Baldrige Winner Continues To Grow
Events: Two Weeks To Dramatic Process Improvement
In the August column I wrote about the doubts and fears I faced as a manager in creating a highly participative workplace. I received some divergent reactions I'd like to share.
One response came from someone who had deep concerns about what I wrote. They advised that if I had doubts (such as, what my role would be in a horizontal organization, whether the time and energy invested in an intervention, was worth it) and didn't express them, I should resign. Buck up, they said, that's the job. If you can't do it, step aside. "If you are a leader, why did you feel trapped?" they asked. But isn't this precisely the box that leaders or managers are trapped in. If they have doubts, by definition, they are seen as not fit for the job.
More sympathetic responses came from some line managers who called me. Two of them used almost the same words. "We have all had these feelings," they said. They related going through similar situations and questioning whether participation would work, whether distribution of power, responsibility and decision making was effective for achieving business results. They were committed to these practices but, at the same time, had doubts they felt inhibited about expressing.
More than that, they related feeling like they were under a microscope. Everything they did was magnified out of proportion. They were responsible for 'role modeling' and feared that expressing their doubts would undermine the process unfolding. As managers attempting to lead differently, they spoke of their staff waiting for them to 'not walk their talk;' that their staff was looking for instances where they could say 'I knew you didn't mean it.' These line managers, like myself, were uncertain as to when to impose rules and hierarchy and when to let 'participation' reign. Are participative processes this fragile? I think they are. The fact is that all of us want to have a 'they.' 'They' created this situation. 'They' are responsible for the problems. The 'theys' allow us to abdicate our accountability - and in doing so diminish the capabilities of 'we.'
Don Heifetz wrote a book entitled "Leadership without Easy Answers." He says managers get reinforced for being the heroic, decisive answer-giver, rather than the question-giver. I think he is right. Most managers I know are trying desperately to do the right thing - for the business and for their staff.
People project onto leaders their wish for strong, perfect parents. When you, as a leader, say you are not perfect or do not have all the answers, you pay the price because you are confronting your staff with their responsibility to choose their own answers. The payoff to staff in keeping you from acknowledging your doubts is that they keep you in your role and they stay in theirs - your are responsible - they react to you. Participation and partnership are not gifts - they are demands.
Every time co-workers get together to talk about how 'nothing will ever change around here,' the status quo and the distance between levels is maintained. Staff members have as much responsibility as managers for creating a participative culture where everyone's talents are maximized and everyone is responsible. Maybe the time has come for organizations to stop expecting that managers alone have to walk the talk.
One of the most meaningful responses, to me, came from an AQP staff person. She asked, with concern, "did you really feel that way? I didn't know that." I found myself saying no, not really, I was exaggerating my feeling to make good copy. The doubts and fears that leaders carry, they often carry alone. The need to have the answers is so strong that it takes great strength to say: "I worry about how real participation will affect me too, but I still think it's worth doing."
Perhaps what we as managers can do is to step forward and acknowledge that we will not always be aware of times we are violating the principles we want to live out and times when we feel for business reasons, hierarchy and rules need to prevail. We can ask our staff to give us the benefit of the doubt and bring up concerns in a public, constructive way.