As the owner of an SME I am/was often looked upon as the person with the expertise and knowledge to solve all problems; whether it be operations, sales, marketing or customer and client care. I was not only the business leader but the Guru, the font of all knowledge. The problem was that I used to be an autocratic leader, and my employees became highly dependent upon me. Every decision was run by me and progress towards company targets were often delayed and hindered as people waited for my opinion on everything. I was caught up working, in, rather than on my business, and being involved in every decision was draining. If I wanted my company to grow and stay sane: I needed to find a way to become a more effective leader and reduce my employees’ dependence on me.
My staff are very experienced, very methodical, very capable, and intelligent. So, I was finding it difficult to understand why they were so dependent upon me for every decision. It was then brought to my attention that I never discouraged that behaviour and was therefore passively encouraging it and reinforcing it by always giving my support and opinions. Once I acknowledged this as an issue and decided to work on resolving it, I realised that often my team sought my guidance because they didn’t have a clear understanding of our targets and business priorities. It became obvious that their neediness was due to my failure to give people clear performance targets and then the autonomy to achieve them. I had assumed, that because we worked in a small office, everyone would automatically know what was required and relevant to deliver our targets and would therefore happily get on with doing what the business needed. Oh, how naïve of me!
Up to this point my management style had been authoritarian and directing. I believed if I gave instructions everything would be clear. The problem with this style of management is that the response to it tends to be to people completing tasks rather than solving problems. Outside of fairly specific factory conditions, work is rarely about the completion of specific tasks and frequently about solving problems. My authoritarian style smothered creativity and led to the widespread assumption that I would always know best. It stifled my team’s personal growth and led to stagnation and an inflexible workforce. My style seemed to signal to my staff that I did not respect their opinion or value their input. The outcome was that while the business was totally reliant on me for decision making creativity and growth, my staff were growing increasingly dissatisfied and stagnant.
The solution I hit upon has been a revelation; I implemented a business democracy. Democracy, the worst system known to man other than all the other systems ever tried. Don’t get me wrong it took a lot of work. First, we had a facilitated meeting to highlight where I wanted to take the business and to decide whether it was the right direction and to determine what route we should take to get there. We jointly decided on the best way to organise the teams and agreed on what were realistic targets for the business leaders. You will never know how hard it was for me to bite my tongue.
I then worked with each leader to decide what their Key Performance Indicators would be and how we would measure and report upon them and how we would turn those reports into charts that could be put on the walls and reviewed by everyone. I decided that our democracy must be transparent.
My experiment in democracy has proved to be a huge success. It has led to increased productivity, employee empowerment, increased motivation, and a happier environment. I no longer make all the decisions and my team tend to seek clarification rather than guidance or permission. I have now found research from Tannenbaum and Schmidt that show similar results in other businesses.
I, like other managers, still struggle to decide when I should exert a decision (because I know how to do the job either better or more quickly) versus allowing employees to make decisions for themselves or include them in the decision process. If things are not time critical I allow the team to learn and then discuss how we may have done it differently afterwards. I am learning when to be authoritarian and when to be democratic. At present I am only authoritarian when I need to remind people of our agreed actions and objectives, but even then these open into discussions which may lead to a reinterpretation of the steps to be taken.
My top tip: If you want a great business and you have employed great staff, include them in decision making processes and they will be more innovative, enthusiastic, and productive in delivering your results.
Ziggy Pindoria – Owner of Aspire 2 Learn (independent training provider)