Should Management Lead the Way? Or Get Out of the Way?

June 29, 2010

When it comes to effecting change within an organization, it might sometimes appear that we have divergent themes going on here in the Zengage blog. On the one hand we’re firm proponents of the ‘bottom-up’ approach that says that organizational change is most readily created from the grass roots – line workers adopting tools, developing processes, articulating values – and these feeding up to the higher levels of the organization. At the same time however, we’re also aware that much of the tone of an organization is set by its leadership, and the words and deeds that those on the lower rungs of the ladder witness from the c-suites.

I wanted to look at a couple of articles that take a divergent approach to these issues. First up, the Harvard Business Review published a piece looking at the ethics of leaders. In her article, Melissa Raffoni came up with a simple check list for what it means to be an ethical leader:

Do the right thing. And use good business judgment.

Raffoni goes on to talk about some particular ethical dilemmas that leaders face; from these, she suggests an acid test for a leader’s ethics:

Doing the right thing and using good business judgment means embodying simple human values such as being polite, constructive, and honest and doing your personal best. It also means respecting that you represent your company and must act in a manner that’s consistent with its corporate expectations and policies. If you’re still having trouble with this concept, just think about the people you don’t like doing business with, and do the opposite of whatever they do.

While attractive and seemingly simple, we just need to look at the conflicting and complex pressures that BP CEO Tony Hayward is under to see that applying this test is easier said than done. Upon reflection, I think Raffoni’s arguments are nice, but inherently incorrect.

Contrast her perspective with that of Clif Reichard in another HBR article. In his article, entitled “How Do You Engage Employees”, Reichard recounted a tale of a manufacturing plant he ran. When giving a visitor a tour of the facility, the visitor was amazed by the attention to detail employees showed. This can also be called employee engagement, a situation where the employee is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests. Anyway, getting back to Reichard’s anecdote, the visitor was interested in this and proceeded to quiz a supervisor. Upon questioning, Reichard got the following response:

All good people want to change their lives for the better. When people work here, their lives change for the better. When people know we’ve had a lot to do with changing their lives for the better, they make sure our corporate life changes for the better as well. [A particular employee] is the best, and every day he lives up to our expectations. Multiply this by everyone in the plant, and you end up with a superior plant that can sell itself — even better than you can.

And therein lies the rub. Yes, leadership is important — clearly an organization led by someone with low ethical standards is unlikely to succeed — but the most valuable thing a leader can do is to get out of the way of employees.  Rely on individuals’ inherent ambitions, moral codes and desire to do the right thing and the whole organization will benefit from the bottom up.

Fundamentally people want to do good – the most important thing a leader can do is to let them get on with it.