I learned about the importance of involving people in making decisions (as well as teamwork) many years ago when managing a group of 13 HR specialists in a 2000 person electronics company. The welcome I received after being hired as HR director was not exactly warm. The staff was upset their previous boss was gone and that a new, young manager was brought in to replace him. One who didn’t have HR experience to boot.
They were right. I had no HR background and, frankly, did not want to run the department. (How I ended up in the position is another story.) But after a short time on the job, I concluded that if I were to succeed I had to do something to gain the trust of the members of my department.
So, I decided to engage the department in an exercise to define our mission, values, and goals (with the help and encouragement of a good friend and team expert, Dan Turner). To a person, the staff thought this would be a dorky exercise. But, when they saw that I was serious and provided them a template and process for accomplishing this work, they gradually warmed up. The experience turned out to be fun and powerful. We came up with a great mission statement—far better than I could have developed on my own—and one in which each member of the staff took ownership and pride.
A short time later it was time to do the annual budget and I opened the last year’s budget categories and numbers to my staff (with the exception of confidential personnel information, of course). They were dumbfounded. Never had anyone shared information with them nor invited them to make decisions about how to spend our discretionary money. The enthusiasm over the next few meetings was palpable as we made decisions, together, about how to allocate our budget. By now I knew I could trust them to be part of the process since we’d created a mission, values and goals. We all knew what we were about and where we were headed as a department.
I got into the habit of going to the staff. “We have a problem. Let’s talk about what we can do.” Many of “my problems” or even “company problems” became “our problems” and I learned to involve the staff in open discussions of what was going on and steps we could take to address it.
One example was an upcoming reduction in force. Three or four staff members took ownership of the problem and immersed themselves in serious research, going back about five years, regarding the costs of layoffs as well as rehiring when demand picked back up. The report they produced was astounding and revealed that the practice was more costly than keeping extra people. We then developed a nine step plan for managing reductions in force which was implemented company wide and not only saved the company money but built incredible goodwill with the workforce. Something neither I nor upper management would have been able to do if not for the efforts of member of the HR department.
I learned a lot from this and similar experiences. People are capable. (Not all the intelligence resides at the top.) People want to succeed. They want to contribute and be meaningfully involved in their work. They put out when they know their efforts make a difference.
The challenge for leaders (in large companies or a small office staff) is to harness the goodwill and creativity of their employees and engage them in ways that make a difference. Doing so isn’t difficult. But it does take a new way of seeing and thinking about the business and willingness to make new assumptions about employees and their intent and capability.