Companies, communities, families, clubs, and other clumps of humans all have some inherent social dynamics. At a simple level there are leaders and followers, but in reality the lines are rarely as clear as that.
Many leaders, with a common example being some founders, have tremendous vision and imagination, but lack the skills to translate that vision into actionable work. Many followers need structure to their efforts, but are dynamic and creative in the execution. Thus, the social dynamic in organizations needs a little more nuance.
This is where traditional management hierarchies break down in companies. You may have your SVPs, then your VPs, then your Senior Directors, then your Directors, and so on, but in reality most successful companies don’t observe those hierarchies stringently. In many organizations a junior-level employee who has been there for a while can have as much influence and value, if not more, than a brand new SVP.
As such, the dream is that we build organizations with crisp reporting lines but in which all employees feel they have the ability to bring their creativity and ideas to logically influence the scope, work, and culture of the organization.
Houston, we have a problem
Sadly, this is where many organizations run into trouble. It seems to be the same ‘ol story time after time: as the organization grows, the divide between the senior leadership and the folks on the ground widens. Water cooler conversations and bar-side grumblings fuel the fire and resentment, frustrations, and resume-editing often sets in.
So much of this is avoidable though. Of course, there will always be frustration in any organization: this is part and parcel of people working together. Nothing will be perfect, and it shouldn’t be…frustration and conflict can often lead to organizations re-pivoting and taking a new approach. I believe though, that there are a lot of relatively simple things we can do to make organizations feel more engaging.
A big chunk of the problems many organizations face is around influence. More specifically, the problems set in when employees and contributors feel that they no longer have the ability to have a level of influence or impact in an organization, and thus, their work feels more mechanical, is not appreciated, and there is little validation.
Now, influence here is subtle. It is not always about being involved in the decision-making or being in the cool meetings. Some people won’t, and frankly shouldn’t, be involved in certain decisions: when we have too many cooks in the kitchen, you get a mess. Or Arby’s. Choose your preferred mess.
The influence I am referring to here is the ability to feed into the overall culture and to help shape and craft the organization. If we want to build truly successful organizations, we need to create a culture in which the very best ideas and perspectives bubble to the surface. These ideas may come from SVPs or it may come from the dude who empties out the bins.
The point being, if we can figure out a formula in which people can feel they can feed into the culture and help shape it, you will build a stronger sense of belonging and people will stick around longer. A sense of empowerment like this keeps people around for the long haul. When people feel unengaged or pushed to the side, they will take the next shiny opportunity that bubbles up on LinkedIn.
Some Practical Things To Do
So, we get what the challenge ahead is. How do we beat it? Well, while there are many books written on the subject, I believe there are ten simple approaches we can get started with.
You don’t have to execute them in this order (in fact, these are not in any specific order), and you may place different levels of importance in some of them. I do believe though, they are all important. Let’s take a spin through them.
1. Regularly inform
A lack of information is a killer in an organization. If an organization has problems and is working to resolve them, the knowledge and assurance of solving these challenges is of critical importance to share.
In the Seven Habits, Covey talks about the importance of working on Important, and not just Urgent things. In the rush to solve problems we often forget to inform where changes, improvements, and engagement is happening. No one ever cried about getting too much clarity, but the inverse has resulted in a few gin and tonics in an evening.
There are two key types of updates here: informational and engagement. For the former, this is the communication to the wider organization. It is the memo, or if you are more adventurous, the podcast, video presentation, all-hands meeting or otherwise. These updates are useful, but everyone expects them to be very formal, lack specifics, and speak in generalities.
The latter, engagement updates, are within specific teams or with individuals. These should be more specific, and where appropriate, share some of the back-story. This gives a sense of feeling “in” on the story. Careful use of both approaches can do wondrous things to build a sense of engagement to leadership.
2. Be collaborative around the mission and values
Remember that mission statement you wrote and stuck on a web page or plaque somewhere? Yeah, so do we. Looked at it recently? Probably not.
Mission statements are often a broad and ambiguous statement, once written, and mostly forgotten. They are typically drafted by a select group of people, and everyone on the ground in service of that very mission typically feels rather disconnected from it.
Let’s change that. Dig out the mission statement and engage with your organization to bring it up to date. Have an interactive conversation about what people feel the broader goals and opportunities are, and take practical input from people and merge it into the mission. You will end up with a mission that is more specific, more representative, and in which people really felt a part of.
Do the same for your organizational values, code of conduct, and other key documents.
3. Provide opportunities for success
The very best organizations are ones where everyone has the opportunities to bring their creativity to the fold and further our overall mission and goals. The very worst organizations shut their people down because their business card doesn’t have the right thing written on it, or because of a clique of personalities.
We want an environment where everyone has the opportunity to step to the plate. An example of this was when I hired a translations coordinator for my team at Canonical. He did great work so I offered him opportunities to challenge himself and his skills. That same guy filled my shoes when I left the Canonical few years later.
Now, let’s be honest. This is tough. It relies on leaders really knowing their teams. It relies on seeing potential, not just ticked-off work items. If you create a culture though where you can read potential, tap it, and bring it into new projects, it will create an environment in which everyone feels opportunity is around the corner if they work hard.
4. If you Make Plans, Action Them
This is going to sound like a doozy, but it blows me away how much this happens. This is one for the leaders of organizations. Yes, you reading this: this includes you.
