It continues to amaze me that even in the Information Age, where knowledge is exchanged and gathered at a pace never before seen in human history, that organizations continue to work in a top-down hierarchy. Where so-called “leaders” still believe that their title and subsequent power somehow entitles them to avoid accountability when projects fail and to accept all the praise when the team succeeds. This, unfortunately happens more often then we care to acknowledge.
What’s truly ironic about this situation is that people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the past couple of years, from around the world, rarely talk about their salary or position. People in every industry and every corner of the globe are seeking value in the work they take on. They want to know that when they get up in the morning and go to work, they are making a difference or building something great …not just punching a clock.
In the 2007 August / September edition of Scientific American Mind magazine an article entitled, “The New Psychology of Leadership” written by Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland; S. Alexander Haslam Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Exeter in England; and Michael J. Platow reader in Psychology at the Australian National University note:
…effective leaders must work to understand the values and opinion of their followers – rather than assuming absolute authority – to enable a productive dialogue with followers about what the group embodies and stands for and thus how it should act. By leadership we mean the ability to shape what followers actually want to do, not the act of enforcing compliance using rewards and punishments…this new psychology of leadership negates the notion that leadership is exclusively a top-down process. In fact, it suggests that to gain credibility among followers, leaders must try to position themselves among the group rather than above it.
There are companies who are recognizing the need to give up control and learn from even the most junior members of their organization; however, in my opinion this transition isn’t happening fast enough.
With the largest generation in North American history retiring the wisdom of thirty years’ experience is leaving; and you cannot replace this knowledge with a new widget or other application. I would also argue that the “boomers” represent possibly the last generation for several to come that will work for the same organization, or even within the same discipline for their entire career.
We all learn through the application of ideas and learning from what didn’t work and why. As Cordel Ratzlaff noted at MX last year, if you want to create great products and and services you have to create a great corporate culture; where failure is acknowledged as the foundation of innovation.
The authors of The New Psychology of Leadership reinforce this notion stating that,
…there is a reciprocal relation between social identity and social reality: identity influences the type of society people create and that society in turn affects the identities people adopt.”
In short, leaders need to be cognisant of the identity they create for themselves and their team. This in turn will reflect employees’ ability to feel confident in looking for new avenues for ideas and innovation without the fear of being punished for such efforts.
Last year at Adaptive Path’s UX Week conference I had the pleasure of interviewing several speakers after their presentations for Boxes and Arrows.
One conversation I had was with Google’s Margaret Gould Stewart and Graham Jenkin. We had an engaging and enlightening talk about aspects of their three hour workshop discussing the management of UX teams.
During her presentation Margaret showed attendees the cards below. (Click on image for larger view or simply download the PDF version)
It was suggested that leaders pull out cards they felt described their strengths. These same cards should then be given to employees to pull out what they felt were their leader’s strengths, as well as attributes they felt the leader needed to work towards.
Now I recognize there are few in positions of authority who would engage in such a conversation about their own leadership style. That said, it’s easy to see that the foundation of Google’s success is rooted in fostering a corporate culture where employees are asked what they would like to accomplish in their career at Google, rather than being told to sit in a cubicle, waiting for permission to share and innovate.
As the authors of the Scientific American Mind article, note:
Our new psychological analysis tells us the for leadership to function well, leaders and followers must be bound by a shared identity and by the quest to use that identity as a blueprint for action…If you control the definition of identity, you can change the world.