As business continues to expand the use of workteams, the need to enhance leadership skills to guide them becomes of paramount importance. Leadership of a highly involved, empowered workforce contrasts sharply with the command and control structures of hierarchical systems. In my almost 20 years working with these concepts, I don’t think that we have fully grasped even now the enormity of the transition.
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, many supervisors and managers sat quietly by, watching to see if this powerful trend was yet another management fad that would soon pass. It didn’t. In fact, as technology propelled the business engine faster, the need for front-line people to assume more responsibility for day-to-day operations became a given.
Too many organizations, however, have not appreciated the enormity of this change and have attempted to inject involvement and empowerment concepts without properly preparing the leadership. Consequently, most change efforts fall short of their mark.
Negative Perceptions of New Work
Many managers and supervisors reared in the traditional system perceive involvement and empowerment as “coddling” workers and, perhaps more important, lessening control of the work. They also perceive it as “giving up” power and authority, a notion that creates significant discomfort.
These leaders also struggle with their role in the new system. The manager was promoted based upon skills and abilities relating to command and control. Now the needed skills are shifting dramatically in the new systems. Metaphorically, the manager was asked to “play the trumpet” during his career, but is now being asked to “play the piano.” The change is significant.
In the absence of other input, they see more negatives associated with this role change than positives. In 1984, then again in 1990, Dr. Janice Klein of the Harvard Business School and and Dr.
Pamela Posey, formerly of the University of Vermont, studied front-line management perceptions of employee involvement and empowerment. In both studies, most saw these as positives for the company and front-line workers, but only one-third saw the concepts as positive for themselves. That says that two-thirds of the front-line management perceived more negatives.
First Steps to Changing Attitudes
Recognizing this, we need to take steps to help this group of important people break through the barriers to their full participation.
First, senior management should delegate new work to the next level, and each level should do the same. Delegation of work in an empowered workplace is not just from front-line supervision to worker, but at all levels. As middle managers see new, more important work coming their way, the fears associated with “job security” begin to subside.
Second, it is important to help front-line management see the real benefits of involvement and empowerment for themselves. In the trade, we call this the “What’s In It For Me” or “WIIFM” technique. It has been proven many times that moving involvement, empowerment and responsibility to the front lines begins to free up time for those above. So in my sessions with these leaders I simply ask the question “What would you do if you had an extra 2 hours in your workday?” Then I write everything they say on a flip chart. After about 10-12 items are listed, the resistance behavior begins to subside and new energy emerges. The list looks something like this: