What do Innovative Work Cultures and Inclusive Work Cultures Have in Common? –R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Many leaders say they want their companies or agencies to become “more innovative.” Most of their initiatives will fail because the leaders themselves won’t be willing to make the changes necessary for creating cultures that are conducive to innovation. (The term “innovation” means much more than breakthroughs in new products and services. Most often, it relates to the continuous improvements that streamline processes, lower costs, and improve customer satisfaction.)1
If the organization is in the public or nonprofit sector, it may limp along while falling short of fully accomplishing its mission and will continually grapple with morale and productivity issues.
With for profit companies, failures to maximize both efficiency and adaptability in a rapidly changing world often results in financial losses that end in closures or takeovers.(40% of companies in the S&P 500 will fail in next ten years; projections are even higher for small businesses and startups.) 2
Similarly, many leaders talk about “increasing diversity.” Some are motivated to jump on “the diversity train” in order to improve public relations or because it seems the thing to do. They may have heard that companies that reflect society’s changing demographics sometimes grow market share. (Especially through the use of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).)3 For whatever the rationale, most organizations fall short of significantly increasing diversity across their workforce and within senior management.
Here again, the failure is due to the general unwillingness of most leaders to do what it is required of them to embed the inclusion piece of “Diversity & Inclusion” (D&I) into their cultures. Human resource departments can recruit for candidates from varying identity groups all day long, but if the work environment is not one in which all employees feel included, meaning that they know their perspectives and input matter, the best and the brightest won’t stay longer than they have to, regardless of their cultural or gender identity groups. In many “top-down” organizations, a substantial percentage of employees “check out” and do only enough to get by, while counting the days until they can go elsewhere or retire.
What is the common thread to these two “failures to launch”? — A lack of respect and trust. The inability to create either innovative or diverse environments both result from deeply entrenched hierarchical approaches to management. “Hierarchy” is actually the polite or PC (politically correct) term for “elitism.” Most management in the U.S. is still based on the 19th century industrial elitist model, which maintains that the smartest people should be running things from “the top,” and employees’ roles are merely to carry out the instructions of the smart big bosses. Management typically believes their superior capabilities entitle them to be paid considerably superior salaries. (Sometimes, the organizational benefits of their tenures are irrelevant; thus, the “golden parachutes” even for those who bring financial ruin to their companies.)
“Respect” is an organizational value commonly cited in annual reports and on company plaques, but top-down management approaches neither reflect trust nor respect for rank and file employees. Given that the “important thinking” is left to those up the food chain, employee voices are generally absent from the table, other than when absolutely necessary (i.e. unions) or for show. “The mindset is that managers have all the answers and their jobs are to dictate them — not to learn from workers. These beliefs run very deep in most organizations.” 4 As a result, the trust or respect employees might have for senior management is limited, as is their would-be engagement.
II. What is Missing? Both Innovation and Inclusion Require Listening, which is tied to Respect and Trust
Although command and control leaders generally assert that departmental “silos” 5 are necessary for efficiency, these structures actually serve to control the flow of communications and ideas in order to maintain the power dynamics. They inevitably slow everything down due to continual bottlenecks.
Continuous improvement requires the input and creative problem solving from workers throughout the organization. Innovation is generally the result of a diversity of perspectives from numerous people asking questions and looking at issues with fresh eyes. “Kaizen” is the Japanese word for “improve.”
Through rigorous application of the Kaizen system, each employee at Toyota is expected to submit no less than nine ideas per year on ways to do everything more efficiently. And thus, Toyota has become known as the most efficient car manufacturer in the world. (Yorke & Bodek: All You Gotta Do Is Ask)
There is nothing either mysterious or elusive about employee engagement. ”Carrots” are not required. Employees invest a considerable amount of their waking hours and their skills into their jobs. The future and security of their livelihoods are linked to decisions made by management. And so, it is only natural that they feel a sense of ownership and organizational pride when they are respected enough to be included in important discussions that tie to the success of their companies or agencies. As the book title above reflects, if you want to engage employees, “All you gotta do is ask.”
III. Success in both Diversity and Innovation Management Requires Courageous Captains to Venture Beyond “The Known World”
There are countless documented examples of companies becoming highly profitable industry leaders as the result of leadership initiatives that flatten organizational structures and apply Servant Leadership6 or other collaborative management models (i.e. Southwest Air, Toyota, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Virgin Air). So why does resistance continue to persist within the wider managerial field? Senior managers generally pride themselves on their rationality. But where is the logic in ignoring all of the data gathered by innovative organizations and in resisting recommended best practices and the opportunities they present?
