It was Peter Drucker who first coined the expression, ‘knowledge worker’ � and that was back in the 1960’s! Today it has become a cliche to talk about business as being in the ‘knowledge era’ and that the greatest knowledge available in any business, is spread throughout the many minds that make up that enterprise. While many leaders will nod their heads in agreement with this notion, most by their very actions, will squeeze any potential life out of the patient.
Although individuals in leadership, those at the top of an organisation, might discover what is good for an organisation, contrary to centuries of perceived wisdom they will never discover what is best.
The reason is simple. It is because, as the saying goes, nobody is as smart as everybody.
It was Peter Drucker who first coined the expression, ‘knowledge worker’ � and that was back in the 1960’s! Today it has become a cliche to talk about business as being in the ‘knowledge era’ and that the greatest knowledge available in any business, is spread throughout the many minds that make up that enterprise. While many leaders will nod their heads in agreement with this notion, most by their very actions, will squeeze any potential life out of the patient. ‘Participative management’ has become a popular buzzword in management circles yet in my experience the concept of what is meant by ‘participation’ is more often than not severely restricted and limited. At its worst it becomes a straight jacket for those who merely echo the boss’ opinions.
So how then do those entrusted with leadership ensure that they never stop at good when best is waiting just around the corner?
Firstly, they need to really believe that nobody is a smart as everybody and be willing to risk testing this out. In other words, ‘live it out’ as an attitude from which tangible actions flow. How often do leaders make decisions that impact others without ever consulting them and canvassing their opinions? At this point I can just imagine some rolling their eyes and thinking, ‚Another Wise Guy, if you only knew‌‛ however, stay with me here. There are times when all the right structures, procedures and processes are in place and the leaders defence council can impressively elaborate on all these mechanisms that would seemingly indicate that every possible effort has been made to solicit the opinions of others. However, often some deeper digging reveals staff who, in spite of all this, feel unheard, alienated or who failed to really contribute to the conversation. There are times, in mitigation of leadership, where sincere efforts have been made, and it is not uncommon to hear leaders express the real frustration that, ‚having been given the chance to contribute, nobody did‛. Rather than retreating at this point or shifting the blame, something many leaders do, going further and asking why this is so, becomes the critical first step to discovering best.
There are a number of possible reasons for this muted response. It could be due to cultural misunderstandings; the organisations’ own unique culture; the perceived or real gap between management and workers; the inconsistent nature of opportunities to participate, something which creates uncertainty � much like the uneven bounce for a batsman on a badly prepared cricket wicket; and even mistrust due to a lack of feedback or broken promises. All of these potential reasons could contribute towards sincere efforts to incorporate others into meaningful decision making ending in disheartening failure.
A starting place for leaders is to get out from behind that imposing desk, descend from the rarefied atmosphere and comforts to which you have grown accustomed, and mingle with those who don’t usually form the mix of your daily business. Sounds simple enough � and it is. Yet so often leaders simply don’t do it, or perhaps just don’t get it? Perhaps there was a time they did, but for most, once they have acclimatized to the thin air that characterizes the upper echelons of corporate life, they find it hard to function back at ‘sea level’.
A case in point was a national conference in which were invited to participate. The conference was attended by the Chairman of the entire group. Both the group and the Chairman are significant players within the South African business context. However the Chairman acted as though the conference was there to serve his reputation and his agenda. Not only did his presence demand restructuring the programme at the 11th hour, but then he was in and out the conference quicker than an English batsman, having originally indicated that he would be present for the entire time. No mingling with the masses for this Chairman! It was a pity because he lost an ideal opportunity to learn, grow and build relationships. His actions exposed his attitude and it was not lost on the general managers present.
