Power distribution is a leadership paradigm that unlocks the often hidden power of a company’s greatest asset – its employees. It facilitates collective design of company strategy, assists with successful change management, fosters talent, encourages people to be their best, and helps build strong networks and relationships. However, power distribution alone seldom creates profound change – this also requires a business environment that tolerates dissent, and within which a democracy of information can flourish.
Leaders should inspire their people, and ensure that their activities contribute to the organization’s strategic goals. Emphasis needs to be placed on “culture shaping”, achieving through others, and maintaining an executive overview. Unfortunately, many leaders instead take a “hands on” approach to line functions in which they are personally experienced, thus disempowering those with direct responsibility for those functions. One positive consequence of the recent global recession is that it has hastened the demise of the self-promoting, dictatorial, non-ethical, “celebrity”-type, heroic leaders, whose methods contributed significantly to the problems.
“Knowledge is power”. Technological advances have introduced incredible changes in recent decades, and much of a leader’s power could stem from using technology to control the flow of information. Conversely, the worldwide burgeoning of IT such as cellphones and laptops has led to a decline in top-down, “information hoarding” power. New technologies also present different challenges: for example, leaders who rely on the power of their “celebrity” persona sometimes discover that this quality translates poorly via electronic communication.
Dissent is frequently discouraged in today’s business environment. However, dissenters can be the corporate “canaries in the coal mine”, precisely because they offer contradictory opinions (new/different/possibly valuable information) about the company’s direction. Ignoring dissenters can lead to lack of innovation and inadequate decision quality, wasted resources, decreased staff motivation, and lowered productivity.
Redefine the work of leadership
Business today is a battleground, where leaders and companies struggle to survive the corporate turmoil. So what does it take to win: a bold, front-line warrior or a faceless, ivory tower, strategic chess player? Who are these people and where does one find them? What is it they actually do, and how do they do it?
The reality is that the winners are the companies with great leaders and highly committed workers. Great leaders are not born: the personal prerequisites for great leadership lie within us all. All we need to do is:
Walk the Talk! Demonstrate the chief ingredients for followership - integrity (consistent values, words, and actions), openness, commitment, trust and respect. Trust: the glue that ties people together. Respect: the authority comes with your role, but the respect you have to earn.
Display a sense of purpose greater than yourself – people want to belong, and to contribute to a common goal. Dream big together, paint the vision in vivid colours and show the way. Be the driver to success, not a passenger.
Show that you are human and that you genuinely care – lead with balance and goodwill. Consideration, fairness, and sincere interest in people’s personal and professional experiences create loyalty.
Pave the way – your people watch every move you make. This is how they learn what is and is not acceptable. Demonstrate what you stand for, be courageous, innovative, take calculated risks, and acknowledge mistakes. Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn from it.
Empower – clearly communicate business goals, encourage and enable everyone to participate, hold people accountable for results.
Emotional intelligence – achieve more through others, by inspiring and helping them to make the right decisions.
Reward and acknowledge – provide recognition and rewards, acknowledge proactive employees who go the extra mile, and have the courage to address performance issues as and when required.
Create a democracy of information
Communicate effectively, especially through written/digital media.
Share information at all organizational levels - a key component of organizational resilience, which increases an organization’s ability to change gears fast at critical times.
Create a prevention, forecasting and absorption strategy to cater for all scenarios.
Organise Virtual Teams that are heterogeneous and that operate across organizational boundaries, to promote innovation and improvement.
Disintegrate the leadership hierarchy by using IT that allows people to exchange information at all levels of the organization, regardless of time or location.
Today and into the future, the speed at which we live means that the success of an organization largely depends on its technological capabilities. Technology may not be the panacea for all business challenges, but its ability to create a democracy of information certainly makes it a valuable tool.
Encourage the dissenters
Dissenters are organizational lighthouses. They provide light and direction for businesses sailing in the turbulent waters of globalization and competition, and may even prevent their organizations from hitting strategic “shipwrecks”.
Wise leaders encourage sensible, considered expressions of dissent and in a perfect world, all dissenters would be innovators and ideas generators. Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a world - most leaders can tell their fair share of dissenter “war stories”.
One difficulty is that dissenters always bring problems, but seldom the accompanying solutions. The general expectation is that the know-it-all hero-manager will immediately resolve the issues, and many celebrity-type leaders perform accordingly - albeit that their remedies often ultimately prove inadequate.
An old Texan proverb says:"You can’t light a fire with a wet match". If a leader is not enthusiastic and doesn’t truly believe in the direction he or she is proclaiming, it’s usually quite transparent. Similarly, if we decide to label some dissenters a "toxic waste energy group", this label rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and only serves to widen and deepen the employment relations abyss.
Some general tips on handling dissent:
Empower Articulate Dissenters: Give them a “FedEx” day, so that they can deliver a solution overnight to problems or issues. Dissenters are your “innovation incubators”: all you need to do is listen carefully.