2,500 year-old lessons from The Buddha: When people are not behaving in constructive or rational ways, there are generally strong underlying emotions at work. There is a Buddhist teaching that I find valuable for “root cause analysis.” It asserts that all human behaviors result from one of two sources: they are either motivated by fear, or love. The object of our love can be humanity, learning, trying new things, adventure, creating, making a difference in the world, and so on. At various times, we have all been animated and driven by this kind of love, which has been at the center of human advancement for millennia. Love is an expansive and outward energy.
However, when we turn away from options that positively affirm and help others or that would allow us to grow in new ways, our decisions are fear-based. Fear causes us to shrink away from others or opportunities and go into “self” protective mode. It is a contracting energy. Things such as self-centeredness, deception, and betrayal are manifestations of fear, but fear is the underlying driving emotion.
The ongoing entrenchment of command and control management that flies in the face of potential benefits for our workforces, organizations, missions, and society, is due to leaders’ fears. The fear may be of not having full control of outcomes as processes become more collaborative or experimental, or uncertainty of one’s role as leader when information becomes more transparent and solutions emerge from across the organization. Or there may be trepidation of working with employees or colleagues whose ethic, religious, or gender identities differ from one’s own and of saying anything that displays a lack of awareness. It is sad that there is so much truth to the saying, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” Initiatives to create more inclusion are often sabotaged by managers who find themselves outside of their comfort zones, because one foot never leaves the old, known turf. Without 100% commitment on their parts, there are too many mixed signals. Incremental approaches to the necessary management and organizational culture changes generally fail.
It is not that the leaders of innovative and inclusive organizations have never experienced any trepidation in democratizing their organizations. Most humans go through some amount of self-doubt when venturing onto unfamiliar ground. As has been said, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather learning to face one’s fears and insecurities, and forging ahead despite them. These leaders recognize and value the opportunities that increased diversity, inclusion, collaboration, and agility present to their organizations, and then push beyond their own fears, learning to navigate through increased ambiguity,7 and embracing the collective magic their teams create.
Leaders Eat Last: Unfortunately, most MBA programs spend far more time teaching students to correctly interpret balance sheets than to substantively explore the role of character, integrity, and courage in leadership. Regardless of one’s political persuasions, many of us would agree that integrity is in increasingly short supply among our political and corporate leaders. Our captains of industry and the public sphere would benefit from the training that our captains of the military receive. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, leadership consultant Simon Sinek shares some of the valuable lessons he gleaned from interviews with admired leaders from both the military and other fields.
As Sinek explains, standout leaders create "Circles of Safety” that foster trust and cooperation throughout their organizations. Good leaders earn respect, not through their rank or prestige, but through the respect they demonstrate towards those within their charge. These leaders know that respect is not an abstract concept, but is known through its actions. Taking their responsibilities for their teams seriously, they insure they have the tools they need to do their best work, listen to their input for operational improvements, provide them with opportunities to develop and lead, and are open to learning from them. The respect exhibited from the leadership for those in the ranks increases success throughout the entire organization.
IV. In closing: Choosing Respect and Trust, and Following Through
In order to help their organizations to gain the benefits of diversity and innovation, organizational leaders need to start by making a basic choice: hierarchy or inclusion.
Many managers are not ready to lose the comfort of top-down approaches to running their organizations and support broader participation and input from their employees. And that is certainly their choice to make. Institutions have succeeded for decades and centuries using top-down approaches. – However, the cost to maintain a higher level of predictability is that other possibilities and agility are lost. There may come a time that such organizations will lose capacity and/or be forced to close their doors for failure to adapt. The managers of these organizations should simply recognize that the benefits of diversity and innovation that they say they want would remain out of reach.
There are other leaders whose desire for the benefits that increased diversity, inclusion, and innovation can bring is greater than their fear of change and uncertainty. They are willing to make the necessary adaptations within themselves, and then to the structures and cultures of their companies or agencies. Fortunately, they will have at their disposal numerous roadmaps left behind by those who co-led their organizations to new levels of success based on the basic principles of mutual R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It is the DNA, the thread that binds leaders with employees, teams, and potential with a thriving future.
3. Employee Resource Groups are voluntary identity or interest-based groups that organize to provide professional development support to members, while providing their organizations with ideas related to recruiting, on-boarding, marketing, and service ideas for current prospective identity-based customer groups.
5. Siloes are distinct hierarchical departments in which all information must travel up and down that department’s chain of command, and communication between departments by lower level employees is frequently discouraged.
6. Servant Leadership is built on the concept that a leader’s primary role is to support his/her employees and make sure that they have the resources and systems in place to excel at their jobs in serving the customers.
8. YouTube video of Simon Sinek discussing this book: http://tinyurl.com/n6abhsg