to continue playing the same way.

Leadership requires a new standard : Iinvite your team to co-create how your organization works and operates. Encourage people to experiment and fail, to break the rules with a purpose, to make decisions, and to prioritize results over processes.

Freedom drives accountability — contrary to public belief, the more freedom people get, the more engaged and committed they are.

Your team is constituted by responsible adults who should be trusted. They don’t need to be controlled. What you give is what you get.

This article is part of a series called Higher Performance Workforce.