Stop managing and start collaborating
We all remember Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ term from our university days or a business context. According to this theory, if consumers are given the right to select products freely and sellers can decide what they produce and sell, the economy will settle on patterns and prices that benefit the community as a whole. In such a self-regulating market, Smith argued, there would be no or little need for government intervention.
Can this 18th Century economic theory be applied to the modern workplace? In some ways, I think it could. Although Smith’s words were written over 200 years ago, I’m somewhat reminded of them whenever I hear about the need for ‘employee empowerment’ or ‘peer-to-peer learning’. Forward-thinking organisations are already shifting towards a dynamic, team-based work approach with flat hierarchies and away from an autocratic management style. I’m not suggesting that managers slam their office doors and leave employees to sort themselves out, hoping the Invisible ‘managerial’ Hand will somehow take care of things. It’s not that simple.
Today’s working generation does not expect to be supervised and told what to do by a manager from 9 to 5. In fact, sticking to fixed working hours has become almost impossible, since employees can easily work from home, on business travel or have to shift their schedules to suit other time zones when working with colleagues from overseas. And this possibility for employees to handle their own workload and schedule is a form of autonomy in itself.
Another area that is changing rapidly is L&D. The digital revolution allows our staff to acquire and share knowledge through mobile devices from virtually anywhere in the world. Corporate MOOCs, learning apps and virtual classroom sessions have become the norm. Early results from our annual HR and L&D survey show that 93 per cent of organisations have already implemented some form of e-learning. Furthermore, the top e-learning benefit that HR and L&D managers have registered for their workforce is ‘flexibility and instant accessibility’ (56 per cent). Ultimately, this flexibility is what will drive our employees’ sense of empowerment. Instead of passively receiving information and exercises from a teacher, staff members are now encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and collaborate with their peers in transferring skills and knowledge. In the light of ever-tightening training budgets and a general skills shortage on the market, this could be exactly the approach we need.
Nobody said it was easy
So where does this leave management? The growing buzz around peer-to-peer learning and working habits suggests that firms need to start decentralising their decision-making processes and move towards technologies that facilitate employee empowerment and communication. Hierarchical silos are being removed and instead, networked learning is on the rise. This new scenario requires leaders to display very different kinds of skills compared to just 10 or 20 years ago. But are they ready for this?
According to a recent study by the APQC[i], there is a significant gap between the soft skills leaders need for success and those they actually possess. For example, 61 per cent agreed that emotional intelligence is crucial for good leadership and business success, but just 32 per cent believed their organisation’s leaders actually have emotional intelligence. 72 per cent rated collaboration as a vital skill, yet only 52 per cent thought their leaders possessed it. This is worrying, but with some practical approaches, managers can start to acquire the skills they need to foster a more collaborative working environment.
Whether a manager is working on a project, giving feedback or learning, there needs to be a shift in behaviour and attitude. Two-way processes are the way forward. Instead of just disseminating information, leaders must be prepared to learn new things themselves, even if it’s from somebody less senior to them. Moreover, the appraisal should be a chance for employees to express what they like or dislike about their role and working environment, instead of just receiving feedback on their own work. Employees should also be given the feeling that they are trusted to manage their own learning and work in teams without being supervised all the time. It may be challenging at first, but building a culture of open communication and collaboration will create true engagement and give your best talent a reason to stay and make your business flourish.
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