I can't tell you how many times I've walked into businesses and seen people - okay, the leadership - walking around with their shields up. Don't they remember what it was like to be part of the rank-and-file? Don't they know that their employees have great ideas for how to make things better?
And yet like a Klingon cruiser patrolling the neutral zone, their domineering presence results in people giving them a wide berth. I know it's not always intentional, but this kills creativity and productivity.
For senior managers who believe that workers are trying to get away with as much as possible by doing as little as possible, perhaps - just perhaps - it's how you interact that needs a second look.
It was Demming who gave us the concept of lead-managers (those who truly engage their employees) and bosses (those who 'boss' people around). Writing about these two styles, Dr. William Glasser, author of Choice Theory and Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Dangerous to Your Mental Health, says "Bosses put a damper on creativity. They know how the job should be done and there's only one way: Their way."
He says "Bossed workers tend to pay no attention to their creativity because they know it is not wanted; no one will listen to them anyway. Stifling creativity (which is easily stifled - a derisive look may do it forever) may be the worst effect of bosses."
On the other hand, Glasser points out how lead-managers know that all workers bring creativity to the table. Lead managers look for creativity in workers because they know it brings the worker satisfaction to contribute to the workplace. "They encourage workers to explore and go further with their ideas."
Please allow me to share a few insights I've gathered from when I was teaching management development classes. To clarify, most of that training involved multiple tiers of management within an organization.
First I would work with those leaders and senior managers at the top of an organization. We'd work for a day or two each month for six months. Usually about halfway through or near the end of that time, I would start working with the second tier of managers, teaching the same concepts. This pattern would continue sometimes four and five levels down into an organization.
As you might imagine, most of the top brass believed they fell into the lead-manager category; open to input and ideas, and making themselves available to anyone who wanted to talk.
Curiously, when I started working with the second tier of managers, they also saw themselves as falling into the lead-manager category. But when asked about the level above them, almost all of the second-tier managers saw their leaders as falling into the "boss" category.
And wouldn't you know, this pattern repeated itself throughout all the levels of management. Each group felt they were lead-managers. Yet the next class (their subordinates) pretty much saw those above them as 'bosses'.
Here's the funny thing. I believe that those who see themselves as lead-managers really believe they are valuing employees and fostering creativity. So why do their subordinates not see it?
The answer to that question will be unique for every situation, but I'm going to make one universal generalization: These people may be experts at things technical and financial, but they have not stopped to learn about people.
George D'Iorio, president of Divergent Leader, a company that focuses on performance improvement, says "more often than not, soft skills fade into the background behind technical knowledge, but interpersonal skills can improve productivity and efficiency within and between departments."
Thankfully this truism is starting to take root. Many MBA programs are finally incorporating interpersonal skills classes in their curriculum.
Glasser suggests leaders solicit input and then wait for a period of time before responding. It's a worthy plan. While judging ideas quickly is viewed by many as being good on one's feet, to the people offering suggestions it indicates the idea wasn't given much consideration - so why bother offering any more?
Maybe if we senior managers and leaders start doing more listening than bossing, employee creativity and involvement will re-emerge. Granted, this is not an easy task. I still have to remind myself to slow down and listen.
As I said earlier, it's easy to blame subordinates for lack of creativity and productivity, but bottom line, we may not be as good at engaging our employees as we think we are. If we want to be lead-managers, we've got to make it a priority and genuinely learn how to do it.