Control is overrated in management. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. Too many leaders believe that the more they pull the strings to control everything and everyone around them, the more productive their enterprise will be. And yet case study after case study of successful companies reveals corporate cultures in which managers and workers are treated as adults capable of carrying out their jobs without a micromanager hovering overhead. In fact, the more the decisionmaking takes place outside the C-suite, the better. Good ideas percolate up, not down.
Those who subscribe to the "point them in the right direction and turn 'em loose" philosophy have new research evidence that is nicely detailed in a new book, Contagious Success, by Susan Lucia Annunzio, chairwoman and chief executive officer of the Hudson Highland Center for High Performance in Chicago, part of the Hudson Highland Group consultancy. Annunzio believes the research she and her colleagues have conducted puts to rest any doubts about the connection between valued employees and organizational success.
The Hudson Highland study was of 3,104 knowledge workers from companies around the world. It was conducted in conjunction with the Richard Day Research firm in Evanston, Ill. In particular the researchers were looking for "high-performance workgroups," which are teams or loose agglomerations of employees who are the most successful at generating ideas and solutions and executing strategies. They wanted to discover the "genes" that distinguish these golden groups from those of mediocre performers and to see if the success genes could be "cloned" to increase overall corporate performance.
"Every company has high-performing workgroups that both make money for the business and develop new products, services or markets," Annunzio writes. "These workgroups create environments in which results are achieved and people flourish. High-performing groups adapt quickly to changes in the marketplace, understand their customers, know how to get the internal resources they need to accomplish their goals. If you spread the secrets of these groups, you can improve the overall performance of your company."
Annunzio introduces us to some highly successful workgroups such as the Green Diesel Technology team at International Truck and Engine Corp., "which played a major role in preserving the diesel industry while creating a significant growth opportunity for the company." Then there's the Kellogg Food Away From Home marketing department, whose efforts resulted in nearly 10% profit growth at Kellogg from 2002 to 2003. There are many other examples of firms that can trace their success to a group of innovative workers.
"The best way to value people is to create an environment in which smart people are treated as if they are smart," Annunzio writes. "Employees are told what the goals are; they are not told how to achieve them. In these environments, employees have the latitude to make decisions about how to achieve their goals."
Reading this, I must admit I wasn't the least surprised. If leaders empower staff and support them through trust and financial incentives, most workers will respond by acting professionally. They will most likely go beyond that, providing the innovation and energy the company needs to thrive.
No, I wasn't surprised by much of what I read in Contagious Success, but I would bet it would come as a shock to those leaders who believe that empowering workers would cost them authority and leave them vulnerable.
Too often in healthcare we see the former situation. Morale in many quarters is low and getting worse. Performance -- regarding quality of care, customer service, financial outcomes -- suffers when arrogant bosses leave frontline health professionals feeling powerless to effect change. Also forgotten is the patient, who pays the ultimate price for failure. On the other hand there are many examples of healthcare organization workgroups and institutions that are striving for excellence, continuously examining and improving their care processes and introducing new technology and services. These organizations are led by people whose only goal is to enhance the work environments for nurses, physicians, technicians and others.
One of the challenges Annunzio identifies in her book is bucking conventional wisdom. Top-down management is what many people are used to. Leaders are supposed to innovate and the workers are supposed to execute. The reality is that this doesn't work.
Annunzio gives several examples of "conventional wisdom vs. reality." The best of these is:
Conventional wisdom: To retain top employees, give them the right salary, benefits and training. The reality: Build the right environment and they will come ... and stay.
To build such an environment "people need to be trained, developed and given appropriate rewards and incentives," she writes. "It is also good business to monitor and measure performance. But individual performance is influenced by the environment. If the best and brightest people are not in the right environment they will not do their best work. Stars in underperforming workgroups won't shine as brightly."
Anyone in any kind of management role will gain great insight and excellent ideas from this concise and informative book.
The workers are the stars,