Robert Sutton, an organizational psychologist and Stanford professor, often says that “sometimes the best management is no management at all.” I can feel managers everywhere smiling awkwardly when they read that. What many people hear when he says “no management” is “no micro-management.” Sure, you think, let people do their thing. What he means, however, is something entirely different.
One of the most powerful ways to let your employees take their work to the next level and to foster an atmosphere of innovation is to create safe spaces for them to be able to freely express their ideas. And in order to foster free expression, you’ve got to leave the room. Literally. If you want people to be able to openly express themselves, debate each other and really come up with innovative ideas, they need not be worried that what they’re saying will make them look bad to the people above them or endanger their positions. No matter how much a higher-up assures employees, almost everyone holds back a little when a supervisor is in the room. And that “little” bit can be what stifles a breakthrough.
A Chicago company I know does an excellent job of fostering open communication lines; they have a lot of remote employees and because those people don’t get the benefit of “water cooler” chatter, they have a bi-weekly staff meeting that everyone calls into remotely. Their employees generally report that they feel connected to the organization and that their ideas help shape the workflow. But that satisfaction drops when the bi-weekly call covers big topics that call for a lot of input. Jeannie, the manager in charge of the calls, couldn’t understand it. They were literally set up to make sure everyone had a voice. Most recently, they were doing a big website redesign and asked staff for their input on the aspect of it that affected them the most. Everyone listened to the proposed changes, people made small suggestions, and everyone agreed that things were on the right track. Off the call, on text message and email between individuals, things were very different. One idea in particular was roundly thought of as a waste of time. Outside of the meeting, all sorts of alternative ideas were tossed out and talked about it. But in the meeting it had been suggested by a division head and while tweaks were suggested, no one said anything against it. It was the one major changes from that meeting that was implemented at considerable cost. A year later, no one used it. When the staff on the call were polled, they all said that they thought they’d been clear and that they didn’t want to “be rude,” “upset anyone,” and that they thought maybe there was “something they were missing.” Had the division heads not been in that meeting, the outcome would have likely been very different.
So next time you’re looking for real participation and innovation from your team, step out of the room. If you can’t actually leave for some reason, make yourself stand out less. Move to the back of the room, talk less, listen more, don’t interject, ask questions instead of making statements. Let your team express themselves freely and openly, come to some consensus and then bring the result of that to you.