“If you treat an individual as he is,” Goethe once wrote, “he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
People rise – and fall – according to the environment and the expectations surrounding them. We know that we become stronger by setting our sights high and pushing beyond our limits. We know that when we expect more of ourselves, we often rise to meet the challenge. Yet we refrain from offering this same challenge to others.
Michelangelo’s warning where “the greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark,” not only applies to our own standards but those that we set for others as well.
How often do we see opportunities to raise expectations but let people stay within their comfort zones?
I’m not suggesting we start offering free career advice to the people behind the DMV counter. But within our own companies, do we really expect the best out of people? Or are we allowing people to stay comfortable?
People want to be challenged. They want to work on interesting problems with great people in pursuit of an important mission. And they want the opportunity to make a real difference.
Are we giving them this opportunity? Most managers might say yes. But most employees would disagree.
Lack of Ownership Means a Lack of Opportunity.
“Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.” – Pat Summitt, Reach for the Summit
The most frequent complaint I hear from managers is that their employees “lack ownership.” And one of the most common complaints from employees is they have limited authority and control over their work.
Managers want employees to take more ownership. Employees want more ownership. So why is this so difficult?
Because as much as management may claim that they want people to take more ownership, their behaviors don’t support it. Look around your company. Most of management’s daily practices promote compliance over independence.
It’s easy to tell people to take more responsibility. But it’s much more difficult to design systems that reinforce it. It’s easy to preach about ownership. But it’s all for naught until managers are willing to give up their own control.
So instead of complaining, managers need to focus on changing their own behaviors. Returning again to Goethe’s insightful words,
“Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image.”
Don’t Be a Hypocrite
“Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.” – Edward Burke
I’ve often felt that the key to being a good manager – not to mention a good parent – is to simply not be a hypocrite.
It’s more difficult than it sounds. Or, perhaps we’ve just made it more difficult than it should be.
After all, when most companies train managers on how to manage their people, they do it in a top-down leadership manner. Managers give directions and employees follow those directions.
Except that’s not how most people want to be managed. I know it’s not how I want to be managed.
We pride ourselves on hiring top quality people and then put them in roles where they’re expected to merely do what they’re told. Just follow orders, get your work done, and maybe someday you’ll be the person who gets to make the decisions.
We put people in positions that are designed around compliance and then complain that they don’t take ownership.
Is it any wonder that 70% of our workforce is disengaged? Is it any wonder that people don’t actively seize opportunities for more responsibility?
The World No Longer Values Mere Compliance
“The compliant masses don’t help so much when you don’t know what to do next.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin
This outdated method of leadership worked for a long time. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations tells us the optimal way to run a factory is to break production into minute tasks that can be executed through simple instructions.
For centuries, factory owners could maximize profits by hiring cheap labor that could reliably produce along assembly lines. In this model, productivity could be driven by a few decisions at the top while everyone else compliantly carried them out.
Except the world no longer works this way. Automation and outsourcing have made many jobs irrelevant and continue to claim more every day. Companies can no longer thrive by relying on mere compliance. Seth’s insightful words on Tim Ferriss’s podcast, “we can’t out-obedience the competition,” ring more true than ever.
In today’s world, companies need to rely on independent thought and creativity to maintain a competitive edge. Try telling someone to “create” on demand or “innovate” per the “innovation procedure.” It would be like giving someone an order to laugh on demand.
This can only happen when employees take ownership for their work. And to do this, we need to put them in positions to make meaningful decisions and take real control over their responsibilities. As Seth Godin put it,
“When work becomes personal, your customers and coworkers are more connected and happier. And that creates even more value.”
Who’s Responsible? Who has Control?
“The first step in changing the genetic code of any organization or system is delegating control, or decision-making authority, as much as is comfortable, and then adding a pinch more.” – Captain L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!
The question of control often comes down to the simple decision of who’s responsible. Who is ultimately responsible for the outcome of each decision? Is it the people who we entrust to actually do the work? Or is it someone higher in the organization?
When I talk with new managers, one of my first pieces of advice is to “delegate or drown.” Holding all decision-making authority at the management level is a guaranteed way to create bottlenecks, breed dissent, and push the bounds of your sanity. The alternative is to figure out which responsibilities can be entrusted throughout the workforce and give them the opportunity to take that ownership.
Consider all of the decisions that your company management makes. Which decisions, if pushed down, would help your company to be more effective?
What’s holding you back from delegating those areas?
I understand the hesitation. Delegating our authority doesn’t diminish our own responsibility. If something goes wrong, we’re still on the hook. In many ways, it feels like it’s adding another liability to an already full plate.
But people can’t grow unless we give them this opportunity. And then trust them with it. As Theodore Roosevelt once said,
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
Don’t hesitate to let people rise to meet your expectations. I’ve found that Amanda Palmer’s TED assertion “when you trust people to help you, they often do,” is true much more often than not.
Where can you delegate control? Where can you help create more ownership? And what do you need to do to make sure people are prepared to handle this responsibility?
