Yes, Houston, We Do Have a Problem
But unlike Apollo XIII, it is not an oxygen problem. We know that the problem is low worker morale, lost faith in the bureaucracy, and failure to take innovative actions to improve management practices. Over the years, we have surveyed Fortune 500 companies about their human resource practices (Stephan, Ralphs, Mills, and Pace). In our last survey of 300 managers, the most frequently reported difficulties they experienced were motivating workers to take more responsibility for their jobs, taking care of customers, making prudent decisions, being more innovative, and correcting mistakes without running to the boss for advice and direction on every issue.
Managers reported that they felt like they had to overmanage just to keep everyone going. But the more managers managed, the less initiative employees took. Inadvertently, managers found themselves worrying more and working harder and longer trying to meet productivity and efficiency goals. The managers found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle they hated. The more they managed, the less enthusiastic the employees were about using their own brainpower. The ultimate irony of all of this is that managers frequently feel just as frustrated as the employees.
Fortunately, because managers play such an important role in the lives of workers and are the single greatest influence on the job performance and satisfaction of workers, managers can pretty much clean up this mess by helping workers take more responsibility for winding themselves up each day and feeling more confident about making valuable contributions to the organization's success. You, as the manager, are the employees' only hope. You can buffer them from much of the organization's chaotic machinations and the accompanying confusion and drudgery at work.
When fellow workers are allowed, encouraged, and enabled to contribute their ideas, hearts, and hands more fully to the success of the organization in which they work, morale goes up, productivity increases, more prudent decisions are made, and collaboration is strengthened. Best of all, your efforts to help employees stand on their own two feet and feel more confident at work will allow you to worry less about what they are doing and spend more time doing what you need to do. And, of course, play a little more golf!
A close friend of ours was just made a senior manager in a large media organization. When he asked the president of the corporation for advice, the president gave him three succinct suggestions: Make a profit. Be honest. And have fun! The new senior officer realized that he could not achieve this interesting mandate by himself. Employees would need to share their ideas, dreams, and hopes in order to make a profit; they would need to have confidence in the company in order to make honest decisions; and they would need to feel more enthusiastic about their work in order to have fun.
His first challenge was to infuse confidence into his fellow workers by eliminating organizational restrictions that might inhibit their best efforts. He didn't waste much time in doing everything he could to show employees that they were free to improve the business.
If you want to fire up your people and get them more involved in sharing their ideas, like our senior management friend, we suggest that you do three things:
First, call a meeting of all employees and explain that they are to try out new ways of doing their work, without fear of penalties for fouling up.
Second, announce a policy that promotions will be based on demonstrated abilities to help and coach other employees.
Third, enthusiastically accept changes in their work and support them in their decisions.
Gradually, you will be able to withdraw from attending meetings where employees are making decisions. The momentum will begin to shift. Teams of employees will take responsibility for managing their own jobs. You will have time to meet with employees, treat them more friendly, and coach them to improve their work. Your life will become simpler as decisions are made closer to the work itself.
The Japanese have a wonderful saying: "Better to have many engines pulling the train than to have one engine pulling the train." Leadership is not for the few anymore, but for the many. Literally tens of thousands of supervisors, managers, and administrators are searching for ways to "spread engine power" among their employees, and at the same time, uncomplicate their own lives as managers. Unlike Apollo XIII, the spacecraft doesn't have to be brought down and relaunched. What you have to do, however, is rethink and retool your present management approach to focus your energies on helping employees seize responsibility for their own work, which will unleash the power of organization members and the workforce.