Why Won't Your People Step Up?

Posted by Bob Corlett on February 25, 2009

With increasing regularity, CEOs ask me the question "Why won't my people step up to the plate?"  In troubled times, many executives feel suddenly alone and disappointed by the lackluster response of their key subordinates.

So why is it that so many companies are filled with anxious people who are hesitant to take initiative or trust their own judgment?

A provocative article in the February 2009 Harvard Business Review argues that the problem might not just be about your people.  Maybe your management strategies have not evolved to keep pace with the rapid pace of change and the increasing volatility in the world around us.  Frankly, I think HBR got it exactly right in this article.

Why do so many work environments stifle creativity, emphasizing continuity and past experience over change and new ways of thinking?  Why do many work environments lead to group-think and so few work environments encourage information sharing, risk taking and challenging of the status quo?

Every day I see the powerful impact of culture and work environment on your ability to attract, retain and inspire your most talented employees.  As W. Edwards Deming observed "A bad system will beat a good person every time."

"Modern" management theory was primarily developed by people born about the time of the Civil War ( Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford come to mind)  These management strategies were designed to get maximum productivity from semiskilled labor.   The focus was on control, efficiency and scale, and they worked well for an industrial economy.  But these command and control systems are wholly unsuited for the kind of work that is probably occurring in your office today.

Your management structure, how you organize people and work, how you allocate resources, how you share information, how you give power to a limited group of people on the org chart - all those things you "grew up with" and learned from your previous managers -  may be precisely what is making your employees give up, shut down and wait for direction from above.  As enlightened as you think you are, your current management practices (and the people it attracted) may be threatening your ability to adapt to the turbulence in the market today.

Today's challenges are how to build a resilient organization that can adapt to dramatic changes, and how to inspire initiative, imagination and passion in workers.  The newer models of management will be unfamiliar, uncomfortable and might make you feel "out of control" so YOU must evolve in order to thrive.

So what are you doing to give power to your natural leaders - the people who mobilize others without formal authority?  How do you reduce fear and de-emphasize compliance -  encouraging people to voice their dissenting opinions?  How do you ensure that power and resources flow to the most competent people and don't just become the domain of a box on the org chart?  How can you rely less on top-down supervision and give front line employees more ability to serve customers?

Obviously there are no easy answers, but HBR argues it's time to move past Management 1.0 into the next era of management.  I wholeheartedly agree.

See these related posts for additional perspective:

How to Hire People who Thrive in Turbulence

How to "Trade-in" Poor Performers for Top Performers

How Companies Turn Crisis into Opportunity

Topics: Human Resources, Performance Management, Hiring Managers