Leaders: It’s Not Their Performance You Should Be Worried About, It’s Yours
When he was 21 years old, Ricardo Semler replaced his father as CEO at the Brazillian company Semco and immediately fired 60 middle managers. He did this as part of his transformation of the company, wiping out the autocratic leadership style espoused by his father, and remaking the organization into one with virtually no rules and no organizational chart. His desire to change the culture was driven by one core belief: if you hire adults, you should treat them like adults.
On his company website, a blog post sums up his philosophy: “If companies were to treat employees like the adults they are, offer them trust and transparency, and expect people to not just own up to mistakes but learn from them, then people will behave accordingly. They will begin trusting the company and the leadership; will start making decisions after careful deliberation; take responsibility and pride in delivering their best work; and accept the consequences when things go wrong.”
Seems self-evident, yet how many of us can say we’ve worked — or still work — in these kinds of environments : ones where our humanity, dignity, ingenuity and intelligence are fully respected?
I hazard a guess that most working people spend their careers in workplaces completely at odds with progressive leadership practices such as this, and instead toil in organizations modelled on industrial-age “scientific” principles designed to produce goods at a particular rate and quality. These inflexible systems were designed and guided by specific procedures whereby owners and managers made decisions, while workers (without question or comment) cranked out the wares, essentially shuttering human innovation on the shop floor. The boss knew what was best, and if you knew what was best for you, it was best to comply and produce.
With the advent of automation and worker-led processes, such as quality circles, much of this command-and-control type of leadership eroded in manufacturing, yet depressingly continues to linger like cheap perfume in an elevator across corporate environments. These are the offices where employees, increasingly paid to think and solve complex problems for a living, are treated as automatons making widgets on a production line. Where factories evolved to a degree away from Taylorism and scientific management, the treatment of knowledge workers as toddlers, micromanaging all aspects of their work, is alive and well across corporations of all shapes and sizes.
To wit: One of the more alarming stories to emerge from Covid-19 as it relates to workplaces is how swathes of remote employees are burdened by their organization’s excessive monitoring, with employer-provided computers taking pictures of staff members sitting at their keyboards, logging screenshots of their work at five-minute intervals and counting keystrokes per hour, intrusively surveilling inputs and outputs. This is done in the name of productivity, though it’s highly probable that what’s mostly produced is a climate of fear and distrust, and the ensuing consequences of overwork and burnout.
In fact, when Microsoft recently asked over 30,000 workers the world over what their experience of working from home was on their well-being, 37% of the global workforce says their companies were asking too much of them at a time like this, with the youngest workers — just shy of two-thirds — “flat out struggling,” per the findings.
All of this impacts the bottom line: When leaders infantilize those reporting to them, there’s no room left for risk-taking or learning from mistakes. The freedom to choose a course of action leads to better ways of getting things done — which most CEOs say they want more of as they scale and seek to grow their reach. The solutions organizational leaders are looking for will not come from employees who feel disrespected, treated as if they should feel lucky to have a job, particularly when there are openings everywhere due to the ‘great resignation.’ When you report to someone who looks upon you as a teenager too young to know better or a toddler who needs constant monitoring, your greatest output is most likely resentment — not innovation.
If you hire someone to do a job, set them up for success and let them do the job. Any leader unable to trust their employees and treat them as sensible grown-ups eager to make a contribution might want to consider that the performance that needs monitoring and addressing is not the employee’s — it is their own.
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Originally published on Forbes.