By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal
Sunday night my wife and I sought out a nice open field here in Anacortes and were gifted with a totally cloudless sky to witness the blood moon clearly. As we were watching the earth block out the sun from the moon’s surface, I was reminded of how much our understanding of the universe has advanced since ancient times.
Lacking the technology available to modern science, previous cultures created elaborate tales of the events in the heavens. Even as science advanced, various cultures found it difficult to relinquish their traditional understandings of the universe, sometimes clinging to their beliefs well beyond the point of reason.
That thought reminded me of management today.
The need for centralized control — command and control — was for many decades the accepted method of management in our places of work. And it worked, and smothered initiative and passion and innovation in an economic period where those human traits were not so highly valued as they are today and were, in many instances, counterproductive.
What we have today in many organizations, in an era where mass customization has become expected and passion, initiative and creativity are in high demand, are the remnants of the command and control methodology in the form of cultural norms. And as Peter Drucker advise us more than 40 years ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
These words are so rightly on the mark. Why does it seem that so many managers continue to do almost anything but heed the reality described in Drucker’s words?
When a manager does not take the time to build a culture, which invites the engagement, passion, creativity and initiative of their direct reports, they sow the seeds of their own failure. You might even consider it irrational, which goes to Drucker’s point, it is!
In the December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, nearly a decade ago, an article appeared that speaks right to this issue. What could be a more on-point title for the article than “To Be a Better Leader, Give Up Authority”? The authors, Amar, Hentrich and Hlupic begin with what I believe is a very authentic statement, based on their research,
“Although business thinkers have long proposed that companies can engage workers and stimulate innovation by abdicating control — establishing nonhierarchical teams that focus on various issues and allowing those teams to make most of the company’s decisions — guidance on implementing such a policy is lacking. So is evidence of its consequences. Indeed, companies that actually practice abdication of control are rare.”
The attachment to the paternalistic mood that accompanied command and control management is what companies are battling today. This attachment, much like the mythologies of ancient cultures, is more emotional than rational, hence the challenge. Generally speaking, emotion does not yield to reason.
I do not know a company that I have worked for over the past 20 plus years where within hours of my arrival and encouragement of communication someone hasn’t piped up with, “If I said that I’d be fired!” In these very same companies I have heard senior managers lament that lack of passion and innovation from the ranks of non-managers and never make the connection between their complaint and the web of constraints they demand be followed.
Good for our three guys from the HBR article above. They do provide anecdotal and factual information about two companies they have worked closely with. From their experience, they have concluded this about leadership:
“Furthermore, we’ve found that contrary to what many CEOs assume, leadership is not really about delegating tasks and monitoring results; it is about imbuing the entire workforce with a sense of responsibility for the business.”
While this type of research and analysis provides credence to the idea that applications of democratic principles are legitimate and successful in a management context there is still the question of numbers. As the authors state, “…. Indeed, companies that actually practice abdication of control are rare.”
So, if you are a manager looking to build a culture that invites engagement, real examples are few and far between, meaning there is no road map for success. However, what you have already can only get better. Try some dramatic changes like:
- Listening to your direct reports
- Acting on their suggestions and giving them credit when you do
- Thanking people for what they put into the work and letting them know they are not taken for granted
Not exactly extreme ideas, right? I think you’ll be fine.
But hey, did you see that moon?