Engaging our employees is a critically important activity for any leader, yet we still encounter leaders who come from the command and control school of leadership and operate on the basis that because they are more senior and more experienced then they know the answers and simply need to direct their teams to operate in a given way to deliver the required results.  Of course, this approach can be effective in certain circumstances but generally speaking is likely to be less effective than more refined leadership approaches.

When we talk about leadership of change or indeed leadership in times of change, then the need for a more refined approach becomes much more apparent and the command and control style becomes much less effective.  Such a directive style is likely to result, at best, in ‘surface compliance’ where the employee does as they are instructed but only when they are being observed or monitored and only when the sanctions or threat of sanctions are so great that they fear the consequences of non-compliance.  The clearest example of this ‘surface compliance’ can be seen on our motorways every day.  Just observe the typical flow of traffic on a busy motorway with the outside lane running at over 80mph and then see what happens when the drivers see a police car.  Automatically the brake lights go on and the road speed is reduced to 70mph until the police car is no longer in view and the speed then rises back to 80mph and beyond.  What is happening here is that the drivers comply with the speed limit due to the presence of the police but they do not intrinsically believe in the 70mph speed limit, so when the threat of being caught and punished is past, they revert to their previous speed.  This is compliance.

Engagement, on the other hand, is a far more powerful mindset and generally results in people adopting the required behavioural patterns because they want to, not because they feel they have to.  Consider the approach that the police take to managing speed limits in a 30mph zone.  This is not about high profile policing and threats of sanctions; rather the approach is geared towards hearts and minds and engagement.  Speed limit signs drawn by schoolchildren and  advertisements showing the girl by the tree who slides across the road and comes back to life with the message that she would have lived if hit at 30mph, but she died when hit at 40mph.  In a community area close to where I live they recently had a speed check in a 30mph zone and anyone caught exceeding the speed limit was given the choice of points and a fine or being interviewed on the spot by local school children.  Unsurprisingly many drivers opted for the interview and were reported to go from blasé to overwrought when the primary school children asked such questions as, “How would you feel if you had knocked me down and killed me?”  Interviews with drivers afterwards and general behavioural patterns in built up areas, indicate that more drivers obey the 30mph zone because they want to and feel that they should. This is engagement.

The learning here from a leadership perspective is that if we use a leadership style that delivers compliance then we will have to design systems and processes, and commit time and energy to monitor and review performance to ensure that the compliance levels are being achieved.  Following what Marlantes calls the iron law of manipulation whereby “if a system can be invented, a counter system can be invented”, then the time spent monitoring and controlling compliance does not diminish through time. Such monitoring is not the role of the leader and certainly not the role of the leader in times of change.

The command and control leader is, as previously stated, useful in certain circumstances, although these are not as prevalent as is often thought.  Revans really drives the nail in the coffin of such leaders when he articulates clearly the difference between cleverness and wisdom.  Cleverness, he argues, is the function of knowing the answer to all the questions;  wisdom is knowing that you only know the answers to those questions that have been asked and that much more knowledge is available if we were to know which further questions to ask.  Command and control leaders are frequently clever but seldom wise, and as such can seldom draw upon the real value of engagement – gaining access to the intelligence and experience of the whole team.  I frequently meet command and control leadership teams whose experience tells them that they know the answers to all the questions asked in their business and, therefore, who are very prescriptive with their teams.  When I comment that they have a team of thousands run on the combined intelligence of 10 people they tend to be offended, and yet the reality is just that.  Engage people and the enterprise can quite easily be run on the combined intelligence (and wisdom) of the whole team.

My last article talked about the need for a central, purposeful direction to support leadership in times of change, and this article proposes that this needs to be accompanied by a clear and unequivocal leadership style that secures the genuine engagement of the workforce such that they want to deliver the changes that are required, at personal, team and organisational levels.  This means that a change leader is very much more than a change architect. A change architect will develop a change proposition that is logical, structured, coordinated and which identifies and manages the interfaces between the various workstreams and mitigates the various risks inherent in the change programme.  All laudable activities yet woefully inadequate in terms of securing engagement.  Engagement means understanding and managing the human dimensions of change and addressing the needs of the team at individual and collective levels; it means understanding and addressing the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) factors across the team; it means providing a central purposeful direction of change that has inherent value at the individual level as well as at the organisational level; it means respecting the needs and ambitions of the team within the change programme; it means placing primary emphasis on communications across the team and the extended enterprise, and, of course, it means managing the motivations and aspirations of the team throughout the change journey.

It is clear from a range of studies that engaging the workforce is critically important in times of change and that the role of the change leader needs to focus on this, so called, soft skill area as much as on the mechanics and technical requirements of the change process.  Failure to heed this is likely to result in either a failed change programme, and/or undue time and attention being deployed to ensure compliance.

The change leader has to manage the whole change process effectively and, in doing so, needs to ensure that the whole team understand, buy-in and are engaged in the change process.  This will mean that they will modify their working practices and behaviours because they see the importance of doing so, and, ultimately, because they want to.  In this instance, the change process is more likely to be owned by the team, and much more likely to be sustainable through time.  Such is the power of engagement.

Written By:

Dr. Paul Victor

Dr. Paul Victor
Paul has a highly successful career both in the UK and globally working at senior levels across a wide range of industry sectors, including Manufacturing, Finance, Service Sector, Public Sector, FMCG, Mining, Packaging, Leisure and Transport.  His expertise in organisational change has been the definitive factor enabling organisations to successfully devise and implement business transformation strategies which have delivered £m’s of benefit to clients.  Paul has a unique approach and style which locks together strategic and operational drivers to deliver solid and sustainable business success……..blackswan transforms business performance.Leading global organisations rely on our solutions to make their businesses better, faster and smarter.We are change experts, with over 300 consultants, researchers and implementation professionals operating in over 30 countries.Above all, we architect black swan events, high impact solutions that redefine business outcomes.Whatever the reasons for change in your organisation, perhaps a strategic agenda involving dramatic growth, market repositioning or diversification, or the impact of external market forces, we can help you achieve radical improvements in performance by:
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