From seeing workers as children to be controlled to self-respecting and self-determining adults to trust.
Since the industrial revolution work processes were organized to execute. Control was the keyword in a world of certainty and repetitive tasks. Managers held all the power over workers who needed to obey. Schools shaped individuals to become docile and submissive. It was only 200 years ago, but this mindset seems perennial.
We all know that today’s world has changed, it is volatile and complex. More and more organizations operate in innovation or face unpredictable changes in their processes that command problem-solving. We need a radical transformation on how we organize work. It seems risible when we talk about the paternalism of the industrial era, yet, we all carry elements of this outdated mindset in our expectations. Despite what we think, a majority of us still expect things to be right the first time. Failure is unacceptable and slows the process. It is antinomic to excellence. Higher-ups issue directives for the bottom of the pyramid, which in turn look for direction from supervisors. We prefer groupthink, going along with the majority opinion, rather than risking conflict or speaking up. We prefer the comfort of the predictable, the reassurance of order rather than trusting people we don’t know, solving problems despite divergent views, and taking decisions without certainty.
From execution to learning
t is so comfortable to see work like well-oiled machinery where all the pieces fit perfectly and on time. It is reassuring to see workers as a robot applying correctly and on time the tasks ordered. In a world fixated on behaviors with a culture of “more”, control is reassuring. Approaching our fast-moving world where technological and geopolitical transformations reshape the workplace is a pure delusion.
The keyword of this new era is “learning.” As the world is so complex and volatile, we can’t be prepared, we can only learn from actions and execution. To make that happen, we need to team up to add many skills and perspectives to a task force and iterate as we go. It is the foundation of the gig industry when one day you will be working with Pete and the other with Paula. Leaders need to trust those they lead, even though they don’t know them, or even dislike them. Let’s review a basic situation: you are a leader, and you have to ask your staff to do a mind-numbing task of data-collecting for a report. Or you could ask an employee to remove the trash from the restaurants’ bins every hour. This is the old mindset of command and control. A leader aware of the new ways of working will entrust the staff with the delivery of a report to support a proposal, trusting the individual will figure it out. Or the employe to keep the restaurant clean of trash. Even though there will be missteps, trust and respect create an environment where learning can happen. Organizing to learn is the only way of evolving in spite of uncertainty.
Comfort of control versus trust and knowledge
When you talk to managers, even millennials, asking them to trust employees is akin drinking antifreeze every morning; it is unimaginable! When you cling on authority and hierarchy in a world where knowledge moves at a speed of light, you end up with the disorder. No one knows what to do, who to ask for clarification, and performance recedes to a halt. If you don’t want to end up burned out, you need to rely on people to get the work done. Our world calls for workers who dare to experiment, who are solution-minded, thinking on their feet in the absence of rules, adapt while respecting the spirit of the company and the level of quality.
When control was primal, knowledge was withheld by managers. It was power. Today, knowledge needs to flow smoothly in real-time to adapt to unpredictable changes. Workers need to access knowledge to think on their feet and find a solution on the spot. They also need to work in a coordinated manner. To be able to trust this new process, leaders and workers need to integrate and use new interpersonal skills:
- Collecting, sharing, and analyzing information
- Asking and reflecting on feedback from co-workers, users, customers
- Active experimentation by iterating a solution and reflecting on its adequacy
- Adapting what needs to change
- Asking questions and seeking help
- Talking about mistakes and learning from them
The key is to see workers as adults, caring for the well-being of the company and the clients. When you see employees as responsible adults, they will be more than happy to prove you right.