Have you ever wondered whether your work efforts were really creating value? From what I've seen in organizations, a lot of people have that experience. The problem is that many times they don't do anything about it.
Not long ago I spoke at a company meeting about the challenges of complexity in organizations. At one point, I asked the audience members to identify and discuss simplification opportunities in their areas. During the report-outs, one woman described how she and her co-workers spent hours each week on the cosmetics of a particular report to make sure that it looked good when it went to senior management. She went on to say that this focus on style rather than substance was a waste of time. When I asked why she continued to do this, she quickly said that her boss expected it. Her boss was also in the room, and when asked about the report said, "I don't care what it looks like, as long as it has the right information."
This kind of disconnect is not unusual. One of the main reasons that employees knowingly continue valueless activities is the lack of candid dialogue between people at different organizational levels. For example, many times I've heard people say that their manager is "unapproachable" or "too busy" to talk about changing the way things are done. And while that observation is certainly true in many cases, it's also often code for: "I'm afraid of my manager's reaction." On the other hand, many senior leaders wonder why their people don't raise issues more proactively. As one senior person said to me, out of frustration, "I don't know how many more times I can tell them that they are empowered!"
So what does it take to break this logjam so that dialogue flows more freely and spontaneously? Let me suggest two steps:
Take responsibility for the truncated dialogue. And that means everyone -- managers and subordinates alike. While it's easy to blame others, the reality is that it takes two parties to short-circuit a relationship. For the most part, this happens unintentionally. We usually make assumptions about what we can talk to our manager about or not, or what the boss expects -- and then we act on these assumptions without testing them. We also may fear that the manager will think poorly about us if we bring up something that she doesn't agree with, so it's easier to say nothing. Managers, however, do the same thing -- they assume that their people feel comfortable enough to initiate conversations, or send subtle signals to subordinates that they really don't want to be approached with new ideas.
Do something about it. Jack Welch used to say that self-confident people are one of the key characteristics of a high-performing organization -- because they will not be afraid to speak up. But nobody becomes self-confident just because Jack Welch (or some blogger) says that it's the right thing to do. Instead you have to gain that confidence by pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone a little at a time. For example, if you realize that you're wasting resources on an activity that doesn't add value, but are hesitant to approach your boss, start by talking with other colleagues about it. See if others feel the same way. If they agree, develop a joint proposal for not only stopping the unproductive work, but also for reallocating time to higher payoff areas. Then go to the boss as a team, not only to talk about this idea but also to test his openness to these kinds of initiatives in general.
If you're a manager, you can foster self-confidence by creating "safe space" forums where anyone can raise issues without consequences. You can also encourage your people to get together and identify non-value added work and present it as a team. Or you can initiate a more formal process, like work-out or process-mapping to surface the ideas.
Whether you are a subordinate or a manager, the key is to take some sort of action to increase the candor and flow of dialogue in your organization. If you do nothing you are just reinforcing unproductive patterns. But if you do something, you can trigger a cycle of increasing self-confidence and higher performance -- and create a much more pleasant place to work.
What's your experience with opening up a dialogue about unproductive work?
Cross-Posted from Harvard Business Online.
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