Employees’ hidden talent can give wings to an organization. Too often, management itself is the obstacle. Try "unmanaging" people a little.
We don’t merely want employees who meet targets, we want employees who are actively trying to push the organization beyond what it believes it can achieve. We can’t know the full extent of employees’ potential a priori; the only way to find out is to give them free rein, and let talent blossom to its fullest.
It's not difficult to do - here are some simple, concrete ideas to set talent free and unleash its full promise.
Organizations frequently (and well-meaningly) keep employee talent hemmed in. This results in employees who are unhappy, and talent that goes to waste. Behavioral experts (and managers !) have long known that disinterested employees often miss performance targets. As an example, Harvard professor Teresa Amabile reports on a study that shows the estimated lost productivity from disengaged employees for US companies alone to be $300 billion annually.
However, we don’t merely want employees who meet targets; we want employees who are actively trying to push the organization beyond what it believes it can achieve. That hidden talent, if unleashed, can give wings to an organization. Too often, management itself is the obstacle.
Management is, of course, driven by the implicit assumption that people need to be “managed”. The reality is that people also need to be “unmanaged” – or set free.
To be sure, this appears heretical and conflicts with the age-old view of management as controlling, directing and so forth. That view is a vestige of the way corporations were structured in the early industrial era – by borrowing the command and control structure from the military. In the modern organization, relying on "control" to "manage" employee talent is passe.
This should not be taken as a license for anarchy; management is undoubtedly a highly constructive activity. However, management can occasionally be "destructive" too - in the name of achieving set organizational targets, it frequently keeps talent from expressing itself fully. And so gets in the way of organizations achieving greater aspirations. "Unmanaging" people is not the wholesale banishment of all controls; rather it is the selective relaxation of control and authority only where it makes sense to do so. It's not dereliction of managerial duty; it's wieldng managerial authority like a fine conductor's baton to release the creative talents of individuals, bringing forth the sonorous strains of a collective musical Magnum Opus - self-orchestrated, without the benefit of a master composer.
As the simple prescriptions below show, setting talent free does not need a dramatic shift in the way we view or run organizations. The simple, concrete ideas below reflect the fact that people will not give their best if they are given the feeling they need to be controlled and guided every step of the way.
We can’t know the full extent of employees’ potential a priori; the only way to find out is to give them free rein, and let talent blossom to its fullest.
That’s why intrinsic motivators such as pride and the excitement of advancing the organizational mission are far more powerful ways to create a “high-aspiration organization” than control or authority.
Stop behaving as if you have the keys to employees' minds
Despite lip service to the contrary, organizations often expect employees to behave like result-oriented automata (or at least, many employees feel that way – which is almost the same thing !). Use “Soft power” wherever possible – “hard power” sets up resistance (employees can smell it a mile away), and its use can be self-defeating beyond a point; it should be saved for rare and extreme situations, where there’s no choice.
Value those organizational "misfits" - they're the ones most likely to be change catalysts. Once an employee "fits" into the system s/he can never aspire to achieve beyond what the system aspires, and hence can't push the envelope on aspirations.
The view from the trenches is often much clearer than that from the executive suite. Employees can often tell you where you’re going wrong, where the inefficiencies are, or how the organization can structure to capitalize on new opportunities. Newer employees’ fresh perspective is valuable – use that freshness before it’s gone.
Ban two responses to suggestions: “That’ll never work here” and “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work”. These are the biggest culprits that silence people from proposing promising ideas. Every conference room should have a poster that shows these two statements crossed out.
Don’t reward employees for time spent, reward them for the value they create. Particularly for work that can't be measured well (such as knowledge work), people can always find ways to comply with any measure – at the cost of producing mediocre output. If an employee is asked to produce a report or a program in 1 day, s/he can usually comply. But will that be the best report or program? Not likely. Parkinson's law ("Work expands to fill the time available") is certainly true, however the converse is true too: "Work will be compressed to meet any deadline you specify" ! The victim is quality.
Create a friction-free organization that employees find liberating.
Restrictions cause organizational friction and stress people out. Some restrictions may be a result of external obligations or constraints, such as customer needs, investor expectations or regulatory requirements. However many are artifacts of the way we've organized, practices that were once relevant but are now outdated, or were over-engineered in the first place. These are prime candidates to be dissipated.