Should you think this represents an isolated example, let me share yet another recent incident that I experienced which mirrors the point being made. Once again we had been invited to participate in a conference for an international company of some repute. At a meeting with the Chairman prior to the conference, he had talked about the strong relational aspect of his leadership style, emphasising the steps he had taken to ensure that he was completely approachable for all his staff. It was impressive stuff! Certainly his style behind the podium at the conference was informal and relaxed. However, during the breaks, one couldn’t help but notice how nobody seemed to approach him. I often observed him standing alone whilst elsewhere were dotted groups of smiling, animated staff members obviously enjoying themselves. There certainly seemed to be a yawning chasm between his perception concerning his approachability and the reality of the situation. This ‘gap’ between the leader’s perception and the reality of the situation seems to be a common phenomenon, a ‘blind spot’ that blights the majority of leaders, in spite of their denials to the contrary.
So how does a leader begin to put in place and shape a behaviour that lends credibility to the belief that others have something worthwhile to contribute?
He / she needs be willing to:
“Start conversations and listen.
“Ask questions and remember the answers.
“Give it time and be persistent as at first it will seem stilted and unnatural, because it is.
Some of the questions to ask could include: How long have you been with us? Why do you work here? What is it you enjoy about the work? What don’t you like about working here? What would you like to change? How do you think we could do that? Where do you live? Tell me about your family? What do you think I should be giving attention to? You get the idea‌
Real listening will involve going behind the words spoken, and demand tangible responses. It will certainly reshape some of your agenda. But, as you begin to act on what is sensed and heard, just watch what happens!
Secondly, there is the need to be willing to ‘fail whilst trying’. And not only to encourage experimentation, but reward efforts that result in failure as well as those which result in success. ‚Reward failure?‛ you may ask somewhat incredulously. Yes, you heard correctly, reward failure. If the effort has been one to attempt something new, discover a better way or enhance the value of the business and those involved, then such efforts deserve recognition not censure. Encouraging genuine participation means creating an environment free of the fear of failure. It is deliberately creating a zone in which the fear factor is not present and one in which staff (and clients / customers / suppliers etc‌) can share their ideas, express themselves and have some sort of discretion to discover new and better ways. How best to incorporate this into the very DNA of your business would depend on the business you are in and your own particular environment. 3M have done some work in this regard, including their renowned Failures Forum where opportunity is provided for staff to share what ‘hasn’t worked’. It was out of this forum that the Post-it note emerged, a product that significantly impacted 3M.
There are two obvious benefits to flow out of authentic participation. Firstly, it creates ownership. Any smart leader knows that when those both inside and outside the business have a sense of ownership, then the business is likely to enjoy good health. In fact, the sense of ownership is directly proportionate to the degree of policing or controlling needed. When those involved feel as though it is ‘their business,’ issues relating to motivation, discipline, security and control slide off the main page of the leader’s agenda � and I know many a CEO who would be grateful to see the back of those items on his / her agenda! This is as true for any business leader as it is for a parent in the area of raising children. Both are a process and not instantaneous. Both require the leader / parent to see the ‘big picture’ and actively and intentionally work towards achieving the desired state. Both will encounter set-backs and disappointments along the way. Both will learn not to play to the applause or the jeers that are certain to mark the journey. Both will produce results desired by some and envied by others.
Secondly, authentic participation leads to innovation. As those surrounding the business share their perceptions and are allowed to participate in working towards finding better ways to do things, genuine innovation will occur. Participation and freedom to fail are the very soil from which innovation grows. How often have I heard leaders express the desire for innovation within their business but who remain unwilling, or unable to create the type of environment in which innovation can thrive. In the times in which we live it is the ability to adapt, to innovate, to change, that will ensure survival. It is not about ‚survival of the fittest‛ � a phrase first coined by sociologist Herbert Spencer, but rather about the ability to adapt and evolve. The ability to do this requires businesses to give attention to intentionally developing their innovative muscle. One motivation for doing this is then very real possibility that the core of what constitutes your business may simply not exist in 10 years time!
Best beats good every time! Now go out and do your best‌start by looking for someone to talk with and listen hard! I can just imagine it‌someone who routinely crosses your part but who you have never really acknowledged, gets home tonight and says to his / her spouse, ‚Honey, you’ll never guess what happened to me today‌‛
Go ahead, make their day‌it will make your future.

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