A recent opinion article by Geoff Colvin in Fortune Magazine discusses the issue of Medicare. Colvin arguably states that it “threatens the country’s economic future.” He says there are two approaches to solving this problem: the “Brute Force” approach and the “People Aren’t Dummies” approach, and that ultimately only one of these will work. These two schools of thought (and that only one really works) apply to leadership of organizations as well.
Brute Force Approach
We all know, and have been victims of, the Brute Force approach to leadership. Dictates and mandates from senior leaders (although, is this really leadership?) are delivered to subordinates. They deliver commands regarding key aspects of programs, procedures, and policies without gathering data from front-line workers, especially those who interface with the customer. Very often these dictates are developed in closed-door meetings, and are influenced by mysterious forces that produce ineffective results. These results can have very unfortunate effects on the organization.
The most immediate effect of the Brute Force approach is low morale and conflict among the employees of the organization. This leads to turf wars and a lack of trust among employees. The problems that the Brute Force dictates were intended to solve remain unsolved, leading to higher real costs and additional problems. The most wide-ranging effect of the Brute Force approach is unhappy customers because of product problems and the organization’s policy barriers that prevent solutions.
I’ve recently seen the effect of the Brute Force approach in a specific organization. The most evident effect is the low morale among followers. These followers are highly professional people and they continue to deliver high quality results to the customer, but I sense there is a limit to this and it will only be curtailed by bringing in fresh workers not yet tainted by the Brute Force leadership.
What should followers do in such a setting? It depends on the situation. If the Brute Force approach is an exception to the rule in your organization, there may be a good reason for this instance. Sit down with your leadership and explore the situation. Your honest and professionally communicated feedback might prevent future damage. If Brute Force is the rule, you have to assess your ability to make real change from within. Doing so is one of the most difficult challenges for “middle-management” employees. Otherwise, it might be time to leave.
People Aren’t Dummies Approach
I hope you have had the blessing to work under leaders who employ the People Aren’t Dummies approach. It is truly a joy to be a part of such organizations. These leaders have an understanding of entrepreneurial and empowerment principles and know how to apply them to their followers and organizations. The People Aren’t Dummies approach encourages creativity and innovation and engages front-line personnel as decision makers. Investigation of problems and resolution processes are very much in the open and very little mystery is involved.
The most immediate effect of the People Aren’t Dummies approach is a highly engaged workforce that collaborates and works as a team. They share ideas and credit for success. Conflict is seen as a positive force that challenges one another to greater gains. Real solutions are implemented resulting in overall greater organizational effectiveness. Customers are happy because employees engage the customer at their point of pain and deliver products that work.
Unfortunately, organizations that implement the People Aren’t Dummies approach effectively across the entire organization are rare. Where I have witnessed this, there are two common elements. First, the leaders demonstrably and overtly value the intrinsic worth of their employees and regard them as equal professionals. Second, any lack of similar values and professionalism on the part of the employees is not tolerated. “Bad apples” are moved out of the organization as fast as ethically and legally possible.
Followers looking for employment in such an organization should not be ashamed to ask questions about Brute Force and People Aren’t Dummies approaches in the interview process. (Do so professionally!) My experience is that the People Aren’t Dummies approach is more common in small to mid-sized companies where the entrepreneurial spirit may still be part of the organizational DNA.
Take a moment to assess your organization as well as your own approach. Think about a situation in which you are stressed. Do you default to Brute Force or to People Aren’t Dummies strategies? I would very much like to see your comments about what can you do to encourage People Aren’t Dummies strategies in a culture that is largely Brute Force.