Establish an “Ideas Box”: This is a safe way for latent dissenters, who want to remain anonymous, to give feedback. Articulating dissent can be uncomfortable for people who fear risking conflict.
Listen and don’t take it personally: Leaders must be able to listen calmly, and refrain from responding emotionally to personal attacks. Even if you are a celebrity-style leader, sorry, it is not all about you. Focus on the actual issue.
Recognize and respond to dissent by creating an environment that supports constructive feedback and sensible freedom of speech. Establish ground rules, encourage practical, fact-based discussion, intervene when necessary, and reflect on the process to keep it robust.
Reward the good ideas: implement them and acknowledge individual contributions.
The finer points of the art of managing dissent lie in the balance of sorting the “wheat” of positive, worthwhile and measured dissent from the “chaff” of energy-sapping, uninspired, dead-end complaint, whilst at the same time managing dissenters of all hues in a demonstrably fair and even-handed way.
The dissenters can be divided into three broad groups, and the type of dissent that each group generates requires its own distinct management response in order for the company to prosper.
Group 1 - Innovative dissenters and ideas generators - they have genuine solutions and ideas for improvement, generated from practical front-line perspectives. They only need to be listened to: very often their ideas can be implemented with little if any adjustment.
Group 2 – Undecided dissenters – by and large this group does not have striking ideas for improvement, but they like to belong to a cause, so they are dissenters by default – because “they can” disagree about anything. This is a perfect group for a “FedEx day” – they can be tasked with formulating solutions to identified issues (as they see them) and sharing the details of implementation with the wider team. This group only needs to be acknowledged, encouraged and included in decision making changes.
Group 3 – Entrenched Dissenters – this is the most difficult group, typically bearing an attitude of disagreement “on principle” without any ideas or suggestions for improvement. Entrenched dissenters are disconnected silos, and the first step towards reconnection to the real world is to share with them the “Fish” video. In essence the message from this video is very simple: we all have choice about where we work, and we also choose our attitude. These messages subtly stimulate staff in this group to re-examine their position “fit”, which thought process commonly culminates in one of three outcomes: some decide they need more training in order to feel more comfortable, others simply change their outlook on the world and their attitude, and a few leave because they realise that they do indeed have the choice, and they then act on it.
Dissent should be viewed as an insurance policy against business calamities. Ignoring the highlighted problems, or misrepresenting and intimidating dissenters, is a recipe for failure.
Freedom of speech, innovative thought, and democracy of information are prerequisites for staff satisfaction and these in turn create increases in productivity, quality of products, and service provision, and hence good return on investment.
IT now allows virtual work to be performed away from traditional workplaces, and offers cost reductions, environmental benefits, and a better work-life balance. This technology, coupled with a growing shift from production-based wealth to a knowledge economy, has made virtual teams possible: globalization makes them ever more necessary. And whilst virtual leadership exists today, its use will rise in the future, especially in manufacturing environments where increased use of robotics will reduce costs, improve efficiency and boost productivity.
We need vibrant, innovative, collaborative and inspiring workplaces, where ideas count and where we can make a positive difference, and there are as many variations on the theme of creating (or enhancing) such an environment as there are companies. Enterprise leaders must adapt and tailor the foregoing power distribution material to fit their industry niche and business model, so it is possible to discuss first steps in only the most general of terms.
A “gap analysis” approach is recommended, in the form of painstaking and honest appraisals of both your own leadership qualities and your company culture and capability.
Some leaders are better suited to deal with the personal introspection task on their own, whereas others achieve superior results by using 360 degree feedback, or engaging a mentor/friend/trusted colleague. The method is immaterial – it’s the sincerity and thoroughness of the process that counts, as it is only in this way that worthwhile conclusions can be drawn.
The company culture assessment might best be undertaken by establishing what might be termed a Strategic Risk Management Team. This team should be comprised of interested volunteers (not excluding dissenters), and ideally should be a mix of self-motivated leaders, managers and employees.
The job of this team is to:
- Scrutinise company culture and capability and devise ways of breaking down established hierarchies of information, reorganising the information flow, so that everyone has access and the freedom to contribute, but influence is moderated prudently
- Look for ways in which IT can streamline and facilitate all facets of the operations
- Actively scan the wider industry landscape, locally and internationally
- Review dissenters’ innovations, ideas and solutions on a regular basis
- Decide on appropriate action regarding current and anticipated risks
- Carefully weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed solutions
- Proceed with care, but proceed anyway
Don’t wait - today is tomorrow. Take stock of your leadership and make the changes you need to make to lift your game. Now.
To Professor Bernie Frey, without whom I would have missed this opportunity to share my experience and vision.
To all the exceptional teams I’ve led over the past 20 years in various private and public sector organisations, here and overseas - thank you for your patience and assistance in helping me redefine my leadership…sometimes daily…
To my husband, for his unconditional love, patience, support, and frequent reality checks!!!
And last, but not least, to all the academics and their inspiring articles that provided direction and food for thought (for comprehensive list please refer to the attached documents).