I t’s happened to just about everyone: a piece of spinach in between your teeth; a co-worker walks into your office with his fly open; a sheet of toilet paper drags behind your manager’s shoe. These situations can be embarrassing even if caught quickly, but when someone doesn’t step in and reveal what’s wrong, the damage only gets worse.
While it might seem strange, the same concept applies to the relationship between management and its employees. There are many managers whose rigid leadership style unintentionally forces its workers to be passive, powerless and sometimes even spiteful. As a result, the proverbial fly of the business comes unzipped, communication is stifled and employees intentionally go out of their way to avoid helping their manager fix the problem.
In the workplace, the issues that arise are usually not as obvious as toilet paper on the shoe. They are much more subtle. There are employees who call in sick when they are not, and ones who intentionally sabotage projects. Their “revenge” is typically not dramatic but together these things can make a huge difference on a company’s bottom line.
In theory, every manager wants employees to anticipate and react quickly to problems. They want people who are unafraid to speak up and take the initiative to get things done. They want the high levels of productivity that lead to better financial performance for the company.
So why is it that some leaders have the ability to make it happen and others fail? It all comes down to whether leaders are flexible enough to allow their employees to be proactive.
What is flexible leadership? A highly flexible manager aims to satisfy mutual needs—constantly looking for opportunities for employees to grow and develop, which in turn helps managers achieve their goals.
This type of manager has the ability to see others’ needs as at least as important as their own, serving as the foundation to building trust between the manager and the employee.
At this point, some managers may think, “What if my needs are more important than everyone else’s?” If they believe this, they should not expect to be seen as a flexible leader or have the trust of their employees.
Other managers may think that their own needs are the same as the organization’s needs. The reality is quite different: The organization’s needs cannot be satisfied unless employees’ needs are met. Therefore, employee needs are, at the very least, as important as the leader’s.
In a recent study in Great Britain by management consultants Chartered Management Institute, it was revealed that 61 percent of employees felt their boss was unapproachable. Consequently, 1 in 4 spent time worrying about making decisions at work, 1 in 3 have lost respect for their boss, and 1 in 10 cover up mistakes they’ve made from their managers. Statistics like this hinder workers from being proactive and translate into huge economic consequences.
Managers need to be aware of whether they have a culture of employees who are willing to let the boss know when “his fly is unzipped.”
In other words, are employees willing to disagree with management? Will they engage in a discussion and assert their opinion? Are they comfortable enough to bring difficult issues and concerns to their leader’s attention?
Inflexible leaders may view these things as negative and feel as though workers are questioning their authority. However, in the right context, these are actually signs of respect for the company and they help allow employees to take responsibility for their own actions.
Managers should recognize that encouraging behaviors such as rewarding others, giving praise and providing helpful advice are important in building strong trust-based relationships, and these actions should not be seen as soft or a sign of weakness.
At the most fundamental level, it is vital for managers to recognize that strong levels of engagement and performance are observed in workplaces where there are high levels of trust and flexibility. For this reason, managers should ensure that they are optimizing their own performance through the use of encouragement, understanding and warmth.
Remember, without proactive employees, management problems are far worse than being “that guy” who’s unaware of the piece of spinach lodged between his teeth. But, hey, even that’s pretty bad.
Workforce Management Online, August 2011 -- Register Now!