Control Requires Competence and Clarity
“If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people do look forward to coming to work in the morning.” – John Mackey, Whole Foods
Few managers wake up in the morning and wonder how they’ll actively stifle engagement with their employees.
Most managers want to build this ownership. They want to develop their people to take more responsibility. Yet they’re caught between the desire to offer more freedom and the need to maintain operational discipline.
In Turn the Ship Around, Captain L. David Marquet struggles with this same problem, except instead of an organization, he’s trying to change the culture on a nuclear submarine. And through the process of encouraging his sailors to take more control, he realized that it only works if you give them the tools to do it successfully. In his words,
“Control, we discovered, only works with a competent workforce that understands the organization’s purpose. Hence, as control is divested, both technical competence and organizational clarity need to be strengthened.”
These same areas, competence and clarity, are recurring reasons why managers don’t delegate more work. Repeatedly, they’re the rationale for management’s continued involvement in the daily decisions.
So if we want to encourage people to take more ownership, first we need to address these areas. And give people the tools they need to not only take control, but also do it successfully.
Competence – Do People Have the Technical Knowledge Needed?
“As authority is delegated, technical knowledge at all levels takes on a greater importance. There is an extra burden for technical competence.” – Captain L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!
The other day I was walking around in the construction areas outside of LaGuardia Airport, trying to make my way to a rental car company. A large group of people started following me, assuming that I knew where I was going. I didn’t.
Soon people were frustrated that I led them into an apparent dead-end and ultimately a half-hour detour. They had delegated their navigational responsibility to a guy who had no idea where he was going. And it didn’t work out well for them.
Before we can give control to people, we need to make sure they have the technical competence necessary to make these decisions responsibly. So ask yourself, what do people need to know to make these decisions?
Most companies have training programs. But few design them around the competence necessary to encourage improved decision-making. Which is really the only purpose for training at all.
This doesn’t mean we need to have more lectures. More PowerPoint presentations are rarely the answer.
But great companies never stop learning. They leverage today’s work to generate tomorrow’s experts and focus on building competence every day. And when people have the opportunity to learn new skills that empower their decision-making, they’re engaged and more willing to learn.
What competencies do your people need to help them make better decisions? And how can you help them develop these skills in their daily responsibilities?
Clarity – Do People Understand the Why?
“As more decision-making authority is pushed down the chain of command, it becomes increasingly important that everyone throughout the organization understands what the organization is about.” – Captain L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!
Go in most companies and you’ll find a list of guiding principles on the wall. And then ask some employees at the company to discuss what they mean to them. They’ll either (a) give some canned definitions of integrity, excellence, and teamwork or (b) describe how these principles drive their daily responsibilities.
Every decision that people make is based on a set of criteria. Regardless of the decision’s significance, we all have an internal prioritization that we run through, sometimes without even realizing it.
Traditional top-down leadership cultures entrust management with this criteria. Management is expected to set the mission and design job roles. When management is the only one with the vision and knowledge of the company’s goals, they’re the only ones poised to make significant decisions. And as a result, management maintains the control.
The alternative is to communicate this information throughout the organization. To make it so familiar and known that employees are equipped to make their own decisions that align with the company’s goals.
One company took this view to the extreme. Morning Star Company, the largest tomato processor in the world, operates completely without bosses. In what sounds like a tremendous culture, employees see the mission as their boss. Each employee develops personal plans for how they’ll advance the company’s goals. They actively discuss these with their coworkers and hold each other accountable to high performance standards.
Whereas most company’s employees are unaware of the detailed company goals and strategies, Morning Star’s owner Chris Rufer actively shares these details with everyone. The more information they have, the better they can develop plans to advance the company’s goals.
I’m not suggesting that we fire all of our company’s managers. Google and other companies have tried this practice to near disastrous results. But we can all benefit from the increased clarity that Morning Star offers its employees. If every employee knew the company’s strategy and goals, how much better positioned would they be to advance those plans?
How can you share these decision-making criteria? Where can you help employees better understand the company’s mission and principles? Because in the words of James Stockdale,
“Great leaders gain authority by giving it away.”
Who Do You Want to Have Control?
“Would your organization be more successful if your employees were more obedient? Or, consider for a second: would you be more successful if your employees were more artistic, motivated, connected, aware, passionate, and genuine? You can’t have both, of course.” – Seth Godin, Linchpin
Where do you want control to reside in your company? Or maybe another way of considering that question is – who do you want making the best decisions possible to drive your company forward?
The top layer of management? Or everyone who shows up everyday, looking to advance the company’s goals?
Our people are up to the challenge. They’re looking for more authority, more control, and more opportunities to be influential.
It’s our job to help them reach that potential. Which means being on their side, giving them authority, and giving them the tools and preparation to succeed.
Which decisions can you delegate throughout your organization? What needs to happen so that employees are in the best position to make those decisions?
It doesn’t need to happen all at once. Commit to making a small change tomorrow. And build on it for the next day.
Just start. Because true leadership is about helping people reach their potential. And the truly indispensable leader isn’t the one who makes the best decisions. It’s the one who develops people that make them.