Autumn is here with its traditional themes. I have been enjoying bursts of deep reds, yellows and oranges as well as indulging my fascination for various kinds of fungi – I find so much beauty in this season, even as it takes us towards long nights and increasingly low temperatures.
I confess, the autumn is also a season for cosying up in front of the television – maybe even a little more often than I care to admit. My nephew and I have been enjoying Young Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, usually exchanging observations if we haven’t watched it together. You’ll also find it hard to get me out on a Saturday evening at this time of year – at least, you would have done until now.
On Sunday, I was shocked and disappointed when Ella Henderson and James Arthur, surely favourites to win this year’s X Factor, were pitted against each other in the ‘sing off’ following the audience vote. That’s the trouble with audience participation: give people a vote and just look what they do with it! (And for any X Factor fans – who is voting for Christopher Maloney?!)
I have to say that, in the Young Apprentice, I see a different problem arising, with project managers failing conspicuously to draw on the input of their team. Patrick McDowell struggled valiantly last week to convey the point that the team’s planning needed to take into account where they were starting from and needed to get back to at the end of the day. I wondered what other ideas might have helped the teams to succeed if only the project managers had been listening. Didn’t it make sense, for example, to make it a priority to phone round and get some prices for what looked like the largest purchase – a German car, taxed and ready to drive away? And wouldn’t it have helped to engage in a conversation about how best to organise the task before getting stuck in?
I wonder if, as a leader, you struggle with both sides of this coin. After all, the theory says that engaging people’s ideas through a participative style of management increases engagement and motivation. Daniel Goleman and his colleagues, in The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results, describe how using what they call the democratic style helps to build buy-in or consensus, or to get valuable input from employees. But this style does have its limitations. Sunday’s X Factor results show one of them – you don’t always get the outcome you want from inviting ideas from your staff.
This style also has its limitations in the eyes of staff. There’s nothing worse than being asked for ideas and then told that, actually, it’s the bosses ideas that are going to be taken forward, especially if it’s always the bosses ideas that are taken forward (or you think it is). This can undermine the confidence of your staff or their respect for you.
So are there any things you can do if you want to use this style effectively? Here are a few ideas:
- Don’t invite input from staff when you already know what you’re going to do: It may seem obvious, but if you set about appearing to use this style but are not sincere, staff will soon sniff you out. NEVER use this style to give the impression that staff have been consulted when you know full well you have already made your decision;
- Separate out consulting staff from the decision-making process. There may be times when it’s appropriate to make a decision democratically but there are also times when it’s appropriate for you to make a decision yourself. Be clear in your own mind which is which – and be rigorously honest with your staff about the likely decision-making process. This way, team members know from the beginning how their ideas may or may not be used;
- Be honest with yourself about the current level of capability of your staff and use this to inform your decisions about consulting your staff. Invite their input in areas where you know they have something to offer so that they can add real value by their contributions and you can show how you have taken their ideas on board;
- Combine your use of this participative style with other leadership styles. Goleman and his colleagues point in particular to the need to provide clarity of expectations and to coach members of your team. Helping your team to understand your overall vision and how they can contribute to it and providing coaching to develop their skills both play a role in increasing the likely quality of their contributions and ideas in team discussions;
- Invite team member’s ideas at their growing edge. With effective coaching support from you, the quality of team members’ contributions will constantly improve. Keep inviting ideas at team members’ growing edge to stretch them and so that you both know how much progress they’re making;
- Respond constructively. The minute you dismiss an idea as stupid or worthless you send a powerful message to the whole team which makes it less likely that they will want to contribute in future. Quite quickly, you’ll be saying that your team members have no ideas to offer. Say thank you for all the ideas team members contribute no matter what you think of them. If you can’t see how an idea will work in practice, test it with your team and ask them to test it with others if appropriate. You may find a hidden gem and if you don’t, you may still all have learned something;
- Be prepared to be surprised. Engaging your staff in team discussions may be a stretch for you as much as for your staff. Be ready to examine ideas that you might initially find strange and to find the ones that really might work. Be prepared to try some knowing that they might work and they might fail as part of expanding your own thinking and showing your support for your team.
I’d love to know how you get on.