Follow these steps to engage people.
Here’s a framework for thinking about the mechanisms you want to implement on your path toward creating leader-leader organizations. In general, the goal of your mechanisms is to move people up the ladder of control. The result will be greater engagement, passion, and involvement.
The Ladder of Control.
The ladder is a hierarchy of delegation coded by the language we use at the various levels. At the bottom, we have “go-fer” task-by-task instructions. At the top, we have high autonomy and authority individuals reporting back broadly to their superiors what they have been doing. An example of this is the CEO briefing shareholders once a year.
Step 1. Listen to the language your people use to identify where they are on the ladder. This becomes the starting place.
Step 2. Develop mechanisms to move up the ladder.
It is desirable to move up the ladder. The focus is on decision-making. Giving people more say in decisions invites them to be thoughtful. This in turn increases involvement, engagement and ownership. Sometimes the mechanism is direct. Mechanisms that focus on language are like this. We simply use the language at the next higher rung. This is what we did on Santa Fe when we changed the language of permission to the language of intent. As we saw there, even small movement on the ladder can result in tremendous overall change.
But moving up the ladder is not easy for a couple reasons.
Step 3. Ensure the conditions are in place for success.
There are conditions which need to be in place in order to move up the ladder. These conditions are the things we talk about, the “…but that won’t work because…” things that come up when we consider moving people up the ladder. To operate at the top of the ladder requires high levels of competence, clarity, trust, planning, authority and autonomy as well as courage on the part of the leader to divest control to this extent.
If you optimize your decisions for the short term you will always end up at the bottom of the ladder. For any individual instance it is always faster and easier to “do it yourself” or just tell someone exactly what they need to do. This is where our natural instincts take us. It takes energy and deliberate action to bias for the long term to move up the ladder. However, once you do, the results are tremendous.
On board USS Santa Fe, junior sailors who were previously told what to do were now asked what they thought. Officers who previously requested permission for operations now stated their intentions. Oversight meetings and checklists were cancelled. The result was an explosion of thinking, passion, and engagement.
Moving up the ladder yields tremendous results but requires harder work from management.
I am grappling with these exact issues in my own business. I’ve recently hired an executive assistant, Danielle. When Dani started, I suppressed my appetite to provide lists of tasks to do. Instead I spent hours discussion what we were trying to achieve here. The first two months Danielle occupied more time than she saved me and I was sorely tempted to go “old school.” At one point, she voiced her frustration when she said “at every other job they just give me lists of things to do.” At that point I gave in and said, OK, here’s your list of tasks. Task 1: create a list of tasks. End of List.
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