Remove artificial constraints wherever possible. Employees don’t want to lose touch with their social network while at work. Yet most companies have gone overboard on these, placing restrictions that are often onerous. There’s a need to relax these somewhat, while of course safeguarding company security and confidentiality.
The best talent recognizes no boundaries, and will seek out freedom where it can find it – possibly outside your organization. Actively encourage employees to move across geographical and functional boundaries, so that talent can migrate internally to where it fits best – that’s where the employee will be happiest, and contribute the best.
Every employee should have access to all the knowledge that exists in the organization that’s relevant to their task, wherever and whenever it’s needed. This appears self-evident but is surprisingly rare in practice.
Admitting external talent is vital to continually bring in a fresh perspective. 30% of vacant (or new) leadership positions should be filled thru recruitment from outside the company. The company’s previous successes, as well as aspirations can be strong selling points to attract top talent.
Maintain some slack in management bandwidth particularly at senior levels - to be used in a contingency, and to seize growth opportunities. A substantial representation of younger leaders is desirable; ‘digital natives’ have a more intuitive grasp of technologies that are so vitally changing every aspect of business, and willingness to embrace change.
In empowering employees, don’t be afraid to go where no organization has gone before.
Employees infer how much value you attach to human resources not from words but from actions. Signals can be powerful.
Consider if it’s possible to give employees some rights normally reserved for the company’s “owners”, or shareholders. Let employees vote on important career decisions related to the CEO and Board members (such as nomination, commission paid etc.) - just as shareholders do. Employees can be given a say in some board decisions too.
Allow employees a say (at aggregate level) in their manager’s compensation / bonus decisions; this may mean giving them a view of their manager’s performance appraisal. As far as possible, give them freedom in forming work teams they’re most comfortable with; once jelled, try not to disturb teams.
Employees are often hesitant to use whistleblower and grievance redressal provisions. Publicize quarterly statistics (at a gross level, without revealing identities or situations) on how many complaints were received, and how many were acted upon. This will convince employees the mechanisms actually work and are “safe”.
Rekindle employee pride
Forced to comply with organizational restrictions – some draconian, many unfathomable - many employees become emotionally absent. Get the employee back emotionally. Nobody wants to “snap to grid” – they want to be recognized as the talented individuals they are.
Pride is a very powerful tool. Hark back to previous victories, successes, and challenges well met. Every organization should have a repository of war stories where the organization (or any part of it) demonstrated exemplary courage, tenacity, competitiveness or forthrightness. Such a repository can be a great source to draw inspiration from, particularly in times of challenge or hardship.
Today's employees see themselves as responsible members of society, and organizations need to recognize that. Another way to boost employee pride is to help them contribute to social causes they feel passionately about. Maintain a list of ‘vetted’ social causes with contact details, that employees can refer to quickly locate such opportunities. A clear policy that encourages employees to devote time during / after office hours, how conflicts will be handled etc. will be needed.
Bet on your employees’ ideas – even a few that look crazy
Employees often have good (sometimes crazy !) ideas. However they may seem crazy because you’re viewing them thru the lens of conventional logic that may already be outdated. That crazy idea may just turn out to be the next disruption in your industry.
The natural streak of rebellion that the younger generation possesses, if suppressed, can have bitter consequences; however, giving it constructive expression can be a huge win-win . Have mechanisms that allow ideas to bubble up – good ideas often get spiked by well-meaning naysayers. To encourage innovative ideas , the “ban” mentioned above on responses such as “that’ll never work here” will help. Support the best ideas as entrepreneurial ventures.
Capitalize selectively on the experience of senior employees for these ventures. Enlisting them as mentors will give the fledgling ventures some valuable management talent. The mentor benefits thru exposure to a wider cutting-edge canvas upon which to hone mentoring and innovation management skills. It may also help organizational units imbibe the bold vibrancy of a startup culture that is so vital for innovation to thrive.
And so, to tap the rich vein of latent employee talent, set it free by using these simple, concrete ideas. Not only will this lead to less “wastage” of employee talent and make for happier employees – it will also raise your organization’s aspirations to greater levels.
Watch your employees give wings to your organization, and power it to soar to stratospheric heights you never imagined possible.