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Great Workplace Leadership - From Obstacles to Opportunities!

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In every generation, there are some successful companies who show by example that treating employees like human beings makes great business sense. Thanks to these pioneers, we know it's possible to create workplaces where people love to work. It's the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do, and it's certainly the profitable thing to do. However, it's not always the easy thing to do - otherwise, we'd be seeing a lot more of it!

"Involving employees in every decision that affects them" is a wonderful aspiration - at the same time, in real life, things can get messy. As Peter Senge wrote, "To empower people in an unaligned organization can be counterproductive. If people do not share a common vision [...] empowering people will only increase organizational stress [...]."

Clearly, by "common vision", Senge wasn't referring to something up on the wall that no one really lives by! So how do we sometimes end up there? How can our good intentions go so far astray? The following simple-yet-not-easy principles can help us grow into where we really want to be.

Starting where we are. In addition to knowing where we want to go, we also need a realistic and honest perspective on our current starting point. Paradoxically, many difficulties stem from a lack of acceptance for our present situation, coupled with the human weakness for taking short-cuts.

For example, sometimes leaders make significant decisions unilaterally, then panic about how this will be received by employees. As consultants and facilitators, this sometimes puts us in the sensitive position of needing to turn down a potential client, and to explain that our work is not about creating the appearance of participation! Were we to proceed, it would NOT be in the client's best interest; we'd only be setting the stage for disillusionment and cynicism on the part of their employees.

Still, we encourage leaders to take heart, by reminding them that employees can be reasonably satisfied with different styles of leadership along the continuum of authority-to-participation. What is non-negotiable is honesty and clarity, as those are key to building trust, regardless of anything else.

Thus, when leaders are willing to take responsibility for a decision they have made and to publicly "own" it, we can often find some possibilities for authentic participation - such as, how to implement a decision that has already been made. Of course, depending on the situation, it may help to begin on a more foundational level.

Taking care of basics. My colleague Miki Kashtan writes about how creating greater clarity about an organization's current decision-making and information-sharing flows is a sound place to start:

"So many organizations run into immense inefficiencies because people don't know who to go to for which decisions, what authority they themselves do or don't have to make which decisions, and overall what's going on and why. The result is confusion and even demoralization.

To whatever extent there is clarity within an organization about who makes which decisions, with input from whom, and communicating about them to whom, a dramatic increase in efficiency and engagement can ensue."

Clearly, transparency about decision-making and information flows is not be the only thing we'll need for a vibrant workplace culture... yet it's a great place to start, which can make a tremendous difference.

Creating alignment at the top. When there are simmering tensions between founding partners, or within the management team, the messy stuff tends to flow downstream. Then, as problems ripple out, leaders may attempt to "fix" (i.e. "train") the workers, while neglecting to see their own role in the situation.

The good news is, when leaders take responsibility for learning more effective ways of engaging their differences, the positive energy created by this ripples out, too. Working with a management team to generate authentic collaboration can be one of the most cost-effective ways to evoke teamwork throughout the rest of the system.

Working creatively with differences. As humans, we all have "growing edges" when it comes to communicating with others. At the same time, it can be hard to see our own blind spots. Often, it helps to have support for growing our skills in this area. Otherwise, leaders' difficulties with feedback can contribute to groupthink, where others fail to speak up as needed, out of the natural desire to maintain relationships and connection.

This works both ways; sometimes well-intentioned leaders believe that by withholding their own thoughts during a group session, they will create more space for others. Yet the bird's eye perspective that leaders bring, is a crucial ingredient in a larger participatory process. And if the real-life, big-picture constraints are not shared until the end of a creative design session, it only serves to burst everyone's bubble.

Thus, we need to create opportunities where everyone's perspectives can be deeply heard, and where differences can be aired in effective and constructive ways. The good news is we can develop ways to safely tap into the creative and productive energies that otherwise stay stuck within long-term misunderstandings and conflicts. The more we develop our skills in this area, the more naturally at ease we'll be, with seeking greater input and participation.

As a society, we've been evolving our knowledge about how to support organizations to become more sane, humane, and effective at least since the 1950's, when the field of organization development (OD) first emerged. Unlike change management, OD is not about 'rolling out change from the top'; instead, it's about helping leaders facilitate change by inviting and welcoming everyone's contributions.

However, professional expertise and support is only part of the puzzle. On a societal level, we also need the momentum of a broad popular movement, building public demand for sane, humane, and effective workplaces everywhere. That's why I'm proud to be a part of Great Work Cultures, and encourage you to join us!

Rosa Zubizarreta is the author of From Conflict to Creative Collaboration: A User's Guide to Dynamic Facilitation. She helps leaders and organizations address complex issues effectively by working creatively with divergent perspectives. She also enjoys developing organizational and community capacity in this area.

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