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People Are The Missing Ingredient

How Can We Better Include People In Our Decision Making?

Contributor: Derek Park
Posted: 06/23/2011
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How Can We Better Include People In Our Decision Making?

The most important job of a manager is to make sure that their staff work on the right things. However people often work on the wrong things simply because that is what their managers tell them to do. Ironically staff often know what these ‘right things’ are so the question is, ‘How can managers routinely access this knowledge for the benefit of the business?’

We often overlook the contribution our people can make to the business improvement. If there is one thing that we should be encouraging it is better engagement between managers and staff. Employee engagement is extremely sensitive to our style of management, so what can we do today to help people help our business?

There is no arguing with the fact that a manager’s job is to be in charge. Real emergencies demand a military style ‘obey orders’ type of response because in these situations there can be only one person in charge. There are also issues that so obviously need to be addressed that a manager should not tolerate discussion and just make sure they are done. Yes, there is still a need for some degree of command and control but it should be recognised that it is not the best way to better business performance.

If ever there was a time when we should be taking full advantage of the contribution of our staff, it is in the current economic climate. Sadly it appears that today, people are less likely to be involved in the decision making process. Many organisations who like to think they have an inclusive management style often have an approach to people based on the need to reduce numbers, or at best regard them as a commodity to be bought at the lowest price. This marks a trend away from employee engagement and is something to guard against.

The first step towards effective staff engagement is to recognise that the overwhelming majority of people want to do a good job and enjoy their time at work. They are eager to contribute and the best way of having this happen is for management to routinely draw on their local knowledge. This is not some touchy-feely arrangement but a cold-blooded management style which recognises that a premium contribution from staff is often the ingredient missing from premium business performance.

Too often, staff only become involved with change when they are force fed programmes developed by others. Such programmes are usually hugely expensive, disregarding local knowledge and meaningful input from frontline staff. This amounts to a missed opportunity to capitalise skills which could deliver a sustainable advantage over competitors for a fraction of the cost. We seem to prefer to spend months and millions on analysis rather than minutes engaging with our people.

So what could we do differently, right now, to encourage staff engagement? If it is so easy then what stops us? What are the barriers that prevent us from accessing this sustainable engine for change?

The first thing to guard against is half-hearted engagement. Unenthusiastic managers sometimes treat engagement as something that can be achieved via the suggestion box or the employee survey. They pay lip service to ideas from staff who in turn become frustrated because nothing ever really changes. Successful employee engagement demands something much more comprehensive. Managers’ responsibilities are not discharged by an annual staff survey; they need to always be aware of opportunities for dialogue.

Paradoxically, there are people who are very comfortable with the old ‘command and control’ regime because in many ways it is less demanding. They try to protect the status quo by reacting against a manager who is trying to be more inclusive. Their attitude may be ‘the boss is the boss and we will just follow instructions, even if we know they are wrong’. They may even inwardly celebrate a failure which they know could easily have been avoided.

Staff may feel that they always have to ‘look busy’. If they feel this way then they are unlikely to be thinking about working more effectively. The question is, are they working on stuff that matters or just on stuff that makes them look busy? We all know people who hang around until the boss has gone home merely because they think that that is how they will be judged. If managers do judge them in this way then little will change and opportunities to improve will be lost.

In a similar vein some managers are suspicious of people who do their job easily and this can lead to staff padding out their activities. An opportunity is missed to have these people take on a more demanding role which will be of benefit to them and to the business. This just will not happen if staff feel that any engagement with the boss will result in them being regarded as under performing or inadequate.

We have even seen managers of successful, empowered teams who fail to see or understand the reasons for success. In the quest for change of any kind they can destroy what is good. Change is vital but we should remember that it is not an end in itself; bad change is worse than no change. Remember that the key consideration for a manager is not gratuitous change but rather change which results in people working on the things that will make a difference.

Managers who engage with staff should be aware of those who may see an opportunity to offload some of their workload onto their manager. Leaders must not be afraid to say no and tell staff to do the job themselves. Engagement is certainly not about having staff do less and managers do more. It is surprising how many otherwise strong managers are spending significant time on tasks which have been unjustifiably offloaded from below.

In short, managers must develop the skill of ensuring that their staff really are working on the things that matter. Management and staff need to feel comfortable in asking for each other’s help. Managers do not know everything and unless they are able to learn from the knowledge and experience of their people they will direct them to work on the wrong things. Having people routinely work on the right things can only come if the organisation, and management who run it, foster deep engagement at all levels of the workforce.

There numerous examples of organisations who have transformed the way managers and staff interact. They have learnt the importance of not only engaging vertically but also across the functions of the business. Employees routinely discuss and act on improvements that can only be achieved by pooling knowledge and skills. This kind of activity builds continuous improvement into the lower levels of an organisation, complementing the strategic or ‘top down’ approach which can sometimes falter if staff feel that there is nothing in it for them.

Attitudes start to change as people begin to feel part of a well run organisation, fully engaged and talking in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ when they refer to the business improvement process.

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Contributor: Derek Park