To create great workplaces you need great managers

This is a great article from HBR about creating great places to work – in my opinion, one of the most interesting challenges in the workplace for leaders and managers.

The list chimes with most research about motivation: people being engaged in meaningful work, being respected and allowed to focus on what they’re good at … that sort of thing (rather than things like pay, holiday entitlement, and the frequency with which the manager buys donuts on a Friday), but I think the article misses one key point: great managers.

This is implied, but I think needs to be explicit.

To deliver on the six factors they identify, you necessarily need great managers and leaders – but it works the other ways around too. Without great managers, this list becomes hollow, a list of stated ambitions that sound clichéd but don’t change anything – so yes, great list, very worthy, but start with the managers … get that right, and the rest will plop into place with the right guidance.

The HBR List:

1. Let people be themselves.

This isn’t about diversity in the sense of race or gender or whether someone is religious or gay or whatever. Those are important dimensions, of course, but diversity of this kind is a much less obvious thing.

As HBR put it, it’s:

something more subtle — differences in perspectives, habits of mind, and core assumptions

I attended diversity training once.

One role-play included a male character raising his world-weary eyebrow and saying “time of the month” to a haughty female colleague. We had to discuss this scene and see if we could fathom what he’d said wrong.

Another role-play attempted to get closer to the HBR definition, but missed the point. The main character was in hot water with his boss for producing a serious business report in an informal journalistic style. We were supposed to conclude that this was OK because that was “diverse” and therefore A Good Thing, but we just bickered with the trainer about it being perfectly reasonable for an organisation to set standards for outputs (it’s OK to say that a report shouldn’t be journalistic and informal).

Outputs need to be predictable and they need to measure up to quality standards, in many cases there isn’t too much wriggle-room for diversity in the output*, but the inputs – how you get there – is where the fun is. This is the bit that can be left up to each individual to produce the required output in their own way.


2. Unleash the flow of information

This is one of those things that sounds great but needs to be carefully understood.

It’s not about sharing trade secrets and worrying the crap out of the employees by thinking aloud about closing plants and switching strategies; leadership communication needs to be as clear and consistent as ever – and therein lies a potential pitfall. Muddying the clarity of key communications with noise is never a good idea, so it’s vital to get what this point is about, what HBR call “radical honesty“.

This is partly:

that executives should err on the side of transparency far more than their instincts suggest.

Sure, but more importantly, it’s that all employees should be allowed to voice their opinions, doubts, frustrations, their negative off-message thoughts, without fear of being marginalised. This should be seen as a vital part of the open and creative process.

This sort of open and honest multi-way conversation should be the norm – but, there a danger here too. Like any good creative process, it has to be managed and, in some cases, has to have an end point so that clarity can again emerge from the lovely chaotic ambiguity†.


3. Magnify people’s strengths

This is so important, and so annoying when it’s not done properly‡. So often the annual performance review is a discussion of the small number of things you’re doing wrong and how the development plan will seek to rectify these deficiencies.


Sure, sometimes you need that. If you’re a building rockets and you’re not great at calculus, you clearly need some training … but if you’re a great people manager who’s not so hot with budgets, should you really be expending your energy getting slightly less bad at budgets?

If it’s essential to succeeding in the job, maybe yes, but even then the lion’s share of your energy needs to be where you can make the biggest positive difference.

To maximize potential, you focus on the potential – it’s not rocket science, for crying out loud!

Sports teams work like that. A great striker in football spends their time trying to become a better striker, not in becoming a slightly less mediocre defender.


4. Stand for more than shareholder value

People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something they can believe in.

We’ve all heard this before.

It has become commonplace to assert that organizations need shared meaning, and this is surely so. But shared meaning is about more than fulfilling your mission statement — it’s about forging and maintaining powerful connections between personal and organizational values. When you do that, you foster individuality and a strong culture at the same time.

I’m not exactly sure what “forging and maintaining powerful connections between personal and organizational value” means, but it sounds right.

I get the idea but “forging … connections” suggests a dynamic two-way street, whereas most organisations have their values and mission top-down, unchanging and often unchangeable.

I think this point is a little idealistic, and it’s actually less complicated than they make out.

I think it’s about four things:

  1. Do you like what they do? (industry and mission)
  2. Do you like how they do it? (strategy and values)
  3. Do you believe they can do it? (leadership)
  4. Do you mostly like the place? (culture)

If you can tick those boxes, then you’ve found a great place to work!


5. Show how the daily work makes sense

Organisations accumulate tasks and processes that become The Way Things Are Done without ever challenging if they are in fact the best ways of getting things done.

So many tasks are unnecessary, unimportant or just don’t add the value they should, but they’re hard to get rid of. People find comfort in reactively responding to an in-tray and performing a tangible and familiar task to a high standard – they don’t want it taken away! – but that doesn’t mean it’s worth paying someone to do it.

They’re also notoriously difficult to identify and remove. Few tasks are easy to isolate and surgically extract without the surrounding process collapsing – but that doesn’t mean the task is necessary. It just means a whole new process is needed – and as that process is a cog in a bigger wheel, jimmying about with it is going to impact the next bit too … I said it wasn’t easy.


6. Have rules people can believe in

This is another great point! It’s not just about bureaucratic monstrosities that need to tone it down, it’s wacky entrepreneurial organisations that need to learn how to harness the power of good structure without smothering what’s great about them.

Organizations need structure. Markets and enterprises need rules. As successful entrepreneurial businesses grow, they often come to believe that new, complicated processes will undermine their culture. But systematization need not lead to bureaucratization, not if people understand what the rules are for and view them as legitimate.


* Not always so, there is space for personality, especially when dealing with people (e.g. in customer service), but even here there are standards and styles to be adhered to. Companies like Virgin Atlantic encourage customer-facing staff to be themselves, but in a lively and cheeky way. You can only be yourself if being yourself fits in the personality of the organisation!

† There’s so much more to write about the creative process that I cannot begin to do it justice in this footnote, or even this post – more later.

‡ I like Gallup’s Strengthsfinder approach to this – it’s based on the findings of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in the excellent “First Break All the Rules” (I need to re-read this and write a lot more on it, it’s such an important and inspirational book). The follow-up “Now, Discover Your Strengths” is less good, but worth the effort.


Add a comment ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s