During the industrial age, the great entrepreneurs collectively built businesses and business processes that required the minimum amount of thinking from the rank-and-file worker. The assembly line is a classic example of the model for this kind of workplace. The average worker’s work was reduced to a level where thinking was not required, simply rote repetition of action. At that time, people were just happy to have a job. If one follows Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, most people, in those days, were at the point of simply fulfilling the first two levels of needs – body (need for air, food, water, and sex) and security (safety and security, employment). The average worker was content simply to have a job, one that paid him enough to pay the rent, feed himself and her/his family, and did not care too much about what s/he had to do on the job (as long as it wasn’t illegal!)
As the industrial age moved on, through the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, businesses have prospered and grown, employment levels have increased, education levels of workers have increased, standards of living have increased, and so has the general quality of life. Having satisfied their (Maslow’s hierarchical) body and security needs, people moved on to satisfy their social needs (need to find love, need for a sense of belonging, need to join a group). This has been accomplished through marriage, bars, clubs, and interest groups. But something was missing. At the workplace, they were still being treated like mindless zombies, expected to follow orders and nothing else. The social needs were not being met at the workplace. They did not feel like part of a group. This need (along with other reasons) is why workers in the 1920s to 1970s were so willing to join the unions. It provided them with a feeling of belonging because the companies did not foster such emotions. Thankfully, companies have gotten wise to this, and have done a better job of trying to create a feeling of membership. Many companies now organize company parties, social events, and attempt (oftentimes successfully) to create a feeling of belonging for their employees. Today, most workers are having this third tier of their hierarchical needs met.
This now leaves them longing for the next stage of needs to be met. This is the ego stage (the need to feel respected, and give respect, the need to feel empowered). As workers have moved on from one stage of needs to the other, leaders have been called upon to adjust their style of leadership to fit the needs. A company is simply the manifestation of a collection of people’s collective ability to provide a valued product or service. The job of the leader is to create the environment/conditions for the people to be able to do their part in creating this valued product/service. The role of the leader has become more complex than ever before. S/he is still expected to assume responsibility for the success or failure of the business, but now, the workers want to be more empowered. Her/his boss, and her/his customers expect faster and better results each year, yet the workers are no longer willing to accept mindless jobs, simply following orders. The workers want their brains to be used, as well as their bodies. And yet, the accountability of steering and controlling the operation is still with the leader. How does one reconcile the two apparently incompatible wishes?
Today’s leader must develop the skills of a facilitator. The old-style leader understood her/his area, understood her/his goals, planned her/his approach (all in relative seclusion), and then gave out orders. S/he then spent her/his time following up on the orders and complimenting or chastising her/his people as necessary. The new style leader has to spend a greater amount of her/his time getting her/his people to understand the area, communicating the goals with her/his people, and getting them to commit to those goals with him. S/he has to use her/his communication and facilitation skills to get her/his people to help her/him plan how to achieve the goals, and accept responsibility for the parts of the plan. S/he has to make the initial, interim, and final results visible to her/his people, thereby reducing the amount of follow-up that s/he has to do, and increasing the amount of “self-police-ing” that her/his people will do with each other. S/he has to have the skills necessary to be the one facilitating constructive discussion between her/his people in reviewing issues and coming up with commitments, rather than being the one doing all the planning, talking, and chastising.
It has been well documented, in many of the most highly rated “places to work for” companies today, that some of the characteristics they all have in common are that
- the workers understand clearly their role in the success of the company
- the workers are constantly being communicated with on company performance and current issues/resolutions
- the workers all have a means of communicating upward and exchanging ideas on current issues
- the workers feel like they have the ability to “make something happen” in the company
- the workers feel that they are compensated fairly.
Notice that there is nothing in these common characteristics that talks about any particular industry, or having a good strategic plan, or having the highest paid workers, or the plushest offices, or the best-weather locations. Notice that there is nothing in these common characteristics that talks about having the least amount of indirect cost, or having union representation. All that it comes down to, is the ability of leaders to share information regularly with their people in a timely and honest manner, involve them in the decision-making, and give them the tools (and training) to affect the outcome of the operation, and create an environment where success can be defined, planned for, followed up, and celebrated by all. It sounds easy to do. However, the track record of corporations shows that the learning curve for many leaders is still steep.
Some have discounted this approach as too “touchy-feely”. Some have tried it, but simply have not had the communication skills necessary to make it work (they should fire themselves). Some have taken it to the worst extreme; created a workplace similar to the national government, where decisions take 6 months to make, and 18 months to implement. Involving others does not mean abdicating responsibility for a timely and smart decision; it means – involving others. There is nothing wrong with bringing 8-10 people together to help with making a decision, as long as the facilitator puts a time limit upon which they have to come to a consensus. There is nothing wrong with wanting input from everyone in a 3000–employee company; simply pick a representative sample, create a committee, give them the description of the situation and the conditions that must be solved, and a time limit to come up with a plan. And help them through the discussions. And there is nothing wrong, once a decision has been made, with putting time limits by which it must be implemented. And there is definitely nothing wrong with communicating to the group when the implementation is not occurring as planned, and with taking corrective action (even drastic corrective action) when the plan is not being followed, as long as you, the leader, can feel comfortable in communicating the corrective action and justifying it to your people. Many leaders have felt uncomfortable communicating with their people about why, or simply the fact that they did fire one of their workers (or managers). How often have we seen leaders assume the ostrich position (bury their head in the sand) when things get rough, or they have taken a potentially unpopular action! Of all the times when it is crucial to be able to communicate to your people what has been done and why, this is the most crucial. Not everyone has to agree to decisions made (even in a consensus, not everyone will be happy); they just need to understand that there is a method to the apparent madness. Leaders who master this skill – the skill of communication, to be a good facilitator as well as leader – will find success wherever they go. They will be able to attract and keep the best talent in their respective industries, and ultimately, will win in the game of market-share. Because, ultimately, success in business, as in war, as in sport, comes down to having the best people, and inspiring them to work together to achieve a common goal.
Today’s workers are demanding more of their bosses. In the same way as working people had to adjust to new conditions/skills requirements with the arrival of the computer (in the 1980s), or the industrial machine (in the 1900s), so leaders have to adjust now to a different environment and demands. Success in business will go to those who learn and master the new skills the quickest. And as they master it, they would be well advised to review Maslow’s final hierarchy of needs – the need for self-actualization. There will be little time to pat oneself on the back, after fulfilling our workers’ ego needs. They will quickly be looking for the next need to be fulfilled.