As history marks time, it hasn’t been so long ago that people thought the best way to run an organization was with an iron fist. Workers were told what to do, and control was based on unchallenged lines of authority. There was little uncertainty about performance expectations, no room for employee opinions, and any effort to ruffle the status quo was met with swift, punishing consequences.
The limits of authority
But even way back when, authority as a source of control had its limits. An important lesson for today’s workforce can be learned from a notable exception to the traditional rule of control and command that embodied that long-ago bastion of order and discipline – the U.S. Cavalry.
The “production system” in those days was pretty straightforward. The colonel was in charge of the fort, and through the chain of command, he made sure that regulations were followed and requirements were met.
For the most part, the daily work routine consisted of making the bunks, polishing the brass, cleaning the stables – and given the white man’s misguided bias at the time – getting rid of the Indians. Measuring performance and production was just as clear-cut. All the colonel had to do was inspect the barracks … look at the brass … smell the stables … and count the bodies on the battlefield.
Everything worked fine for the colonel until he was faced with a dilemma he couldn’t solve by simply exerting his authority – not knowing where the Indians were. That’s when he had to count on the scout – that free-spirited guy who wore buckskins instead of uniforms, and did pretty much whatever he wanted. He just had to be ready to go when the colonel needed to track down the Indians.
When that happened, the colonel was still in charge – no one questioned his authority – but the scout was in control. That’s because he was the only one with the information and knowledge that was required for the production system to operate.
Information as the main source of control
Fast forward about 150 years, and look at how that scenario equates to modern day management. Fact is, in today’s complex organizations, information has almost totally displaced authority as the major control system. First of all, few folks believe in absolute management rights anymore – certainly not the millennial workforce. Secondly, the nature of work has changed drastically; it’s less physical, more informational, and harder to observe and evaluate.
You could also make the case that a lot of managers are more tuned in these days to the benefits of free-thinking employees who can make sound decisions and take appropriate initiative to go beyond the boundaries of their job descriptions.
Still, you have to wonder just how far we’ve really come from the old days – and how much further we have to go to optimize employee potential. If you believe the annual Gallup surveys on employee engagement, only 30% of employees are actively engaged, about 20% are actively disengaged, and the other 50% are somewhere in between. Gallup attributes most of that shabby state of affairs to bad management.
Make scouting part of everyone’s job description
So managers, listen up. If you want to take a big leap forward in boosting your engagement scores, here are some clues to follow:
- Stay out of “uniform,” but don’t pretend you’re not in charge because the buck does stop with you when it comes to your team’s performance
- Encourage and support everyone on your team to operate as both scouts and workers
- Listen fully and sincerely to the scouting reports you get from everyone on your team
- Explain the decisions you make so your team knows you’re taking their input seriously
We can’t turn back the clock and erase the tragedy of what was done to Native Americans, and we’ll never recover what’s been lost from the crushing effects of traditional command and control that diminished the value of workers in decades past.
We can, however, take a stand for a more promising future – one that promotes human dignity, unleashes employee potential, and honors the extraordinary contributions that every individual is willing and able to make.
Watch this video to learn more about our approach to helping organizations align marketing communications and employee engagement. For more information, send us an e-mail or call us today at 314-664-6497.
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