Increasingly over the years, I have witnessed more companies racking their collective HR brains trying to figure out how to best engage their employees to perform at a high level.
Well, put the foosball tables, climbing walls, and nap pods away. Culture is king in shaping employee engagement, and it doesn't come from external perks commonly found in tech-startups, but by leaders that build the emotional commodity of trust with their employees.
First step: stop "driving" people
That means changing your business lingo. I hear a lot of ego-tripping language about how leaders "drive" performance. It's a popular word in business, an aggressive and celebrated hard people skill of bottom-liners, and it works. It also ruins the health and well-being of both bosses and employees driving themselves into the ground. There is a better way.
The reality is that over the last decade, leadership cultures have changed. And "driving" no longer has a place in open, people-centric, democratic work cultures where employees are valued and have a voice.
If you think about it, we drive cattle, cars and trucks, but they have no say because we're in charge. We push them through, steer them where we want them to go, and that's the opposite of what good leadership is about.
Good leaders lead from the heart -- inspiring people into action and encouraging high performance -- not drive them like cattle to the slaughter house.
Why so many bosses fail or quit, summed up in one sentence
The reason either scenario happens so often is because they neglect to share their leadership with others.
The rare practice of "sharing leadership" is the way good leaders go about developing a strong culture of trust. Yet it's totally counter-intuitive and a severe blind spot for most controlling, status- and attention-seeking bosses, leading to their quick demise.
For them, the inability to share leadership has roots in both fear and ego: fear of failure if they release control, and a false ego to hide their insecurity.
Lets unpack what sharing leadership looks like in practice:
- They facilitate a shared vision.
- They share power and release control
- They share leadership by pushing authority down.
1. Facilitate a shared vision
Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes, co-authors of the bestselling book, The Leadership Challenge, have surveyed tens of thousands of employees about what they look for and admire in a leader. 72 percent want leaders who are forward-looking. In other words, they want vision.
But even more important than a visionary leader is one who reflects the visions and aspirations of their people. These leaders provide answers to three questions:
- Where are we going?
- Why do we exist?
- What principles guide our decisions and actions?
When a vision addresses all three of these questions, tremendous energy is unleashed to a team. There is going to be a higher level of commitment because everyone on the team is clear about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how their work contributes to the bigger picture.
These leaders communicate an image of the future for their team members that draws them in and speaks to what they see and feel. But they don't drive the vision forcefully. They encourage team members to contribute their ideas and insights toward the vision.
2. Share power and release control.
Unlike command-and-control leaders who exercise their power through their positional authority, power and control in democratic teams come from the whole -- generated by the enthusiasm, respect, shared values, and commitment the whole team has to a specific project, task, or strategy. And the leader sets the stage for this to happen.
Here's what these leaders do that most don't or fear doing: They let their people take turns leading. I worked for such a leader back in my corporate days over ten years ago. Here are some clear-cut examples of how he shared his leadership:
- Made me feel like an equal by giving me decision-making freedom.
- Was approachable and spent considerable time mentoring and guiding me.
- Asked me coaching questions like, "What would you like to do in this situation?" to increase my learning.
- Stretched my development and built up up my competence by putting me in places and positions usually reserved for his role. (Ex: He rotated me ahead of schedule into a prestigious committee chair role he held for years)
By all accounts, I was very much accountable to him, he was still the boss, but I remember how much more satisfied and engaged I was than any previous job because he shared his leadership.
3. Push authority down.
Everybody is familiar with the leader-follower structure in a top down culture. It's still the prevalent way that most companies operate. What's appealing about this is that it takes responsibility away from followers with a brain to think on their own.
The issue here is crystal clear: Employees are released from any responsibility of the hard work of thinking, making decisions, and being accountable because they only go as far as doing the bare minimum -- following orders from the boss.
This programmed mindset of only doing what the boss tells you has a cost. People who are treated as followers end up treating others as followers when it's their turn to lead. As the cycle repeats itself, companies lose out on tapping into the human potential of their workforce.
In highly effective organizations there are leaders at every level, not just at the top. The solution is always to push authority down, so you're creating a leader-leader, not leader-follower, culture.
The first order of priority in pushing decision making authority down to your team members is to increase their competence. What do they need to get good at their job? What training will build up their skills and knowledge?
The result of increased competence, technical or otherwise, is the ability to delegate more control and authority down the ranks because they are now equipped to handle it. This is what good leaders recognize and do.
Hard questions to ask
Increased decision making among team members down the ranks will naturally result in greater engagement, motivation, and initiative to take on larger tasks and tougher responsibilities. If you're a leader reading this, I assure you, practicing the rare skill of sharing leadership will result in significantly higher productivity, morale and effectiveness.
I end with some hard questions for leaders to reflect on:
- How deeply is the top-down leader-follower structure ingrained in your team or company?
- What can you do to create a space for open decision making by the entire team?
- Are you under-using the creativity and passion of your team members who want to have more responsibility?