If you create a culture in which people can be more engaged, this will invariably result in new plans, ideas, and platforms. When these plans are shared, those people will feel engaged and excited about contributing to the wider team.
If that then goes into a black hole never to be assessed, actioned, or approved, discontentment will set in.
So, if you want to have a culture of engagement, take the time to actually follow up and make sure people can actually do something. Accepting great ideas, agreeing to them, and not following up will merely spark frustration for those who take the initiative to think holistically about the organization.
5. Regularly survey
It never ceases to amaze me how valuable surveys can be. You often have an idea of what you think people have a perspective on, you decide to survey them, and the results are in many cases enlightening.
Well structured surveys are an incredibly useful tool. You don’t need to do any crazy data analysis on these things: you often just need to see the general trends and feedback. It is important in these surveys to to always have a general open-ended question that can gather all feedback that didn’t fit neatly into your question matrix.
Of course, there is a whole science around running great surveys, and some great books to read, but my primary point here is to do them, do them often, and learn-from and action the results.
One final point: surveys will often freak managers out as they will worry about accountability. Don’t treat these worries with a sledgehammer: help them to understand the value of learning from feedback and to embrace a culture in which we constantly improve. This is not about yelling about mistakes, it is about exploring how we improve.
6. Create a thoughtful management culture
OK, that title might sound a little fluffy, but this is a key recommendation.
I learned from an old manager a style of management that I have applied subsequently and that I feel works well.
The idea is simple: when someone joins my team, I tell them that I want to help them in two key ways. Firstly, I want them to be successful in their role, to have all the support they need, to get the answers they need, and to be able to do a great job and enjoy doing it. Most managers focus their efforts here.
What is important is the second area of focus as a manager. I tell my team members that I want to help them be the very best they can be in their career; to support, mentor, and motivate them to not just do a great job here at the organization, but to feel that this time working here was one that was a wider investment in their career.
I believe both of these pledges from a manager are critical. Think about the best managers and teachers you have had: they paid attention to your immediate as well as long-term success.
If you are on an executive team of company, you should demand that your managers provide both of these pledges to their teams. This should be real, not just words, and be authentic.
7. Surprise your staff
This is another one for leaders in an organization.
We are all people and in business we often forget we are people. We all have hobbies, interests, ideas, jokes, stories, experiences to share. When we infuse our organizations with this humanity they feel more real and more engaging.
In any melting pot of an organization, some people will freely share their human side…their past experiences, stories, families, hobbies, favorite movies and bands…but in many cases the more senior up the chain you go, these kinds of human elements become isolated and shared with people who have a similar rank in the organization. This creates leadership cliques.
On many cases, seeing leaders surprise their staff and be relaxed, open, and engaging, can send remarkably positive messages. It shows the human side of someone who may be primarily experienced by staff as merely giving directives and reviewing performance. Remember, folks, we are all animals.
8. Set expectations
Setting expectations is a key thing in many successful projects. Invariably though, we often think about the expectations of consumers of our work; stakeholders, customers, partners etc.
It is equally important to set expectations with our teams that we welcome input, ideas, and perspectives for how the team and the wider organization works.
I like to make this bluntly clear to anyone I work with: I want all feedback, even if that feedback is deeply critical of my or the work I am doing. I would rather have an uncomfortable conversation and be able to tend to those concerns, than never to hear them in the first place and keep screwing up.
Thus, even if you think it is well understood that feedback and engagement is welcome, make it bluntly clear, from the top level and throughout the ranks that this is not only welcome, but critical for success.
9. Focus on creativity and collaboration
I hated writing that title. It sounds so buzzwordy, but it is an important point. The most successful organizations are ones that feel creative and collaborative, and where people have the ability to explore new ideas.
Covey talks about the importance of synergy and that working with others not only brings the best out of us, but helps us to challenge broken or misaligned assumptions. As such, getting people together to creatively solve problems is not just important for the mission, but also for the wellbeing of the people involved.
As discussed earlier though, we want to infuse specific teams with this, but also create a general culture of collaboration. To do this on a wider level you could have organization-wide discussions, online/offline planning events, incentive competitions and more.
10. Should I stay or should I go?
This is going to be a tough pill to swallow for some founders and leaders, but sometimes you just need to get out the way and let your people do their jobs.
Organizations that are too directed and constrained by leadership, either senior or middle-management, feel restrictive and limiting. Invariably this will quash the creativity and enthusiasm in some staff.
We want to strike a balance where teams are provided the parameters of what success looks like, and then leadership trusts them to succeed within those parameters. Regular gate reviews make perfect sense, but daily whittering over specifics does not.
This means that for some leaders, you just need to get out the way. I learned this bluntly when a member of my team at Canonical told me over a few beers one night that I needed to stop meddling and leave the team alone to get on with a project. They were right: I was worried about my teams delivery and projecting that down by micro-managing them. I gave them the air they needed, and they succeeded.
On the flip side, we also need to ensure leadership is there for support and guidance when needed. Regular check-ins, 1-on-1s, and water-cooler time is a great way to do this in a more comfortable way.
I hope this was useful and if nothing else, provided some ideas for further thinking about how we build organizations where we can tap into the rich chemistry of ideas, creativity, and experience in our wider teams. As usual, feedback is always welcome. Thanks for reading!